PUBLISHED MARCH 2015

 

RP on Ice

 

When David Johnson hears his hockey teammates yelling his name and screaming words like "pass" and "shoot," he probably pays more attention than most players. That's because he's legally blind.

The 15-year-old lad from Campbell River, British Columbia, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa (RP). He was diagnosed and declared legally blind at the age of eight. That was the same year his father, Dean Johnson, enrolled him in a hockey league for the first time. His mother, Laverne, said, "Even though we knew he had serious problems with his eyes, his dad insisted on enrolling him anyway. We wanted him to be as normal as possible."

A person is declared legally blind with a visual field of 20 degrees or less in the better eye. David has about nine degrees, so his vision is very limited. A person with normal eyesight would have a field of about 190 degrees.

David's mother says that RP is hereditary and passed down through genes. In David's case, females of the family are the carriers, and Laverne didn't realize there was a 50-50 chance of her passing it on to her son. His great-grandfather and his great-grand-uncles were affected, but then it skipped almost an entire generation. Of 13 great-uncles and aunts, only one great-aunt had the disease, and she never started to lose vision until she was in her 40s.

Laverne said that the first signs that David was having vision problems came when he appeared to be clumsy, but then she began to notice other things.

"One time I found him trying to climb into my bed, and he said he thought it was his. Then I found him groping around the living room and complaining he couldn't find his way out. I took him to doctors, but none of them would believe me. They would claim he was just clumsy or that I was just an over-anxious parent."

She said she tried to get a specialist to look at David, but he was just put on a long waiting list. It was very frustrating. Then one day he ran into a tree. When the doctors heard about this, they were able to get him an appointment with a specialist very quickly. They did a bunch of tests on David and concluded that he was already legally blind.

His mother said that although the delay was irritating, she realizes that the doctors couldn't have done anything anyway as there's no known cure for RP.

David said his teammates know he's blind and try to help him by calling his name, which means they want a pass, so he shoots the puck in the direction of the voice. They also yell and tell him where the puck is or that a pass is coming. David has to react very quickly, so he just puts his stick on the ice and sometimes even scores. David, who plays left wing, has scored eight goals, and one of them was a penalty shot. Most times, he didn't even knew he scored until he heard the roar of the crowd or his teammates mobbed him.

David says the opposing teams never knew he was blind. "Sometimes they bump into me, but I would bump into them right back."

And a few times during drills, David and a teammate would race down the ice and run right into each other but David says he never got hurt. "Just some bumps and bruises, nothing really serious."

However, for the 2014 season, his parents refused to let him play with teens who have regular eyesight. "The kids are getting bigger and faster, and we felt it was getting too dangerous," his mother said.

But that didn't stop David. This summer, his father talked to some local media, and the result was a telephone call from Courage Canada, which ran a training camp for blind hockey players in mid-August in Victoria, British Columbia.

Courage Canada Hockey for the Blind was established in 2008 and is a national registered charity that leads the development of the sport of blind hockey and provides children and youth with the opportunity to learn to skate and play hockey.

"I really liked it. It was the best six days of my life," exclaimed David. "It was really nice to connect with other blind kids."

The camp was attended by twelve visually impaired hockey players ranging in age from twelve to 18. There were ten boys and two girls from all across Canada. One of the camp highlights was a visit from Eric Brewer. The National Hockey League defenceman for Tampa Bay happened to be practicing nearby in the complex where the Courage Canada Camp was being held.

The Camp coach spotted him and, because he knew him, went over to talk to him. Then, to the surprise of the Courage Canada players, Eric came over to watch the visually impaired teens play hockey for a few minutes. "When the game was over Eric came over and shook hands with everyone and posed for some pictures," David said.

Playing hockey at the "blind camp" is a lot easier as the puck is twice the size of a normal puck and much easier to see. It was also equipped with bells so everyone could hear it. There were a few rules changes--the biggest one being that a goal could only be scored in the bottom two thirds of the net because the goalie can't hear the puck if it's shot too high.

Players with the best vision played a forward position and players with poorer vision play defence, while the goaltender is normally the one with the least amount of vision. David played both wing and centre and scored four goals in the four games played at the camp. Since there is no regular league for blind players, David is hoping to attend another camp scheduled in eastern Canada this winter.

Being unable to play hockey on a regular basis has not slowed David down. He also plays soccer.

"I can play soccer pretty well because the ball is a lot bigger, so I can see it a bit, and I don't have as many vision issues. The biggest problem is shorter people. They are too far down for my limited vision, so I run right over them most of the time."

He is also involved in track and field, his favorite events being the 800, 1,500, and 15,000-metre races. David noted that he is only 20 seconds off the Paralympic world record for the 800-metre race. When he races, he only uses the inside or outside lanes so he can feel the "shoulder" of the surface, which helps keep him on the track. When preparing for the long jump, he carefully counts the number of steps needed before taking the leap into the sand.

"I would just love to try the Paralympics one day." David explained that only legally blind contestants are allowed to compete in the Paralympics, and competitors are separated into groups by the degree of eyesight.

David goes to a mainstream school and is entering grade 10 this fall. He says he can read large print textbooks, and he always carries a magnifying glass for those unexpected situations when smaller letters must be read. He has also taken some braille classes.

When asked about his academic goals, David explained that he didn't know yet what he wants to do when he finishes school. "I just like sports and anything athletic."