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Blind hockey players need loud and strong pucks. How SLU engineers are building better ones

 Colton Doherty, a first-year master’s student in mechanical engineering, runs a current through a piezo crystal plate
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Colton Doherty, a first-year master’s student in mechanical engineering, runs a current through a piezo crystal plate that could be used to produce sound last month at St. Louis University’s Collaborative Haptics, Robotics, and Mechatronics Lab. Doherty is a researcher who has worked on designing a hockey puck for the visually impaired.

One of the first things you notice when you drop in on the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club practice in Maryland Heights is that it’s loud. Really loud.

The practice sounds like a dissonant handbell choir or someone clumsily putting away pots and pans. The noise comes from the puck the team uses, a squat black cylinder that measures 5 inches across.

“It’s made of metal and has ball bearings in it because it’s hollow, and it makes a really loud rattling sound,” said Sean Borah, the team’s captain and goalie.

The noisy puck — used by blind hockey players for decades — is one of the few modifications used in the sport.

“A lot of people that come into the rink don’t ask what game we're playing,” Borah said. “They ask, why is that puck making noise? The puck makes noise because we can't see it!”

The rattling puck helps blind hockey players locate it on the ice. But some say the decades-old equipment is long overdue for an update.

Borah and other players are working with engineers at St. Louis University to create and test a better hockey puck for blind players — a deceptively complicated engineering problem.

A growing sport

The St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club is one of only 17 teams in the United States. Blind players have taken to the ice in Canada since the 1970s, and the sport was first played in the U.S. in 2014.

The St. Louis club was formed in 2017. It holds practices at the Centene Community Ice Center in St. Louis County.

The St. Louis club is open to people of all ages and genders with different visual impairments. Unlike beepball and other sports that require players to be blindfolded, players compete with their existing visual ability, except for goalies, who are blindfolded to level the playing field between two teams.

“We are able to use the vision that we have,” Borah said. “The forwards, being that they skate the most, usually have the most vision. Defensemen usually have a little bit less vision.”

The goal for blind hockey is shorter to keep the puck on the ice and audible to players. Teams also have to complete a pass in the attacking half of the rink before scoring, which gives low-vision players more opportunities to audibly track the puck.

Puck problems

The biggest difference between sighted and blind hockey is that distinctive, rattling puck, which has been used by players for decades.

“Volume has a lot to do with it. That kind of gives you a sense of everything,” said defenseman Seyoon Choi. “The direction, the speed that it's moving.”

But there are two big issues with the puck.

First, a blind puck is way less durable than the smaller vulcanized rubber ones used by sighted players. Within hours of play, the metal puck starts to look like a crushed tin can, said Josh Fields, a defenseman on the team.

“If you go to a tournament, you'll see they use a fresh puck for every single game,” he said. “Because by the end of that, it's either going to be busted open, and the ball bearings are going to come out, or it’s going to be to the point of dented where you can't even use it.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A prototype hockey puck for the visually impaired that emits white noise and was designed by former student Triston Cooper and a traditional hockey puck in the background last month at St. Louis University.

With the inexpensive pucks used in sighted hockey, that’s no big deal — multiple pucks are often used in a regulation NHL game. But a specialty blind hockey puck costs 20 to 30 times more than a rubber one.

“So [we’re] spending the 60 bucks every time to get a puck that's going to be used probably six or seven ice times and a practice, with minimal use,” Fields said. “We need a better solution for that to make a better lasting puck, so it's more inclusive and able to be used.”

The second big problem: The puck goes silent when it stops moving.

“The biggest limitation as someone who's near totally blind was the fact that once that puck stops moving, nobody can find it,” said Choi, a student at St. Louis University.

“There’s almost like a stall when the puck stops moving,” he said. “And I wish it was as easy as just putting a beeper on in the puck. But unfortunately, with the current technology and current design, it just cannot withstand the magnitude of force, the shock, the cold temperature of the ice.”

Building a better puck

Choi and others are working in SLU’s CHROME lab, which partners with people with disabilities to develop adaptive tech.

He’s collaborating with Jenna Gorlewicz, a mechanical engineering associate professor and director of the lab, and Colton Doherty, a graduate mechanical engineering student.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Colton Doherty, a first-year master’s student in mechanical engineering, holds a prototype of a hockey pick for the visually impaired while standing next to Dr. Jenna L. Gorlewicz, the lab director, last month at St. Louis University's Collaborative Haptics, Robotics, and Mechatronics Lab.

Engineers are tackling durability of the existing puck first.

“The puck is like an elegant musical instrument, right?” Gorlewicz said. “But anything you add to it changes the acoustic profile. And we don't want to do that because the acoustic profile is the best thing about this current puck.”

The scientists figured out a cheap solution — a lightweight, 3D printed neon orange ring that fits around the sides of the puck like a dog collar to keep it from getting dented.

But it needs adjusting: Anything added to the puck affects how the puck slides across the ice and dampens the sound of the ball bearings.

The St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club players have tested the collared puck on the ice. The scientists also have a specialty ramp that they drop the puck down to observe how durable it is.

The engineers estimate the collar could be integrated into regular play within a year.

Figuring out how to make a puck make noise when it’s standing still is much more complicated, Gorlewicz said.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tools are hung on the wall last month at St. Louis University's Collaborative Haptics, Robotics, and Mechatronics Lab.

“The puck has to be really loud in order to be heard,” she said. “And then in thinking about an electronic puck, this is in a very small package. And electronics tend to not do well in harsh environments, meaning water and ice, and it's going to get hit really hard.”

At a workbench in a backroom packed floor to ceiling with wires, bolts and other electrical supplies, the lab’s team showed off what it's been working on: an electronic puck that makes a pleasant white noise sound similar to radio static.

The team could also make a mechanical solution, a device attached to the 3D printed cage, Doherty said. It could sense when the puck has slowed down and start a tapping mechanism that would get the ball bearings rattling again.

“It’s kind of adopted from how they actually work with these players in practice,” he said. “If a puck gets lost by a completely blind player, a volunteer or a player with a little bit more vision will actually go up to the puck and hit on top of that with their stick. And it makes a noise kind of like that.”

It could be years before that puck is ready for play. But players said it’s going to be worth the wait.

“I think it's going to take one step at a time,” Choi said. “I think we're taking a lot of small steps, small baby steps to get to where we want to be.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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