When Kira Erickson and Yahya Abdikadir suit up in their hockey gear and step out onto the ice, their natural athletic instincts take over and they turn into star players on the first-ever Minnesota Wild blind hockey team. Despite both being totally blind, the District 196 high schoolers don’t let that stand in their way.
“It’s just really fun to be part of this,” said Kira, a freshman at Eagan High School. “And we have that freedom to just play sports together.”
Already an established sport in Canada, blind hockey has been slowly growing in the United States over the last five years. In 2018, Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota Wild partnered to start a blind hockey program and launched the inaugural season in October.
The game incorporates some rule changes to adapt the sport for players who are legally blind. For example, some pucks make noise, others are larger in size, the nets are shorter to help players track the puck aurally and an on-ice official uses different whistles to signal a completed pass. Coaches and volunteers help players navigate the rink, and if a player is off sides, the referee shouts a verbal communication and the game is reset. Prior to scoring, teams must complete at least one pass in the attacking zone, which provides both the low vision defense players and the goalie the opportunity to track the puck.
All of the adaptations, the students say, make it one of the best inclusive sports.
From a young age, Kira always had an athletic drive. Like many Minnesotans, she was learning to skate while she was learning to walk. She was a budding figure skater when, just shy of her third birthday, she was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that most often affects children. She underwent an invasive surgery to remove the cancer and embarked on a lengthy recovery.
“Since I was so young I didn’t really feel like becoming blind was abnormal; this was just my new normal,” she said. “It was difficult to go through, and yes I lost a sense, but it was also just something I had to do. It didn’t change me, just my vision.”
Kira was determined to stay active, despite the diagnosis. And last year, she heard from a friend who had recently joined a blind hockey team on the East Coast. With the help of her mom, Kira began researching similar opportunities and saw the Minnesota Wild was looking for players for their new team.
“My mom asked if I wanted to sign up and I just said, ‘Yeah, that is the only sport I want to do this year,’” she laughed. “I was so excited to find out this was here.”
While skating was engrained in Kira, hockey was a new venture for her fellow teammate, Yahya. The active Apple Valley senior is well known for his charisma and involvement in school activities. He enjoys playing hockey in gym class, but when the opportunity arose to play for the Wild’s blind hockey team, he signed up immediately.
“I never considered myself a real hockey player and just decided to see how it goes,” he said. “But it’s a lot of fun. And I like to tell people I’m part of the Wild.”
Like Kira, Yahya was born sighted. But when he was a young child in Somalia, there was an explosion near his home, causing him partial vision and hearing loss. In seventh grade, he moved to Minnesota and attended Valley Middle School. Throughout his childhood, his vision and hearing continued to deteriorate, and by age 13 he was totally blind.
“This taught me to never give up,” Yahya said. “My sighted peers know that I like to stay active and involved. And I’m not afraid to try new things.”
He admits skating is something he’s still getting used to, but is excited at his prospects of being the team goalie. Right now, both Kira and Yahya spend practices learning the layout of the rink, getting a feel for the skates and sticks and, their favorite part, hitting the puck as hard as they can.
“I like it because I get to meet people who feel similar to me,” Kira said. “But I think the best part of all is feeling like we’re part of a team.”