Laura Mark simply wants everyone to see how wonderful her sport truly is.
There is, of course, a touch of irony in the fact that the 34 year-old Sault Ste Marie native who has called Sudbury home since 2018 serves as the Coordinator for the Girls/Women’s program for Canadian Blind Hockey.
Raise your hand if you didn’t even know the sport existed. You’re not alone.
Born with bilateral optic nerve hypoplasia, a condition whereby the optic nerves are not fully developed, Mark did not even find her way to the sport that she loves until less than a decade ago.
Actually, that’s not entirely true.
“I was always drawn to hockey,” she explained. “My parents were always supportive, they really wanted me to be an independent regular kid - but they also wanted me to be safe. But I kept pushing and pushing to play hockey.”
In 1997, her father relented, teaching her the game in the basement of their Coldwater home, utilizing a combination of checker board game parts and pennies. When vision is more limited, understanding positioning becomes more critical.
“I couldn’t see the puck, unless it was on my stick, but I kind of knew the plays, knew where people should be,” said Mark. “I kind of followed the people.”
The young woman who graduated from Algoma University majoring in Psychology and History and later added a Business designation from Algonquin College has always been fond of sports. Mostly soccer and hockey, but with a small sampling of a few other activities mixed in with a cursory knowledge of goalball, one of the most popular sports for visually impaired athletes.
Still, her desire was to take to the ice, but preferably do so with others who might come from a similar background. In 2013, a google search produced information on a group entitled Courage Canada, the precursor to what is now the Canadian Blind Hockey Association. As luck would have it, the national tournament for the CBHA was taking place a week later in Toronto.
“I went to see their tournament and have played ever since,” said Mark, a member of the Toronto Ice Owls and frequent teammate of fellow Sudburian Amanda Provan. “In Coldwater, there really wasn’t the opportunity to play para sports - you had to travel to Toronto or maybe come up to Sudbury. Now, I try and go as often as I can.”
With relatively modest numbers overall, the Ice Owls and parallel teams popping up right across the country have opened their doors to coed participation. That said, the physicality of the men can be challenging, especially at the upper echelons of the sport.
“A lot of the guys who play on the national team had played some level of junior hockey and then lost their vision,” noted Mark. “It’s hard to compete against that.” And so the current Coordinator - Team Operations (Ontario North) at CNIB, based out of Sudbury, embarked on her journey.
“When I first started, I was one of maybe four or five female players out of 80 players in attendance,” she said. “Now, we have about 25% of all people attending our development camp who are females. One of our big goals, one day, is to eventually have a national women’s blind hockey team to play against the U.S.”
“That’s our dream, and obviously it’s not going to happen tomorrow, because we do have to grow the sport - and not just in Canada, but also in other countries.”
That said, there are hurdles that must be cleared much closer to home. The group has attempted, unsuccessfully in the past, to try and coordinate a regional introductory session to their sport. The truth is that while sufficient numbers likely exist across the north, reaching the necessary people is not always easy.
“I really think that there are more people in the 12 to 40 age range that are visually impaired in Sudbury but are not coming to the CNIB,” said Mark.
“We get to the really little ones, given that the parents are so overwhelmed in trying to understand how to help them, what to do, and we get to the older people who had their vision all of their life and then lost their vision as they got older. They’re trying to learn technologies that they have never had to use.”
“I think the natural instinct is to try and help the very young and the very old, and we forget to re-engage with people in between,” she added. “We sometimes assume that if they need us, they will come to us - but that’s not always the case.”
Laura Mark understands this far more than most.
“To be honest, I really wasn’t all that involved with the CNIB until I got this job,” she said. “I certainly knew of them, but had just not been involved.”
Her story is likely one that is shared by many. To the extent that she was able to join the sighted athletes in their hockey and soccer and skiing endeavours, there was no reason to seek out the para community. In 2018, she joined forces with local coach Patti Kitler, commencing her involvement with para nordic skiing and participating in the 2019 Ontario Para-Winter Games.
In early May, Mark and the Canadian Blind Hockey Association will be hosting their first ever girls/women’s development camp, an initiative undertaken in partnership with USA Hockey. In addition to roughly a 50/50 split of participants from both sides of the border, the event has also drawn interest from Finland.
Registrations, which are still open to anyone who is interested, feature a range covering complete newcomers to blind hockey right through to those who have played it regularly for decades.
“Depending on our numbers, we might go off and use breakout rooms, to make sure group workouts are comfortable for everyone,” said Mark. “At the same time, we want to get everyone talking with each other and networking and socializing.”
Laura Mark is sure to be front and centre in the discussions.
“I’m a big advocate of para sports - or just sports, in general,” she said. “To this day, I will say that I would not be as successful as I am if I had not been involved in sports. It gave me confidence, it showed me teamwork, it helped me grow as a person.”
“Yes, I can’t always see things, but I can do things.”
For further information on blind hockey, kindly contact Laura Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org