Kelly Serbu was toughness distilled. You can see it in the scrapbook photos and clips lifted from old videotape. On the bench, he was just waiting for the coach to tap his shoulder. When he finally got that signal, he didn’t need words, not even a number. He’d just hop over the boards and skate directly into the heavy weather, in search of the vortex. On all his teams in Cole Harbour and Halifax, all the way up to Jr. A, he was the guy you didn’t want to mess with and the guy who wasn’t about to let you mess with his teammates. When matters escalated — a raised elbow, a loose slash — he arrived as if by appointment and bearing the unwritten but wholly understood rules of etiquette and engagement. He entered into contracts signed with glares and nods at faceoff. Gloves dropped and then instinct, fury, flurry, all a blur, but no fear in the mix, none at all.
Serbu was a utility guy, a fourth-liner who might get moved up to the first line. Depending on the assignment, he was either going to get in a fight in the first period or a fight in the third. He came by his edge honestly. He had first boxed in a gym in grade school. His father was in the military and so he had the Type-A gene and role model. He had his teammates’ backs. No one was going to get left behind.
He never imagined professional hockey in his future. As tough guys are inclined to be, he was a realist. Illusions get dropped with the gloves. He had thoughts about playing college hockey — maybe — maybe a senior league after that. He understood, though, he was never going to play in bigger games than he would that spring with his Halifax Jr. A team. They had a shot at nationals, the Centennial Cup, representing the Maritimes.
He had a secret, too. Mostly a secret, anyhow; just a couple people knew. A clue, a hint: He had been the guy who made the rounds, picking up teammates in his old rust-bucket and driving them to the rink; and then, one day, mid-season, he lost his license and took the bus or counted on rides.
The secret was undeniable, unavoidable, beyond his control: He was going blind. This he had been told. This he had tried to steel himself for. He opened up to a couple of teammates. They were shocked. They saw no telltale signs. They couldn’t quite process it when he told them the specialists’ diagnosis: he’d be legally blind by age 40. In actuality, Kelly Serbu, age 18, was losing his sight faster than he knew. He would be legally blind by the season’s end, but improbably — no, impossibly — blindness was something that he played right through.
Could it be that Sidney Crosby is only the second-most amazing hockey story from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia? Even Crosby’s uncle, Rob Forbes, would vouch for it. “Kelly is the finest man I know,” Forbes says. “I love him. He inspires me so much.” Adds Serbu’s friend and former teammate Tom Hunter: “The sort of adversity that Kelly [faced] would have set most people back, understandably, but he faced it head on and would not be denied.” And teacher Shawn Dale, a member of Canada’s national blind-hockey team: “I’ve been humbled by what many people have accomplished in life [with vision loss] but none more than Kelly.” Jim Bottomley, Serbu’s coach in Jr. A, called him “a heart-and-soul player” but in the arena, words like this get tossed around so liberally they’re diluted, if they don’t lose meaning entirely.
It’s easy to understand how people would be inspired by Serbu but just about impossible to divine how he did the things that inspired them. The odds against any young person making it as far as Jr. A are long, and to a national-championship tournament that much longer still. The baseline, the all-things-being-equal: They might bump up against the ceiling of their talent. The complications, the bad bounces both literal and figurative: Circumstances might work against them; myriad challenges might stand in the way. The odds of Serbu’s vision loss were one chance in 10,000. The odds of a legally blind kid playing Jr. A hockey are exponentially greater than that. And beyond that, almost everybody, his teammates included, had no idea, begging the question: How could they not see that he could not see?
In his first year at Saint Mary’s University, Serbu could sit in the back of class and read every word on the blackboard; he wore contact lenses but with that necessary correction the world was crystal clear. When second year started, however, he again took a seat in the back of the class but this time couldn’t make out a word. It was a nuisance more than a worry. Reading words on the page was much more of a problem — it seemed like there was a fog around each letter. School wasn’t going that well and he was dropping classes, which would land him on academic probation. He tried to make sense of this sudden change. He had worn glasses or contacts since he was in high school. Applying Occam’s Razor, he assumed he had a bad prescription. Is No. 1 or No. 2 clearer? Different prescriptions weren’t improvements. He made appointments with specialists who struggled to come up with a cause. They went through his family history and he underwent a variety of exams and tests.
All this played out over a few months while Serbu played his second season of Tier II junior hockey with the Halifax Jr. Canadians. Any blurriness hadn’t affected his play, not that he could tell at least. He didn’t even mention it to coaches or teammates, not even the guys he would pick up in that old rust-bucket and drive to practice.
In mid-season, Serbu went with his mother to an appointment with an ophthalmologist who had no good news. They were kept waiting for an hour and a half, his mother growing more anxious by the passing minute. Finally, the specialist brought them into the office. “What I remember was that he was very cold, the way that he gave me the diagnosis,” Serbu says. “He told me, ‘You have Stargardt, a genetic disease, an incurable degeneration of the maculas, the centre of your retinas. You will be legally blind by the age of 40.’ He told us that my loss of vision could be gradual or it could happen fast — that part wasn’t predictable. But the end point, legal blindness, that was certain. My mother was crying and I sat there, saying, ‘Ooo-oo-o-kay…’”
Serbu takes a deep breath for effect, re-enacting the moment.
“’Now what do I do?’ I didn’t even know what legal blindness meant.”
In Canada, people are designated as legally blind if they have 20/200 vision or less in their strongest eye. Someone with 20/200 vision has to be within 20 feet to see what someone with normal vision sees at a distance of 200.
The diagnosis served as a call to action and forced him to take stock of his life. “I was shocked by it but I’m not a believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason,” Serbu says. “My parents were big on the philosophy that you just have to deal with the cards you’ve been dealt — things just happen and you don’t just sulk about it. I understood that I’m not going to be able to drive, so I’m going to lose a lot of independence that way. And I understood that I’m going to have to get serious about school — being legally blind I’m not going to be able to even pump gas if I don’t get a good education.”
Serbu says today that he had been “a bit depressed” before getting that appointment with the ophthalmologist, because of his frustrations with school. Hockey had helped him get through that period. The game presented no greater risk to his condition — his vision wasn’t going to get worse by playing. “I had to think about my long-term future, yes, but I didn’t want [the condition] to keep me from doing things that I loved. To that point, Stargardt had no impact on my game. I wasn’t about to give up playing hockey. I just kept it to myself. I didn’t tell the coaches or the guys on the team. I didn’t want it to become a thing.”
Hunter, Serbu’s best friend on the team, was the first to pick up on it, although it had nothing to do with what played out on the ice. Hunter lived about a half-hour from Cole Harbour and Serbu would frequently drive over to his house. Those visits came to an abrupt stop. “I wondered about him not driving to practice and looking a bit down,” Hunter says. “When I asked him about it, he told me why he had to give up his license.”
Hunter kept his buddy’s condition in confidence for the rest of the season. For his part, Serbu didn’t want to call any attention to himself, didn’t want to have to keep on explaining it to people, and definitely didn’t want it out there, known to players on other teams. “He was always a glue guy, the team guy … it was never about him,” Hunter says. The Canadians won their league championship, then the regionals and wound up going all the way to the Centennial Cup, the Tier II national championships where they lost to the host team Sudbury in the semi-finals. It was a tough way to end their season but made even tougher when they had to watch the Vernon Lakers, a team they’d beat 8-3 in the opening round, hoist the trophy at the end of the tournament. The Canadians’ only consolation was that they had returning talent and were likely going to be a stronger team the next season.
A few weeks after the Centennial Cup, Serbu went for an assessment at the Halifax office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) — which happened to be across Almon Street from his team’s home arena. Though he had been preparing himself for the certainty of legal blindness by the age of 40, he was unprepared for the results of his exam. “I remember reading the eye chart,” he says. “I hadn’t had tests for a while but vision loss was way faster than we knew. It was literally like a light switch. At the end, the guy who administered the test said to me, ‘I’m sorry to inform you, you’re legally blind.’”
Yes, he had played Tier II junior hockey through legal blindness.
Okay, let’s pause. At this point, you’re asking: How? Perhaps even: HOW?
Think of the ways scouts evaluate players. In the category of intangibles, two words always surface: vision and instinct. To some, they’re interchangeable concepts. To say that Serbu played on instinct alone, though, wouldn’t be fair, either literally or figuratively. Serbu explains: “Stargardt just affects my central vision, but it doesn’t affect my peripheral vision. I see someone with the puck on the wing out of the corner of my eye, but if I’m going down the ice, I can’t read signs, can’t read the numbers and the score. If I’m in the penalty box and the coach is waving, I have to have someone telling me whether he’s waving for me to come to the bench or stay out there. But I had great coaches along the way. I had been taught where to go and what to do on the ice. I go to the front of the net and bang away.”
Serbu could see the game on the periphery and visualize the rest, where he had to go, where others should be. He had to be hyper-aware, never losing track of who was on the ice with him, where his defensive assignment was at any given time. Said his coach, Jim Bottomley: “He was always a smart player — a high hockey IQ. He knew where to go on the ice … where he could be effective and help. If you didn’t know he was legally blind watching a game, you’d have no way of knowing. I was coaching him and I didn’t know until I was told.”
Serbu only let Bottomley in on his secret when he came back for his last season with the team, which changed names that fall to the Mooseheads. Serbu was adapting as he played. He started using a stick with a bigger blade, giving him a better chance at controlling passes. He told teammates not to saucer the puck to him — those were the toughest passes for him to pick up. That year turned into a season of plagues for Serbu, though none of them had anything to do with his loss of vision, just the usual occupational hazards, the workplace bumps and breaks that visit players unafraid to put themselves in harm’s way.
It started auspiciously: Serbu scored on the first shift of the Mooseheads’ first regular-season game in Amherstburg. But a few minutes later, a bit of miscommunication on the bench would wind up putting Serbu on the sidelines. Bottomley leaned over Serbu’s shoulder and said: “Don’t fight that guy.” Maybe it was the noise of the crowd, maybe it was teammates shouting beside him, but Serbu only made out the last three words, with “that guy” being, as he remembers it, “some big steroid monster who had come over from the OHL.” Serbu wound up being tossed out of the game but not before he suffered a broken nose. “Exploded, blood everywhere,” he says. Then, a month or so later, a worse injury. “It was an innocent play, just on our power play, a bit of a bump, that broke my arm right through,” Serbu says. “I still have the plate in there.” That winter the Mooseheads were a powerhouse in the Tier II ranks, seemingly a sure bet to regain the provincial league title and return to the Centennial Cup, but Serbu was out of the lineup more than he was on the ice.
Time on the sidelines is never fun, especially in the junior ranks where players are ever on the clock — Serbu’s last season of eligibility was ticking down. He had always been realistic about his place in the game. His vision loss hadn’t changed how he played but it had changed him away from the rink. He poured himself into his schoolwork, understanding that if he wanted to graduate with his class and go to graduate school, he was going to have to spend hundreds more hours than the average sighted student hitting the books. Though a Tier II player might be able to make the jump to Canadian university hockey, he couldn’t manage playing for the varsity team along with a full course load and vision loss. Uninterested in sacrificing his educational and career ambitions, he believed that his last year of junior represented his last, best shot at playing hockey at an elite level.
Serbu’s frustration at not being able to play was compounded just before his scheduled return to the lineup in March when he became what he had hoped to avoid: a story. How it got out he still doesn’t know — everyone on the team knew tipping off a reporter was no favour to him. First the Halifax Chronicle-Herald picked up on it and came knocking. “LEGALLY BLIND BY THE TIME I’M 40,” the headline read, with the first two words in 48-point type. Serbu slow-played his condition — while he laid bare what Stargardt holds in store for those afflicted, he held back how advanced his vision loss already was. “Basically, it means my eyes are deteriorating,” he said.
When he finally did get back in the lineup, it took him little time to round into form. There was little doubt that the Mooseheads were going to roll through the Nova Scotia teams — they won playoff games by double digits and in one newspaper account an opposing coach lamented the fact that his own players asked him not to send them out on the ice. Serbu picked up a goal here and there, playing his usual safety-last game, setting up in front of the net and screening the goalie so neither of them could see the shot from the point.
In the seventh and deciding game of the regional final at the Halifax Forum, with a trip to the Centennial Cup on the line, the Canadians beat the Charlottetown Abbies 7–4. Serbu didn’t figure in the scoring but he made a big contribution, dropping the gloves with future NHLer David Ling, who turned his stick upside down and pretended it was a white cane as he left the ice. The last laugh, though, was Serbu’s as Ling, one of the Abbies’ best scoring threats, was tossed from the game. These days, for good or ill, enforcers are an endangered species and their contributions have been minimized if not dismissed outright. But this was 1992; a different set of values was in place. Says Tom Hunter: “Even before anyone knew about his vision loss we rallied around him a lot of times. After [the Ling fight], though, it went to another level. Nobody on our team got more respect in the room … the way he stuck up for teammates. When we needed something done, when Jim [Bottomley] tapped him on the shoulder, he’d go. He was brave, fearless … he had to be just to get out there at all.”
When the Halifax Mooseheads made it to the Centennial Cup, this time in Winnipeg, Serbu was once again a story and none too pleased about the idea. He told a local newspaper reporter that he had answered “tons and tons” of questions about Stargardt and playing hockey with vision impairment. You could read between the lines that he was tired of it. “It doesn’t affect me that much,” he said. But with no more than five games left in their season, the Mooseheads’ coach spilled on what Serbu had meant to the team. “The work he puts in and the sacrifices he made definitely picks the other guys up,” Jim Bottomley told Ed Tait of the Winnipeg Sun. “One of the things we talked about before this tournament … was that this could be the last time this kid ever plays hockey. We want to [win the championship] not only for ourselves but for Kelly.”
The tournament started off as if scripted: Serbu scored three goals in the Mooseheads first two games in the round-robin section. But again, the team made it only as far as the semi-final, where it was knocked off by the Thunder Bay Flyers, the eventual champions and a team that Halifax had beaten 9–3 in the opening round.
Though he had been telling everybody that this was the end of his competitive hockey career, he wound up being drafted by the senior team in Bridgewater. “I was playing for Bridgewater at the time,” says Rob Forbes, who was an assistant coach for Halifax in Serbu’s first Tier II season. “We took him with our first pick. He was one of those guys who had so many positives … a great skill set, fearless, played hard, played smart. If there was a chance for him to play, we wanted him to play for us.”
With a lot of support from the CNIB, Serbu turned around his academic life. He left academic probation in his wake and managed not only to graduate but also on time with his class. He put in applications for graduate studies and received letters of acceptance from teachers college and Dalhousie’s law school on the same day. Without much deliberation, he opted for the latter with the idea of becoming a criminal lawyer. “I knew in that sort of practice I could work for myself and that was really important to me,” he says.
Law school is a heavy workload, but Serbu was undaunted and even matter-of-fact about the challenges ahead. “The extra hours you have to put in [with sight loss] are a pain in the ass but really it was easy once I made that decision,” he says. “Once you’re focused, things get easier. If you’re doing something you really want to do, you don’t mind the work.”
Just as he wanted to be a hockey player and not the blind hockey player, so too did Serbu want to be a lawyer and not the blind lawyer. Just as he wanted no special considerations in the arena, he wanted to blend in when he walked into court. He more than pulled off that goal. A few Halifax police officers who were cross-examined by Serbu didn’t put it together that he had any sort of vision loss, at least the first few times they testified in trials he worked. The same goes for presiding judges. Serbu wasn’t above theatrics — sometimes when questioning a witness he’d take a dramatic pause while “referring” to notes he couldn’t see. Mostly, though, he just passes for sighted; any signs of his vision loss being so inconspicuous as to be non-existent. Said Serbu’s friend Josh Arnold, a judge on the Nova Scotia Supreme Court: “One lawyer I know was standing in the courthouse waiting to be called and saw Kelly through the crowd and waved — I’d introduced him to Kelly before and they had crossed paths a few times over the years. The next time I saw this lawyer he said, ‘Your friend there is pretty stuck up.’ I had to tell him that Kelly was blind. [The other lawyer] just didn’t know what to say. Kelly’s as far as you can get from [stuck up]. He’s the most social and positive guy you can find. The next time they were in the courthouse, of course, Kelly picks him out by the sound of his voice and strikes up a conversation with him.”
Through law school and in the years of his practice, Serbu didn’t completely hang up his skates — when time constraints allowed, he played “gentlemen’s hockey” as they’re wont to call it in the Maritimes right alongside sighted players. He also coached the Auburn High School team for one season; and, when he married and had kids, he coached their teams in the Cole Harbour Minor Hockey Association for eight years.
A little more than 10 years ago, Serbu’s legal career took a sharp turn. The secretariat overseeing claims made to the Indian Residential Schools Agreement was looking for an adjudicator, a lawyer to assess the cases of Indigenous Canadians who were separated from their families and endured trauma and abuse in the residential-school system. The job had an emotional draw for Serbu — his father is Romanian, his mother Métis. Since 2008, Serbu’s practice has been mostly dedicated to assessing claims in settled class actions, first with the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, then with the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and currently with women who were harassed and wrongfully denied opportunities as RCMP officers. The work has taken him across Canada and to many remote communities — it’s given him a chance to engage in a bit of hockey tourism, visiting rinks where Jonathan Cheechoo skated in Moose Factory and Chris Pronger took the ice in Dryden. And with so much of the case load tied to federal government settlements, Serbu moved his practice, at least for a time, from Halifax to Ottawa.
It seemed like Serbu’s remaining ties to hockey would be as a fan and recreational player, and that his second trip to the Centennial Cup with the Mooseheads would represent the endpoint of his competitive career. But in the summer of 2015, Serbu got a call from Peter Parsons, a blind athlete in Halifax. “It was really out of the blue, but Peter asked me if it would be okay if he put me in touch with Matt Morrow, the executive director of the national blind hockey association,” Serbu says. “I didn’t even know that there was anything like that out there. That led to me meeting with Matt when I was out in Vancouver for a hearing. We were having a few beers and they were explaining what blind hockey is — how teams are balanced, no unfair advantages with one team being more sighted than the other. They told me how they wanted to build a national program and push the development of international teams, to get status in the Winter Paralympics. I had no idea all this was going on. Then at the end of the night, they said: ‘You know what … we think you’re going to be the best blind hockey player in the world.’”
It’s safe to say that back in the early ’90s Kelly Serbu was the best legally blind hockey player in the world and, to that point, the only one to play for a national Jr. A championship. But in March 2016, he was one of more than a couple dozen legally blind players on the ice at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, the former Maple Leaf Gardens. The game they played that day was unlike any in that building’s history: featuring a hollow steel puck, five-and-a-half inches wide, containing eight ball-bearings that make a distinct rattle; nets three feet high to encourage players to keep the puck down, so that it can be more easily tracked aurally; players wearing the helmets that designate by colour their categories of vision loss, so officials can ensure competitive balance. If the pace of the game was slower than a rec-league session, the biggest factor was not skating ability but rather the puck, which is designed to allow players to find and track it with limited sight.
While Matt Morrow had tried to give Serbu a good idea of what to expect at the select series, he was still taken off-guard. “I knew there’d be some guys who struggled to skate but others could play,” he says. “And it was hockey, really so competitive. I was getting banged around, guys hitting you ‘accidentally on purpose.’”
You might presume that you’d have trouble rounding up enough legally blind players to get a pick-up game going, but there’s a much deeper pool than you likely know. According to the CNIB, 500,000 Canadians are either blind or partially sighted — a community as large as Halifax and Regina combined. Further, more than five million Canadians have eye diseases and conditions that put them at significant risk of vision loss or blindness. All of this is to say that odds were pretty good Serbu wasn’t the only person in the country who played in bantam and midget at AA or AAA before losing their sight. As it turned out, he isn’t even the only one at Canadian Blind Hockey’s select camps who played junior while legally blind.
Serbu paid his way to Toronto and arrived in game shape — he hits the gym and the treadmill hard and plays weekly games with sighted players. Was he the best player at the first selection series? Maybe. He has worn the ‘C’ when Canadian teams have played teams of American blind players the last couple of years, but he’ll admit that he wasn’t the most skilled player on the ice when the select series returned to Toronto’s Mattamy Centre in March. “This farm kid from Alberta has come out the last two years and he’s the future of the program,” Serbu says. “He had Stargardt just like me and played Jr. B while he was already legally blind. The difference is that he was an offensive guy with a great stick, whereas I played my role.”
This kid, Jason Yuha, is in fact 27 and he’s a business school grad from the University of Alberta, not a hayseed by any stretch. Yuha was diagnosed with Stargardt when he was six years old — his older sister has the condition as well, so physicians were on the lookout early — and he grew up skating on a flooded sheet on the family farm in Rosalind, Alta. He played baseball and basketball while in grade school but by high school his vision loss made him drop those sports and concentrate on hockey. Yuha wound up playing a couple of seasons with the Killam Jr. B Wheat Kings. In fact, he was a centre and among the leading scorers on the team. Yuha’s not so quietly competitive with Serbu, taking a jab about him “being 47, really getting up there.” But he also recognizes Serbu’s role not just as a leader for the Canadian Blind Hockey team but as a champion of the game and sports for the blind. “Kelly has the gift of gab and great social skills,” Yuha says. “He knows that with all he’s done in his life he can be a great role model, not just for the team but for anyone in the blind community. And he’s comfortable doing that.”
Back when Kelly Serbu was in college and skating in the Centennial Cup, he had a secret he wanted to keep. And once it got out, he was reluctant to have it turn him into a story. After all, if someone told you a legally blind player is fighting tough guys and scoring goals in a national championship tournament, you wouldn’t have to be a hardened skeptic to think: I’ll believe it when I see it.
The message that Serbu’s imparting to teammates in Canadian Blind Hockey’s program: If you can’t always see it, you have to believe.
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