Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award Finalist: Mark DeMontis

The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by Hyundai is given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community culture or society. The award honors O'Ree, the former NHL forward who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador. After a public voting period and votes from O'Ree, NHL executives and Hyundai executives, the winner will be announced in June. There will be a winner from the United States and one from Canada. Today, a look at one of three Canada finalists, Mark DeMontis.

It was when Mark DeMontis' eyesight was failing him in his late teens that he would start to see his future very clearly.

DeMontis, now 37, began directing the challenge of his diminished sight into powerful words and trailblazing deed. His energy and commitment have opened the door to thousands of blind and partially sighted children who thought that they'd never experience the joy of hockey.

Founder of Canadian Blind Hockey and a member of the Canadian National Blind Hockey team, DeMontis has volunteered countless hours to raising awareness of and support for the game for those who are blind or visually impaired.

Working on and off the ice, he has brought joy to children and their families through adapted hockey. To this day, his efforts are focused on broadening a recreational base that might eventually bring blind hockey to the Paralympic Games and create a world championship.

"The most gratifying thing has been seeing the impact, first-hand, especially with youngsters and their families," DeMontis said of his pioneering work. "It's always been a goal of mine to show blind or partially sighted youth across the country, and around the world for that matter, that blind hockey not only existed, but that they could participate despite their disability.

Mark kids on ice split

Mark DeMontis behind the bench working with a group of children, and on the ice as a member of the Canadian National Blind Hockey team.

"Seeing those kids come to an arena for the first time … not just the child being nervous, but their parents, then after that first skate, seeing the impact it's had on them. From days prior not even aware that they'd ever be, or could be, a hockey family, to watching them leave the arena with smiles on their faces, part of the hockey fabric and community."

DeMontis was a 17-year-old in Toronto with grand hockey dreams, playing Triple-A with thoughts of an NCAA scholarship.

It was then he was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare affliction when central vision is lost. DeMontis describes the condition as "playing with a very foggy half-visor."

His elite hockey dreams shattered, a once confident, athletic teen entered university and fell into depression, then awoke to the reality that he could use his experience for the advantage of others.

His role model, mentor and inspiration would be Herb Carnegie, a brilliant senior-level player of the 1940s and 1950s who battled racial discrimination during an unenlightened time that blocked his road into the NHL because of the color of his skin.

Posthumously inducted as a Builder in the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2022, Carnegie is regarded as the best Black player to never skate in the NHL. Glaucoma took his vision, but not his tremendous energy working at many levels with children and young adults.

Under Carnegie's encouraging wing, DeMontis flourished.

"Dr. Carnegie believed in me when I didn't believe in myself," he said. "Our vision was a bond. Seeing the impact that he had on at-risk kids through his Future Aces Foundation and his hockey schools… that's when I started really opening up about how I wanted to give blind and partially sighted kids the opportunities I had. I fed off that energy."

DeMontis Carnegie split

At right, Mark DeMontis on the ice; and Herb Carnegie, DeMontis' late mentor and inspiration, seen in the Pioneers in Black History corner in the NHL American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour Museum trailer in Madison Heights, Michigan in 2019.

In 2009, wearing in-line skates, DeMontis covered more than 3,000 miles from Toronto to Vancouver, raising money for his new charity, Courage Canada.

Consider that the first shift in his new game. He and others who rallied to his side began setting up learn-to-skate programs, bringing blind and partially sighted youngsters to Canada-based rinks to pursue their own hockey dreams.

In 2016, Courage Canada evolved to become Canadian Blind Hockey, the world's first such association. The winner of Canada's national blind hockey tournament receives the Courage Cup.

Fifteen years after that long, exhausting in-line skate, DeMontis continues to champion hockey for those who are thrilled just to have the chance to lace up.

"These are kids who just want to play hockey, be part of a team," he said. "They want a jersey, a new stick from a store or a fresh pair of skates… all the things that any other kid does.

"Without support to provide those opportunities, it would be very difficult. There are other issues as well, transport to and from the arenas, adapted equipment, accessible coaching. They need all these things to ensure they can participate in a safe and fun environment.

"No matter how much we try to grow the blind game at a competitive level, we can never forget the importance and the impact we can have at the grassroots level, for kids to just get the chance to participate. We can never lose sight, so to speak, of our goal to have kids participate as much as anyone else, and just have fun in hockey."

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