Mike Svac—Someone You Should Know
Ice hockey is not an easy game to play. You have to be able to skate well, which includes the control to stop and change direction whenever necessary. You have to be able to handle a stick, which is used to maneuver a puck between players and—hopefully—into the goal. You have to learn to trick your opponent into thinking you are going one way while going another. And if you are goalie, there are six different types of saves to learn.
Now imagine doing all of this without the gift of sight.
The Chicago Blackhawks have had their own special needs team for children and adults with developmental disabilities since 2000, when Naperville mom Amy Lapoe started the program with five skaters and three coaches. One of those coaches, Mike Svac, has since gone on to become hockey director of both the Chicago Blackhawks Special and Blind Hockey teams.
Both teams are strongly supported by the Blackhawks, who help with expenses, uniforms and guest appearances at games. Despite this support and his hockey coaching experience, Svac said he knew nothing about the challenges that special-needs and visually impaired players face when he started. “In October 2015, I was approached to help start a new team, a team for the blind,” he says. “I had no experience in that, but I thought it was the right challenge for me.”
The Tomahawks currently have nineteen skaters who range in age from five to forty-plus. They practice at Center Ice of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, assisted by volunteers and twelve coaches. Svac explains, “The group has a range of skill levels. The first attempt was chaos. Players range from those who were born blind, and have never had ice skating experience, to those who were born with vision, played and then lost their sight.”
He says teaching the blind to play ice hockey is definitely a challenge. “We have to think up creative ways like using words instead of showing them what to do,” he says. “My biggest fear was of an injury; I was nervous that one of the players would go into a wall, but within fifteen minutes of our first session I learned that they instinctively know where the boards are. It taught me their awareness of their surroundings is greater than ours. They are so excited to be out there.”
The game is adapted for blind players; the rules are modified and the puck is slightly different. A regular NHL puck is made of vulcanized rubber, is three inches wide and weighs six ounces. Blind players use a puck that is slightly bigger and made of twenty-two-gauge steel. The main difference is that it contains ball bearings so players can hear where it is on the ice.
Coach Svac’s love of hockey started as a child in Pittsburgh. “In Pittsburgh everyone bleeds black and gold, the colors of the Steelers,” he says. “Most of our good hockey players came from elsewhere, but I always loved the game and the Penguins.”
When Svac and his family moved to Naperville he began coaching for Neuqua Valley High School and then Waubonsie Valley High School, where he is currently vice president of the Waubonsie Warriors hockey team. He also plays at least two days a week at All Seasons Ice Rink in Naperville.
Svac is now focused on two goals for the team: First, to increase the number of players to twenty-five by the end of the season, and second, to build an American league for blind ice hockey based on Canadian Blind Hockey. Currently only Canada and the US have established Blind Hockey programs, but both countries are working together on international outreach with a goal of founding a four-nation tournament to take place by 2020. Next year Svac will be leading the USA Disabled Hockey Festival in Chicago, which will attract players from all over the United States and Canada.
Svac is modest but determined. “I just get up and drive the bus,” he says. “I just want to fill it up with players. I just want kids to come out and try. A lot of people have been working very hard to get us where we are today.”
The Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey team will celebrate another successful season at its annual banquet for players and volunteers at Center Ice in Addison on April 21.
For more information about the special or blind programs, visit chicagospecialhockey.com or chicagoblackhawksblindhockey.com.