Growing up, hockey was an integral part of Burt Henderson’s life.
Henderson took up the game as a child, and played professionally in the minor leagues and in Japan.
His family — father John and uncle Roy Henderson — owns the junior A Langley Rivermen and his cousins Bobby and Taylor run the team, with the former serving as coach and general manager while Taylor runs the off-ice portion of the team.
And like most people involved in sport, Burt Henderson figured he would coach his kids when they were old enough to get on the ice.
Henderson and his wife Christina knew something was wrong with their daughter Ava’s eyesight.
It began with simple things such as when she was reading a book, she would have trouble making out the words. Or when she went to skating lessons or gymnastics and her parents told her to find her coach, she never was able to.
Their first thought was that she needed glasses, but something was still off with her vision.
They took their daughter to see a specialist in Vancouver, and the doctor sent them to B.C. Children’s Hospital that day. This was in the summer of 2012, when Ava was six.
After a series of tests were performed, the Henderson’s received a phone call a few weeks later.
Ava had been diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease.
The disease is an inherited form of juvenile macular degeneration that causes progressive vision loss, usually to the point of blindness.
The Hendersons also have two boys, five-year-old Jacob — whom Henderson coaches in hockey with the Burnaby Winter Club — and two-year-old Chase.
Each is now tested yearly for Stargardt’s disease as they have a 25 per cent chance of inheriting the disease.
Ava, now eight years old, is considered legally blind.
Henderson admits the past year and a half has been tough on the family.
Henderson first heard about Courage Canada Hockey for the Blind through Ava’s teacher’s assistant at her elementary school in Burnaby. This national organization was going to be in Burnaby conducting a session through the school and asked if Ava would like to participate.
Henderson attended the session and went on the ice.
“It was the most amazing experience,” he described. “All the kids had a great time.”
He especially loved the fact he was on the ice with Ava.
“I was able to teach my daughter how to play hockey and just to see the smile on her face was the best feeling in the world,” Henderson said.
It also prompted him to want to help grow the Courage Canada program.
“To us, this program is huge,” he explained.
“We want to get the word out there … every kid in Canada should be able to play hockey.
“Hockey is our sport — it doesn’t matter if you are blind or visually impaired, you should be able to play,” Henderson added.
“All we want to do is let the kids have an opportunity to play.”
Last week (Dec. 10), saw 10 visually-impaired students from the Fraser Valley hit the ice at the Langley Events Centre as part of the Courage Canada event.
The students first played a game called goal-ball in the gym for an hour and then listened to a motivational talk from Courage Canada founder Mark DeMontis for 90 minutes while enjoying a pizza lunch. The students then spent an hour on the ice with members of the Rivermen assisting them.
Holly Guinan, the visual resource teacher for School District 35, said the feedback she received from the students was that they had a great time.
“They liked the multi-sensory experience,” she said, adding that smell of the locker room really stood out for some of the students.
In the past, the program has gone to Abbotsford and the Langley students have attended that event. But the LEC experience was much different with the help of the Rivermen, Guinan added.
The goal is to make the Langley event an annual one.
Gary Ahuja/Langley Times
Langley Rivermen’s Viktor Dombrovsiy escorts Harjinder Saran around the Langley Events Centre ice as part of a Courage Canada Hockey for the Blind event held at the LEC last week (Dec. 10).