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Students from Maryland School for the Blind learn to play hockey

Blind students from Baltimore school learn to play hockey.

The goalie's mask was pointed down toward the ice. He couldn't see the offense speeding toward him, but he could hear the players' skates sliding across the ice and the ringing from the specialized puck.

As soon as an oncoming player fired a shot, the goalie slammed his stick down to the ice, stopping the puck before it slid into the net. The referee then grabbed it and then rattled it to let the other players to know it was going back into play.

The players practicing at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Saturday were blind. They were participating in "Try Blind Hockey," which drew students from the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore County. The event, sponsored by the Washington Capitals — who practice at Kettler — and USA Hockey, was intended to introduce those who are visually impaired to the sport.

While the event ended with a fast-paced game between more experienced players, many were trying ice skating for the first time.

Matt Mescall, deputy physical education teacher at the Maryland School for the Blind, helped coach several students from the school.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native said he was excited to introduce his students to the sport he loved. "Opportunities don't come as often" to his students, he said. "You're really introducing it to them for the first time."

As he spoke, one of his students, Gracia Zuzarte, 17, of White Marsh, walked over for a hug. Zuzarte, who has been blind since birth, told Mescall she was feeling overwhelmed passing through all the players gearing up in the hallway outside the rink.

Volunteer Sue Hyjek, came over to help her into a set of skates before taking her onto the ice.

"Who are you?" Zuzarte asked after she sat on a bench and Hyjek began helping her out of her boots. Hyjek introduced herself and told her that she had played hockey in college. She volunteered Saturday after hearing about the event through her son's hockey team.

"If it makes you feel better, I am an excellent skater," Hyjek told Zuzarte as she laced up the teen's skates. "You want to stand up and see how they feel?" she asked.

Zuzarte wobbled, her ankles shaking slightly, as she pressed her hands into the bench and stood.

"The biggest thing is to relax," Hyjek told her. "Keep your feet apart and find your balance."

Zuzarte said she went ice-skating recently with other MSB students at the rink at the Inner Harbor, but said she fell a few times.

"I will fall like a thousand times," she said.

Her mother, Christine Zuzarte, who had come to watch, said she signed her daughter up in order to give her a new experience.

"Children don't know what they might like until they try it," she said. "I want her to get as many experiences as she can."

While Gracia Zuzarte took some cautious steps out on the ice, her classmate Timothy Jones, 20, was flying past other skaters. Mescall soon equipped him with a hockey stick and pads. He joined a more advanced group doing drills with a puck.

As his mother, Susan Jones of Accokeek, watched from the bleachers, an employee at the school asked, "Where did he learn to skate?"

"If you can't see it, you can't be afraid of it," she said with a laugh. She said her son skates, skis and plays a number of sports.

"Anything he is interested in trying I am not going to tell him he can't try it," she said.

He wasn't always blind, but over time, uveitis has cost him his vision. Jones said her son has made a lot of progress since coming to MSB when he was 8. He lives at the school and works a number of jobs, including at a day care where he reads to children from Braille books. But she said the real challenges will begin once he graduates. Though he has learned to cook and do his own laundry at school, she said many of the opportunities available to him as a youth will disappear once he turns 21.

"The fight doesn't end," she said.

For blind people, playing hockey requires a number of skills. The players need to learn to use their other senses. For example, Jones said, many students listen to the tin can sound the puck makes. They also can feel the vibrations from the other players on the ice.

Some of the players have only partial vision loss. But players who have complete vision loss "have to be much more aware of their body" even before hitting the ice, she said. "They are a lot more aware of their surroundings."

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