Mark DeMontis was a 17-year-old junior hockey player who dreamed of playing professionally in the National Hockey League.
But DeMontis was diagnosed with Leber’s Optic Neuropathy, a rare condition that took away the central sight in both of his eyes, leaving him legally blind.
“How I describe it to people is if you are wearing a half-visor in hockey and the visor is really foggy, that is what my vision is like all the time,” DeMontis said.
The loss of his vision nearly 10 years ago altered DeMontis’ life path.
“I was on a new journey in life after finding out my dream of playing pro hockey had come to an end,” he said.
“This put me on a new journey.”
In 2008 — at the age of 21 — he founded Courage Canada Hockey for the Blind, with the help of Paola Abate, Cameron Williams and Gaetano Barrilla.
The nationally registered charity works to provide blind and visually impaired children from across the country to learn to skate and play hockey.
Its motto is ‘Bringing the blind to the ice, one stride at a time.’
Courage Canada also works with school board vision programs to inspire, educate and empower blind and visually impaired students.
Since its inception in 2008, it has raised more than $500,000.
The money is used to run the learn to skate programs at no cost to the participants.
The 26-year-old DeMontis serves as the charity’s founder, president and spokesperson.
He has twice gone on inline skating trips — from Toronto to Vancouver in 2011 and from Halifax to Toronto last year — to raise awareness about the charity.
But what sticks out most for him is seeing the looks on the faces of the students, many of whom are on the ice for the first time and facing what surely must be a frightening experience.
“They were probably told this was something they could never do,” he said.
“These kids have developed the courage just to put one foot on the ice and facing that fear, that makes me proud of knowing that they will be able to apply that elsewhere in life.”
“The kids inspire me even more than I try to inspire them,” he added.