After Losing His Vision, Education Alum Rediscovers Passion, Works to Expand Access to Favorite Sport
Photo courtesy of Josh Schneider ’04
Hear the crack of a slapshot, the skidding of blades across the ice and the thud of a goalie’s blocked shot, and you’d guess you were at a typical ice hockey game—until you hear the metallic clacking of ball bearings as a player whips the puck at the net.
Blind hockey isn’t on the schedule for the 2022 Winter Olympics, but Josh Schneider ’04 is advocating for it to be added to a future Paralympics—and to compete in them—even as he gives fellow visually impaired athletes the opportunity to play the sport.
“This is my own ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’” said Schneider, who is legally blind. “I found a bunch of other guys like me, who grew up playing hockey, then lost their vision and thought that was the end. But then we found out you could do it.”
The adapted version of the sport can be played on the same rink as regular ice hockey, with the same gear and sticks. The puck, however, is slower because it’s made of metal and more than double the size of the standard rubber model and is filled with metal balls that rattle when hit. And the goal is shorter, to allow the goalie to better block shots. The only rule change is that players must make one pass within the offensive zone around the goal, in order to give the goalie—who is required to be totally blind—an opportunity to hear the shot. Players are grouped by the amount of vision they have, ranging from legally blind to completely blind.
Schneider grew up playing competitive roller hockey in New Jersey and helped make it an official club sport during his four years at the University of Maryland, where he studied education. But after graduation, he returned to his home state and focused on teaching math and coaching youth sports.
It wasn’t until his life took a dramatic turn that he would revisit hockey in a new way. He had never even needed eyeglasses until 2012, when his vision suddenly became skewed and blurry. Schneider saw eye doctor after eye doctor, but none was able to give him a concrete diagnosis. Within a year, he’d lost all use of his left eye, and today, despite ongoing immunotherapy treatments, he has just 10% of his vision in his right eye.
Schneider worked for years with waning vision, even moving just a quarter-mile from his school so he could walk to work. But one day, the school held an evacuation drill. In the rain, he couldn’t find his students—the eighth graders had to find him.
“I realized it’s about student safety,” he said. “So I got a doctor’s note and I stopped teaching the next day.”
He tried volunteering and tutoring, but nothing filled the void of his day-to-day passion. Then while he was doing the dishes one day, he heard a local news segment on New York Metro Blind Hockey.
“I thought, how is this even possible? I felt stupid that I had never thought to look it up, but I just assumed I could never play so it never occurred to me,” he said. “I remember my voice literally cracked when I called up the woman who ran the organization and asked, ‘So I can play?’”
Schneider immediately fell back in love with the sport. He practiced not only on the ice with his new teammates, but in his driveway, where he’s posted videos like, “This Legally Blind Hockey Player Can Outshoot You,” showing his precision and prowess.
Today, he plays matches and volunteers at clinics hosted by New York Metro Blind Hockey for those who want to try the sport. In addition, he co-hosts “The Dented Puck” podcast with Drew Garza, a Chicago-based player who he met on social media, to highlight the inspirational journeys of blind hockey players, and they’ve created a hockey tournament called “The Windy City Showdown.” The pandemic caused multiple postponements, but they successfully hosted their first tournament in Chicago for more than 70 players in July. Schneider also started The HockEYE Guy Foundation to provide transportation and lodging for blind players.
“Many blind people are on disability, without extra funds to buy gear or travel. We want to give everyone a chance to play,” he said.
With the Paralympics starting next month, Schneider hopes his and his team’s efforts to grow the sport will help blind hockey gain a berth in 2026 or 2030—with him on a national team.
“We don’t want to be pitied or patronized—we’re blind or legally blind but we play hockey at an elite level,” he said. “That’s why we want to spread the word.”
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