MassLive: T-Birds help legally blind superfan see the gameApr 15, 2018
By Mark Chiarelli, MassLive.com
SPRINGFIELD - Calling it a Christmas miracle might be a stretch. Luck didn't bring Katrina King and her father, Rick, to the Civic Center parking garage in late December. No, for the King's, some 15 years after first seeing a hockey game together, there's few places father and daughter would rather be than at the Mass Mutual Center for a Springfield Thunderbirds game.
But timing is everything. And as the King's departed the arena, rolling under the low-hanging, multi-colored steel beams criss-crossing the ceiling, the they rolled past Thunderbirds defenseman Ed Wittchow.
Rick saw him first, riding in the car next to the King's. He waved over, catching Wittchow's attention.
"Hey," Rick said, "One of your big fans is sitting in the car."
Rick stopped, then opened the car door. And before he knew it, he said, Wittchow and his daughter, Katrina, were having a conversation. Five minutes passed, become 10, then 15, the affable Wittchow chatting her up like an old friend. They both love dogs, Katrina learned. She has two, 10-year-old Lady and seven-month-old Boomer, the younger named after the Thunderbirds mascot.
The King's thought it was little more than a nice behind-the-scenes moment. Just a fan and one of her favorite players sharing a candid moment away from the ice.
But three months later, by chance they met again, this time in the Thunderbirds' offices.
Rick and Katrina, two season-ticket-holders, had stopped in. Wittchow happened to be there too, and again they said hello. This time Wittchow was curious.
What exactly is the 23-year-old Katrina's story?
Most regulars at Thunderbirds games know Katrina, or at least of her. Rarely has she missed a game dating back to their Falcons years. Her and her father sit in their seats across the rink from Thunderbirds bench. A Chicopee native, King has been known to rattle her trusty cowbell once or twice, the familiar ring a sign of Thunderbirds support and a fair warning to opposing teams infringing on her turf.
They've been coming to games for more than 15 years. Rick first had to entice a begrudging Katrina into attending a game. It just so happened that during an intermission, the Zamboni became stuck in the ice, seemingly sinking into the playing surface. It took more than an hour before someone could retrieve a bucket-loader and haul the rig off the ice.
During that break the arena did, well, everything it could to keep fans entertained. Mascot dances. Giveaways. Music.
Katrina loved it.
And so she kept coming. Hockey quickly became a hobby, then a passion. She loved it all, the sounds, the atmosphere, the intensity. Now she uses the Shazam app on her phone to record in-arena songs, then goes home and downloads them on iTunes. Her favorite player when she was younger was Mitch Fritz. He was a fighter, and she loved that.
Never, though, had she actually seen them play in person.
"I've gone to hockey games for years without seeing it," she said Saturday night at the Thunderbirds' home finale.
Katrina has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. She has been since birth. She is bilaterally shunted - a result of a brain bleed that hemorrhaged into her ventricle when she was born.
As her father Rick explains it, think of it like a telephone cord running from her eyes to her brain. Inside that cord are wires. As her brain bleed intensified, so did the swelling, damaging the wires inside the cord.
Doctors expected her to be completely blind. She spent three months in neonatal intensive care, then time in a separate unit recovering after.
"They wanted us to let the state take care of her," Rick said. "We weren't going to see that. We raised her."
They soon learned most, but not all, of Katrina's vision had disappeared. She can see about an arm's length in front of her. It was a start.
So while Katrina couldn't see much of the hockey in person, Rick had permission to videotape some games. Then they'd go home and connect the record to a large screen TV. This way, she could at least see some of the action. This is how she watches her other favorite team, the Boston Bruins. She's a big Rene Rancourt fan.
"Rene Rancourt taught me how to sing 'Oh, Canada,'" she said. "And I know I sound like him too."
Wittchow was curious about all of this. Mainly he wondered how one could love hockey so much despite struggling to see it. She can play it, often playing sled hockey at the MassMutual Center and Amelia Park in Westfield. Her pusher is Matt McRobbie, her ticket account executive with the Thunderbirds.
Her family also knew there were special glasses available to enhance her vision. The cost, though, was always too prohibitive for them to afford, or the fit wasn't right. Rick said the model they liked would cost roughly $1,000 just to rent for two weeks. He even considered starting a medical GoFundMe. Rick told Wittchow they've yet to find an option that works, but nonetheless, Katrina still loved the experience of simply attending games.
After talking with Rick, Wittchow began to ask around, going to teammates and team staffers. Was this something we could help with, he wondered? Would a few teammates be interested in pitching in?
The idea picked up steam. McRobbie, now a close friend of the family, played middle man, helping answer some questions. Then ownership caught wind. A member of the Antonacci family - the owners of USA Hauling and have an ownership stake in the Thunderbirds - dealt with eye trouble in the past, too. The issue hit close to home.
Last month, the King's - Katrina and Rick - and McRobbie trekked to Boston for a fitting. They thought the team may be able to help out, giving her a chance to rent the glasses and see a few home games with them. The glasses (Katrina calls them goggles) arrived last Wednesday.
The team invited her to try them out at a practice to get used to them. It's an intricate set-up: The eSight glasses look like slender virtual reality goggles. They're controlled by a battery-powered hand-held device. Users can zoom in and out, and learn how to toggle between auto and manual focus. The glasses software allows those who are legally blind to see at a reasonably effective rate.
So when Katrina arrived Wednesday, she thought it was just for a test-run.
But then Wittchow came up to her.
"He said 'I have a surprise for you,'" Katrina said, "and I said 'What's up?'"
He then told her the glasses were hers.
Not to rent.
The Antonacci Foundation had stepped in, footing the roughly $10,000 bill to purchase the glasses. The Thunderbirds introduced Katrina, glasses in hand, on the ice prior to Saturday night's game, alongside Wittchow, who won the Jim Denver "Good Guy" award.
"They made me a part of them," Katrina said of the Thunderbirds.
Katrina and Rick sat in special concourse seating Saturday night, a stone's throw away from their normal seats. They were directly across from the Thunderbirds bench again, though, and Wittchow said Saturday night he could look up and spot Katrina during the game.
She had a blast, locked in from the start, wearing a blue Thunderbirds jersey watching the puck zip around the rink. About the only time she didn't watch the game was when other fans - and a few media members - stopped by to chat.
Her father Rick was right beside her.
"It's the one thing I always want to tell people," Rick said.
"We take so much for granted. And for Katrina to see something for the first time? You just don't realize how lucky we are to have our sight and the things we have in life. It's a simple thing that she gets so excited for. It just amazes me that she doesn't see that. So this is now going to bring more amazement. I can't wait to take her for her first car ride on the glasses."
Even before the glasses, Katrina always dreamed of one day visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The King's are finally planning a trip. The glasses, Rick said, will make it even better.
And as he finishes re-telling Katrina's story, his eyes redden and well up. Tears form, and he can't finish his thought without choking up as they stream down his face.
For so long, he looked on, carefully watching the prices of goggles and keeping tabs on the latest updates in technology. It always seemed like a dream - more fantasy than reality.
Now that's no longer the case.
"Even still now, I have these tears and I have to wipe them away," he said.
"It's moving to know somebody cared this much. That's what it is. Somebody cared that much to make it possible to make her live a little bit better of a life than she did before."