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Blind Toronto hockey player shortlisted for NHL Award

Mark DeMontis, founder of the Canadian Blind Hockey Association, is one of the three finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in Canada. After being diagnosed with Leber’s optic neuropathy about 20 years ago, DeMontis started Courage Canada, a charity helping blind and partially sighted children get into the game of hockey. An avid hockey player, DeMontis impressed while playing minor hockey as a teen, earned an NCAA scholarship, and got drafted by an NHL team.

Established in 2017, the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award recognizes an individual who, like Willie O’Ree, has made a significant positive impact on their culture, community, or society through hockey. Despite the challenges of not being able to play hockey, DeMontis managed to turn his life around, gradually rediscovering his love of the game and dedicating himself to helping others.

After being diagnosed, DeMontis joined the Ice Owls, a hockey program in Toronto for blind or partially sighted youth. DeMontis found that playing hockey again was great, but he noticed that the game is expensive, and blind hockey requires special equipment, such as modified nets and large discs that make noise for players to follow instead of traditional pucks. He found that there were few programs that offered services for blind or partially sighted people, and even where they did exist, there were problems with transportation, accessibility inside arenas, and a lack of trained coaches.

DeMontis started an organization called Courage Canada, which later became Canadian Blind Hockey. This charity offers hockey programs and competitions for people in Canada who are blind or partially sighted. It provides 10 programs for adults and others for children. Additionally, DeMontis works as the chief accessibility officer at The Substance Group, a marketing agency – in this role, he encourages businesses to prioritize accessibility. He also raises awareness about the challenges faced by blind hockey players and once rollerbladed across Canada to raise funds.

The O’Ree nomination is drawing attention to the cause. Mark Burgin from Vancouver, founder of Diversity Athletics Hockey and a board member of BC Hockey working on equity, diversity and inclusion, and Allen Hierlihy from Hamilton, a volunteer with the Hamilton District Sledge Hockey Association, are the other Canadian finalists. The winner will be announced on June 13 and will receive $25,000, while the other finalists will each receive $5,000 donated to their chosen charities.

Win or not, DeMontis is happy to see lives being changed for the better as young kids with impaired vision can now dream of playing hockey for the country.