You would be hard-pressed to find a position in sports that requires better vision than an ice hockey goalie.
Goalies need the peripheral vision of a quarterback, the depth perception of a sharpshooting guard, and the eye motility of a batter following a fastball from the hand of a pitcher. Tracking and throwing your body in front of a frozen, one-inch-thick black puck launched by a slapshot through crowds of players is no easy feat.
And goalies do it all while wearing skates with blades an eighth of an inch wide on ice.
Or if you are Cole Peterson, you do it all with only one eye.
“You could definitely say I’m weird when it comes to goalies,” Peterson said. “You probably wouldn’t expect a goalie to be half blind, but here I am.”
Peterson, 16, plays pick-up hockey in Omaha as a goaltender despite missing half his vision. He lost his right eye in a sledding accident when he was only 8-years-old.
Peterson’s sled slid off course toward a group of small trees. He jumped off to slow down and avoid a crash, but his eye was scraped by a loose branch, which caused irreparable damage to his cornea and retina. Following several unsuccessful surgery attempts to retain as much vision as possible, Peterson was left without any vision in his right eye.
“It was such a freak accident and one of the saddest days,” Cole’s mother, Carly, said. “Hockey was the last thing on our minds. We needed to make sure he was going to be okay.”
In Peterson’s mind though, the focus was getting back on the ice as soon as possible. Prior to the accident, hockey consumed his daily life, and he claims it is all he thinks about. Peterson can credit his parents for that interest in the sport, but not in the most conventional way.
His parents had no previous experience or knowledge of hockey as both grew up in Wyoming, a state with no major professional or collegiate teams. The couple only gained interest when they attended the University of Nebraska-Omaha together in the late 1990s when the Mavericks launched their men’s hockey program at the Division I level.
“We started going to some games together just for something to do in college because it was cheap,” Cole’s father, Tim, said. “It turned out that hockey was pretty cool to watch, and we became big fans.”
They purchased a pair of season tickets for the Mavericks after graduating college and ultimately added another ticket to the plan after Cole was born. Their tickets were right along the glass near the Maverick net, giving him the perfect opportunity to study the goalies during every game the family attended.
“After we took him to some games, it didn’t take long for him to start imitating the goalies at home, sliding around on our hardwood floor and making saves,” Tim said.
Cole’s parents said they knew it was inevitable he would trade the hardwood for the ice, so they enrolled him in skating lessons when he was just 4-years-old and began researching introduction to hockey programs in the area.
“When I first started playing, they always made me play out as a skater and we’d take turns playing goalie for games, but deep down I just really wanted to play goalie always,” Cole said. “I think I asked my coaches just about every game if I could put the pads on.”
He continued to go to UNO games with his parents and took the moves of the collegiate goalies to his games. Once he turned 7, Cole got his wish to man the net every game.
A local travel team composed of first and second grade-aged hockey players needed a full-time goalie to join the squad for the upcoming season. Tim got a phone call asking if Cole would want to make the jump up to the travel team.
“I mean, all it took was telling him he’d be able to play goalie every game,” Tim said with a laugh. “You really think he was going to turn that down?”
The team traveled to three tournaments around the region and finished third in the Midwest Hockey League. Cole was given the Outstanding Goalie Award at the final tournament of the season.
“I remember after all the surgeries I was just so bored,” Cole said. “My parents and the doctors just kept telling me I wasn’t allowed to play hockey or baseball or do anything fun.”
Cole went through forms of physical therapy to train his left eye how to cope with a damaged depth perception and limited peripheral vision. He visited a specialist in ocular rehabilitation three times per week while transitioning back to school slowly.
Doctors said it was dangerous for Cole to engage in any activity that required a quick reaction.
Cole’s team continued to support him, with players and coaches regularly visiting him to keep his spirits high, but his impatience grew by the day. His parents said that telling an 8-year-old boy he could not play sports with his friends was one of the toughest parts of Cole’s recovery process.
“It just broke my heart,” Carly said. We could see how badly he wanted to go out and play and be a kid, but the doctors just kept saying for months that he needs to avoid contact and sports while his eye recovered.”
After five months of rehabilitation, Cole got the news he was longing for just in time for the next hockey season—he was allowed to resume playing sports.
But it was not an easy return.
“I sucked,” Cole said.
His first couple of times on the ice were difficult, Cole said, but it is hard to expect an 8-year-old boy who lost an eye and had not been on skates in months to perform at a high level.
Cole said tracking shots fired at his right side was the biggest adjustment. He found himself naturally standing on the right side of the net to compensate, but that left him out of position and exposed the left side of the net.
He used one of his favorite training drills from physical therapy to track shots to the right side better so he could stay in better position. Almost every night in the first month of the season, Tim stood behind him and throw tennis balls at a wall they were both facing. Cole would try to catch the ricochet with his right hand, continually repeating the drill
“Thankfully he got pretty good at it and we didn’t need to practice much after a few weeks,” Tim joked. “I probably would’ve needed Tommy John if we went much longer.”
His team continued to believe in him as their netminder despite the slow start. Their decision paid off.
It did not take long before Cole returned to form as the goalie he was prior to the accident. The work ethic it took to get back on the ice in the first place carried him through the process of learning how to play goalie again.
“A lot of people probably would have given up after some of those bad first practices and games or just taken a step back, but Cole was unphased,” Carly said.
Cole and his team went on to finish second in the Midwest Hockey League that season.
His parents said the successful season was symbolic of the triumph over everything Cole had gone through.
“I think I just learned a lot about patience and being tough,” Cole said. “I’m good at moving on from things and taking on the next challenge.”
His parents are just proud that he does not let his disability get in the way of being a normal kid. Cole still plays hockey for fun and excels academically while ignoring anything that tries to slow him down.
“I’m just a goalie,” Cole said. “There’s nothing more than that.”
It would be foolish to think of him as anything else. Cole is just a goalie—a resilient one.