“It’s not safe for you to play hockey anymore at any level, you’re going to have to stop,” an ophthalmologist advised Joseph (Joe) Fornasier in 2013, a statement that would stick with him still to this day.
Hockey had been the centre of Fornasier’s life ever since learning to skate at just three years old. When he lost his vision at the age of 10, he thought his dream of playing professional hockey had come to an end. Today, 19-year-old Fornasier is proud to be a part of something much bigger, the blind hockey community.
Now known universally as the Jacked Blind Guy, Fornasier is making a name for himself on and off the ice through his TikTok platform, bringing awareness to the sport of blind hockey.
It came as a sudden shock when Fornasier was suddenly cut from his local rep team after struggling to see the puck and his teammates on the ice.
“It was really weird because he missed a whole bunch of passes, which was totally unlike him,” Fornasier’s father, Frank, recalled.
Fornasier first noticed issues with central vision in his left eye. “I couldn’t see ahead of me at all,” he remembered.
After weeks of specialist appointments and optometrist examinations, Fornasier was diagnosed with Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, also known as LHON for short. LHON is a progressive vision disorder that usually develops in one eye and quickly progresses to the other.
Within weeks, Fornasier also lost central vision in his right eye.
At the time of the diagnosis, Fornasier was crushed at the news he’d have to give up playing hockey. “It was just such a big part of my life,” he said.
“There are children and youth out there that are affected by vision loss who love the game and if they love the game, they should be playing it,” said Canadian Blind Hockey General Manager and Coach Luca DeMontis.
DeMontis helped found Canadian Blind Hockey with his brother, Mark, in 2009, and has been a part of the blind hockey community since. DeMontis has also worked to introduce and help develop blind hockey programs in other countries.
It was Fornasier’s dad who would ultimately introduce him to blind hockey. Frank first became aware of the sport when he met Toronto Ice Owls blind hockey team owner Wayne St. Denis at a conference. Fornasier, 14 at the time, was eventually persuaded by his dad to attend a blind hockey program for partially sighted and blind youth held at Scotiabank Pond.
“I knew he had so much potential,” recalled DeMontis on first witnessing Fornasier’s skill.
Although players are only eligible to play with a blind hockey team once they are 18, Fornasier was granted exceptional status. At 14 years old, he became the youngest player to ever join the Ice Owls.
“You’re gonna go play with the big boys,” DeMontis recalled telling Fornasier. After years of hockey being absent from his life, Fornasier was happy to finally return to the atmosphere he yearned for.
"It was also more than what hockey was before,” said Fornasier. For him, being surrounded by other visually impaired athletes helped ease his transition back into the sport. “It ingrained hope into me that I could still do things,” he said.
“It gave him a confidence that he didn’t have, a belief in himself that he didn’t have,” said Frank.
“I think it was a huge learning curve for him because he went from playing with his friends and kids similar in age to now men and women of an older age and a greater experience in the sport of blind hockey,” said DeMontis, who recognized Fornasier’s initial struggle to adapt to the changes from traditional hockey.
With the nets a foot shorter than those used in traditional hockey, Fornasier would often shoot the puck high. The puck contains metal bearings to make noise with movement, making it much larger and heavier than what Fornasier was used to.
“That’s different for a young kid to adapt to and understand because you’re coming from a traditional world where you’re playing with players that have sight,” said DeMontis.
Blind hockey follows a player classification system of B1, B2, and B3 based on vision percentage. Goalies are always classified as B1 as they must be completely blind to be eligible to play. B2 players have five per cent vision or less and wear white helmets to distinguish between B3 players, who have vision between five and 10 per cent. With less than five per cent of his vision remaining, Fornasier is classified as a B2 player.
“In blind hockey and blind sports in general, being a team means so much more.” - Fornasier on the importance of being a team.
“Those guys changed his life, they showed him you don’t have to be on the sidelines, you can play,” added Frank.
Attending Ice Owl games every Sunday, Fornasier made it his personal goal to make Canada’s National Blind Hockey Team. “Seeing that they had a team Canada, that lit a spark in me,” he said, devoting hours to bettering his skill to make the national team.
“Every single day I was working towards my goal, I was skating four times a week, I was working out every single day,” he remembered.
The dedication paid off, at just 15, Fornasier was the youngest player to join the national team. Although he didn’t play much in his first tournament representing Canada, he said he was appreciative just to be part of a game that now meant so much more to him.
“It meant so much to me, especially getting to represent my country after thinking I was never going to play hockey again, or really any sport,” said Fornasier.
The COVID-19 pandemic put Fornasier’s hopes of playing in another blind hockey tournament on hold up until this past October. The national team travelled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and came out on top against the United States. Fornasier put his skill to work, finishing as a leading B2 goal scorer.
“The goal of the weekend was, of course, to be victorious, but it was bigger than being victorious, it was about growing the sport and creating more awareness,” said DeMontis, who has been the general manager for the past three national teams put together.
Fornasier has helped expand the game of blind hockey in his own way, creating a public TikTok profile to showcase both his humour and the sport.
“We’re trying to be as active as possible as we can be on social media because that does help with creating awareness for our sport, but Joe took TikTok to the next level for us,” said DeMontis.
Last summer, DeMontis recalled seeing Fornasier’s social media success first-hand in Halifax during the national team’s selection camp. People recognized Fornasier from his TikTok profile, shouting out his username ‘Jacked Blind Guy’ and seeking autographs.
“The power of sport is immaculate, but the power of sport for individuals with a disability is even stronger,” said DeMontis, who is appreciative of the work Fornasier has done to bring awareness to the sport.
“Joe will be a veteran player one day, but already there are kids across this country who look up to him,” shared DeMontis, who believes Fornasier is a role model for youth in the blind hockey community.
For a while, Fornasier battled his overwhelming thoughts, often questioning himself “why me?” Now Fornasier uses “why not me” as his slogan, advocating for the visually impaired and children with disabilities to think the same.
“I don’t want a kid that was in my situation to pass up on this amazing opportunity to play the greatest sport in the world, because they think it’s weird to be blind,” said Fornasier, who is hopeful his journey will motivate others.
However, there are still a lot of harmful stigmas that surround athletes with disabilities. Fornasier has been the victim of criticism on social media, often discredited for his skill and sometimes even questioned on the credibility of his disability.
“I want to erase the stigma,” said Fornasier, who is attempting to do so through his popular TikTok platform. “I can be blind and still play the highest level of hockey because my skill didn’t deteriorate at all, just my eyesight.”
“He’s showing that because you have a disability, that doesn’t mean you’re unable to perform at a high level,” Frank shared on his son breaking boundaries surrounding blindness in sport.
“I’m just trying to show other people that having a disability doesn’t define who you are." - Fornasier on his efforts to grow the game.
Fornasier had been told by his high school guidance counsellor that he wouldn’t finish high school in four years nor attend university. Contrary to his guidance counsellor’s limited beliefs, Fornasier completed high school in four years and earned a scholarship to Wilfred Laurier University.
“I’m so proud of him, he’s amazing, he’s overcome a lot, and he’s realized he can do way more than what he thought he would be able to do,” said Frank.
Currently pursuing a communications degree at Laurier, Fornasier dreams of one day becoming a motivational speaker. “I really just want to share my story and if I could somehow make a career out of that, that’d be amazing.”
He is already on his way to fulfilling his career dream, having just recently spoken at his former elementary school, Burlington Christian Academy, and planning to speak at many more schools in the near future.
Between school and motivational speaking, Fornasier travels between Waterloo and Toronto regularly to play with the Ice Owls every Sunday.
“I’m a blind person living in a sighted world, no one understands what I’m going through but when I’m playing blind hockey with team Canada or the Ice Owls, I know I belong here.”
In hopes to spread further awareness of the game, the Canadian Blind Hockey Organization hosted their annual tournament in March 2023 at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. This event was a huge hit and has been crucial in gaining awareness and participation in blind hockey over the past decade.
The game is growing and Fornasier hopes to be involved every step of the way.