GLENVILLE – There are always readily available household objects to make size comparisons.
If you follow weather broadcasts, you’re probably familiar with golf ball-sized hail.
The ice hockey puck Max Shear stickhandles and shoots “is like a big tuna can,” he says.
The brain tumor that blinded him was “about the size of a good-sized peach,” his mom Holly says.
Max was 10 years old when the tumor was detected, and for a kid in the Squirt division of the Schenectady Youth Hockey Association, it was natural for him to wonder — and fear — that he wouldn’t play hockey again, once his sight became permanently impaired.
Just surviving three brain surgeries over the course of 2 1/2 months was more than enough to overcome.
But the tumor and excess cranial fluid damaged his optic nerves to the point where Max, now a 17-year-old senior at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, meets the standard of legal blindness based on under 20/200 vision that corrective lenses can’t help, since the source of the impairment is the nerves, and not his eyes themselves.
Still, the hockey puck calls.
Max discovered blind hockey, with modifications like an oversized metal puck containing ball bearings to make a rattling noise that blind players can follow. Then the U.S. Blind Hockey Team discovered Max, at tryouts in Minneapolis and Buffalo this year, and after making the team, he’ll compete in a three-game series against Team Canada in Fort Wayne, Indiana this weekend.
“Very excited to see the boys again, all my friends on the team,” he said on Tuesday, with his parents Holly and Dave also on speakerphone. “It’s going to be quite a competition.
“The head coach put out an email letting everyone who made the team know. Scrolling down the email and seeing my name on the main roster was very exciting. I didn’t quite know what to think, because I knew I was probably going to make the team at that point, and the waiting for two or three weeks was killing me. It was really just, ‘OK, I’ve made it here, now I’ve got to start getting better to play Canada.’”
Max, whose twin brother Alex is a goalie on the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake/Ballston Spa team, has been playing hockey since he was 5.
By January 2016, Max routinely was going to the doctor for various illnesses, and although he continued to play solid hockey, signs that something was wrong mounted.
Watch: BH-BL video on Max
“We finally got to the point where his teacher was telling me that ‘My student who got 100s on every single spelling test was starting to fail them,’” Holly said. “He couldn’t find things in the house and things like that.”
“I remember specifically, I think it was the first game of the year for second-year Squirt, and I had a brutal headache, which was the result of the brain tumor, it was to the point where I didn’t know if I could play the game, and I somehow went to the game and ended up scoring four goals that day,” he said.
“He threw up that morning, just like ‘The Cutting Edge,’ the movie,” said Dave, referring to the D.B. Sweeney character’s habit of vomiting before games to clear up nervousness.
Max’s condition wasn’t anxiety, though.
On the Wednesday after Memorial Day weekend of 2016, Dave took him to a pediatrician and asked for a neurological consultation, and it didn’t take long to determine that Max’s optic nerves were swollen.
That kicked off a procession of exams that included an electroencephalogram (EEG) and an MRI that Friday.
Fifteen minutes into that, the Shears were told to hustle their son straight to Albany Medical Center.
Max was scheduled for surgery that Saturday, and when his condition worsened overnight, he was on the operating table at 7 that morning.
“We sat there in the waiting room, on a Saturday, for 11 hours,” Holly said. “First ones in, basically, last ones out, waiting to see that name on the board finally come up.”
Then the medical staff had to go back in because of excessive bleeding.
“So they sawed him open from ear to ear, over the top of his head, took some parts out, and went in there and got it all out, so they sewed him back up. Then they basically unzipped what they … “ Holly said, breaking into a laugh. “We have a sense of humor about some of this stuff, because it’s either crying all the time or sense of humor.
“We chose humor.”
Max was sent to Sunnyview Rehabiltation Hospital in Schenectady for several weeks, and as luck would have it, one of his physical therapists was the sister-in-law of Colin Stevens, the starting goalie for Union College’s 2014 men’s hockey national championship team.
That led to a visit from Dutchmen players Jeff Taylor, Ryan Scarfo and Tyler Hines, who brought Max gifts that included a LEGO figurine of former Union star Shayne Gostibehere, which Max still has.
He had to go in for another brain operation that August to drain a fluid build-up.
Max had been back to skating and was well enough to serve as an honorary captain for a game during Union’s 2016-17 season, skating onto the ice during pre-game player introductions.
“We were worried, and he was fine,” Dave said. “There was one bright [spotlight], I’m thinking he’s going to overshoot [his spot] or get run over, but you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong.”
Max made the necessary adjustments at home and school to manage his life, but the question of a return to hockey still gnawed.
“That thought never really went through my mind, but it definitely went through my parents’ minds,” he said.
“It went through your mind,” Holly interjected. “I tell you this all the time. The only time you ever really complained about this whole thing was when – he has a twin brother who plays hockey, as well – and that season after he had his surgery, you said, ‘I’m not going to be able to play hockey again.’”
Enter blind hockey.
In 2019, Max started playing in a recreation league, adjusting to the accommodations and modifications that came with this new version of his sport.
Besides the extra-large metal puck, the nets are a foot shorter, teams don’t switch ends between periods so the players can maintain the rink orientation they had established and a team bringing a puck into the offensive zone has to complete one pass before they’re allowed to shoot, which is signaled by a sound from an official.
“Playing blind hockey for the first time, parts of it were a lot easier,” he said. “I could actually stand on the other side of the ice and know where the puck was, because I could hear it. But there’s a bunch of strategy things, if you don’t know what you’re doing, especially in the offensive zone, it’s kind of hard to really get anything done.
“If you don’t know how to get that first pass, you’re just going to go into the offensive zone and, I don’t know … play keepaway?” he said with a laugh.
The players in blind hockey are classified by level of impairment, and goalies are required to be completely blind to such an extent that they’re blindfolded if they have some sight.
Body-checking isn’t allowed, and the referees inevitably will have to make decisions on whether a collision was intentional or an accident.
Nobody takes slap shots – “It’s also kind of hard for them to do that, anyway,” Holly said – but if you’ve got a chance at a one-timer, fire away.
Max is the youngest player on the U.S. Team by eight months, and is still learning what he can do out on the ice. It helps to have a teammate like Kevin Brown, who has developed a method of orientation for himself by which he counts strides between various landmarks on the ice.
“It’s … different, just because I’m not always looking for the puck, a lot of times I’m listening for it,” Max said. “A lot of times the puck is out of my visual field. I can hear it. It helps that I can almost triangulate where it is using my vision and the sound of the puck.
“My friend Kevin Brown is a really interesting guy. Just talking with him, I kind of got how, ‘Oh, yeah, you count how many strides,’ but he also listens to skates. I never thought of that. Communication is a big part in blind hockey. He knows where people are by their skating.
In blind hockey, you have people who are B-3s, which is the highest visual classification. They can see pretty well. So those people communicate to Kevin in this situation, like who’s on the puck, where he is, where the puck is going.”
The U.S. Blind Hockey Team will play Canada at 5:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. on Sunday.
Max, who’s interested in social sciences and political science and perhaps will explore a pre-law track in college next year, is versatile enough to play any skater position for the U.S. Team.
“What I plan on playing like is kind of a pacesetter, winning puck battles, breaking out of the zone, increasing the speed of the game and make people think faster and sometimes make the other team make mistakes, stuff like that,” he said.
In a YouTube video about Max produced by the Burnt Hills school district titled “Inspiration on Ice: Max Shear’s Journey to the U.S. Blind Hockey Team,” he said the simple act of skating is “liberating,” since “I’m never really going to drive a car or go on a motorcycle.”
So make your own comparison. The opportunity to compete on the U.S. Blind Hockey Team this weekend is, well … big.
That’s how Max Shear sees it.
“I’m just excited for the challenge,” he said. “I’m excited to see what I can do.”