Just before his senior year of high school, Toronto-born Mark DeMontis, 26, signed a one-year contract to play hockey in the U.S. college system. DeMontis dreamed of playing pro. But in 2005, when he was 17, DeMontis noticed a change in his vision and visited a doctor, who told him he had Leber’s optic neuropathy. The disease would render him legally blind. “When they found out about my eye condition … my hockey team released me the very next day,” DeMontis said. “So everything was taken away really quick,” DeMontis said. Despite his weakening eyesight, DeMontis felt determined to keep playing his favourite game. He sought out Eddie Parento, president of the Toronto Ice Owls, a hockey team made up of blind athletes. With a strong team of coaches and fellow blind players, DeMontis was skating once more.
On March 21, Courage Canada held its second annual 2014 Blind Hockey Tournament at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. Devoted to helping blind or partially-sighted youth learn to skate, Courage Canada is now in its fifth year. DeMontis played with Team Ontario in the tournament. Scott Roberts, also a blind hockey enthusiast, playing for Team Quebec, explained that part of his role is giving back to the game. “When I think about all of the lives I’ve touched for the younger people, it really means a lot to me to know that I’m sort of giving them the hope I didn’t really get the chance to have,” Roberts said. Dylan Brown, assistant tournament director at Courage Canada, works closely with the hockey players. “The players love it. They’re super excited to play… We fundraise every year just to get to Toronto for the tournaments; it’s basically their favourite weekend of the year,” Brown said. “Most of them don’t travel a lot, just with being visually impaired they don’t get out as much, so coming here is a big deal for them.” Blind hockey is still growing and needs funding. In 2009 DeMontis inline-skated 5,000 kilometres from Toronto to Vancouver to raise money for Courage Canada. “Blind hockey changes lives; there are so many problems of unemployment, obesity or unequal opportunity for visually impaired people and I think by using our nation’s game to change that stigma is truly the reason behind (Courage Canada,)” DeMontis said. DeMontis hasn’t played with the Ice Owls as much as he’d like because of his busy schedule; however, DeMontis praises the team for encouraging him to pursue his goals at a crucial turning point in his life. “To this day, I still feel that what kept me … motivated was meeting other people who are blind and partially sighted. The Ice Owls helped me cope with what was going on,” DeMontis said.