Abbotsford’s Brian Mackie gets set to hit the ice during CNIB’s 100th anniversary hockey game at ARC on Saturday. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Blind Ambition: Abbotsford’s Brian Mackie plays on despite vision disability

Mackie, CNIB celebrate 100 years in Abbotsford with a charity hockey game

Brian Mackie was never picked first growing up.

He wasn’t picked second or third and, even when was chosen, he wasn’t exactly a go-to player on his minor hockey team.

“They don’t really like to pass to you if you always miss it,” he said, with a smirk.

Partially blind since birth, Mackie loved the game of hockey, but as a kid it didn’t really love him back. Competing against players with full vision proved to be a challenge, and Mackie moved away from organized hockey teams to pick-up hockey in local rinks and on the lakes of his native Ontario.

It wasn’t until a Hockey Night in Canada segment about the Toronto Ice Owls, a blind hockey team, that Mackie realized blind hockey even existed.

The Ice Owls first formed in 1972, and have gone on to play benefit games all across Canada.

Mackie suited up for the team in the 1980s, even getting the chance to lace up his skates for the Ice Owls when they played at the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens.

“It was amazing because I could actually see the puck,” Mackie said, of the large and noisy puck used for blind hockey.

He played about seven years as a forward with the Ice Owls before accepting a position with the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) 18 years ago.

The 53-year-old Abbotsford resident is an independent living skills/assistive technology specialist at CNIB and, after arriving in B.C., he sought out more blind hockey competition.

Enter the Vancouver Eclipse.

Since 1995, the Eclipse have opened their dressing room doors to blind and visually impaired athletes of all skill levels. Mackie joined the team shortly after arriving from Ontario and has seen it grow to as many as 19 players a few years ago.

The Eclipse play weekly games and also hit the ice for fundraisers and charity events.

There are also blind hockey tournaments all across North America that the Eclipse have competed in.

Mackie said it’s a welcoming environment for all players.

“The guys just really like the camaraderie just like any other team,” he said.

“Being visually impaired means you sometimes miss out on a lot of those types of social opportunities. People are sometimes too reluctant to talk to you if you’re blind because they think we need help or want a ride. It’s hard sometimes for us to make friends.”

Saturday saw the Eclipse and several Canucks legends entertain fans at Abbotsford Recreation Centre to help celebrate CNIB’s 100th anniversary.

Mackie helped organize the event, and CNIB’s Danielle Suter said he’s a valuable part of the team at work and a great example to the vision-impaired community.

“Brian is married with kids, has a job, and to many people that’s surprising; it shouldn’t be,” she said.

“One of Brian’s hopes for this event is that he can smash stereotypes and bring greater understanding to the general public when they meet an individual with sight loss.”

Mackie said CNIB has helped improve life for the blind and visually impaired, but there is still lots of work that is needed.

“The hockey team is also about raising awareness,” he said.

“We still have issues with employment and discrimination and people just not understanding us because of our lack of vision. Sometimes they don’t know what our white cane or our guide dog is for and we get denied entry to places. That still happens, unfortunately.”

Mackie’s role with CNIB is to help those dealing with vision issues adjust to independent living. He deals with a caseload of at least 50 people in Abbotsford, and noted that probably over 1,000 people locally have severe vision issues.

“I help teach people how to do everything from cooking to shopping to computer work,” he said. “Technology now makes living with vision issues much easier.”

But Mackie said, despite all the advances, it is still difficult for those with vision issues to find employment.

“Statistics show that close to 70 per cent of us are unemployed,” he said.

“Unfortunately, people think that just because you’re blind that you can’t use a computer or find your way around a building.

“There’s nothing that’s terribly costly to adapt a worksite for a blind person – maybe improve the lighting – but we can learn by memory and adjust.”

As for the Eclipse, Mackie said he’d love to challenge local teams to a game. Blind hockey uses a bigger and louder puck, smaller nets and players must make at least one pass when entering the offensive zone.

He also he’d like to see the sport one day included in the Paralympics.

For more on the team, search “Vancouver Eclipse Hockey Team” on Facebook.

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