SAN MARCOS, Calif. — Imagine being a teenager, awash in the high school drama of school and sports and crushes and cell phones and everything that consumes your thoughts when the world’s spring-time fresh with unwritten chapters galore.
Then consider the call Blake Steinecke and his mother, Laurie, received that changed absolutely everything.
The then-junior at San Marcos High School had noticed subtle changes in his vision during a family “stay-cation” in the Gaslamp Quarter. Test after test after test, from MRIs to a spinal tap, sorted through a litany of dark possibilities, from multiple sclerosis to a brain tumor.
When Steinecke and his mother were home over the lunch hour one day in October 2015, the phone rang. A doctor explained they had identified the mysterious culprit, a rare genetic disorder known as LHON — Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. No treatment. No cure.
In a blink, thoughts about video games and after-school hangouts faded. Steinecke would become legally blind. It simply was a matter of when. In less than eight months, his vision eroded from 20-15 — better than the average person — to 20-800.
“I remember him sitting on the couch,” Laurie said. “His first line, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘It could be worse. I could not be a Christian.’ ”
The fact Steinecke, 19, surfs with a partner who yells out the approaching waves, mountain bikes with a guide-rider who barks “JUMP” through a Bluetooth connection, refused to shy away from an AP calculus class and instead enlisted a teacher to read the tests to him, illustrates a different sense of vision.
When the USA Blind Hockey Team selected Steinecke to represent his country, competing this weekend against Canada in the second game of a series that will be played at the old home of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, it showed a path without limits.
Labeling him blind is not how someone sees Blake Steinecke. That’s not how others see him. That’s not how he sees himself.
“You might not be able to change your circumstances,” he said, “but you can change your attitude.”
There’s a section from the Bible’s Book of James, Chapter 1, verses 2-4, that caused a teenager to reconsider his wildly altered life through a spiritual perspective.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
“Being depressed, that’s the initial reaction in the moment,” said Steinecke, a second-year student at Cal State San Marcos. “There are times when there are doubts and fear and discomfort about situations, like communicating with people in school or whatever. I’m a Christian, so I know the hope that I have is in Heaven.
“There’s a verse that talks about considering the hard times pure joy. I heard that growing up. I thought, ‘I don’t know what the means, but I’m about to figure it out.’ ”
That’s the unflinching mental road map Steinecke began to draw for himself after learning about LHON, a condition resulting in the death of cells in the optic nerve that relay information from the eyes to the brain. It’s like a chain being unlinked, one failing cell at a time, as eyesight becomes hazier and more unfocused.
Steinecke has lost almost all of his central vision, a process he described as “not all black in the middle, more like it’s insanely blurry and fuzzy.” The urge to explore newly framed possibilities overpowered any thoughts of shrinking from the world or wallowing in fear and self-doubt.
“Blake got online and started to look up blind surfers and blind mountain bikers,” Laurie said. “He wasn’t woe-is-me, ever. It’s, ‘OK, here we go.’ ”
Finding a way through the maze of questions and potentially crippling uncertainty required unwavering maturity. Steinecke owned a driver’s license for a few short months, using it maybe 30 times, when he noodled about how it related to his diagnosis.
Few things are more coveted at that age, considering that a license equates to teenage independence. Steinecke voluntarily surrendered his before the state demanded it.
“It was cool to get a taste of it, but once I knew I would have vision loss in both eyes, I stopped driving, just so it wouldn’t be so hard to take away,” Steinecke said.
His mother framed it in another way.
“I equated it to when people go through chemo, they choose to shave their head rather than watching it fall out,” she said. “It’s like, I choose to get rid of it, chemo isn’t choosing it.”
You notice Blake’s mop of golden hair, managed enough to imply responsibility but wavy and wild enough to catch and ride life’s shifting winds. One of his blind hockey teammates, a lobster fisherman from Maine, nicknamed Steinecke “Haircut” because the locks allow him to recognize the left-winger before hearing his voice.
The more Steinecke talks, though, the more you actually “see” him.
Without a hint of self-pity, Steinecke explained that smiles became frustrating benchmarks of the transition between his sighted and sight-challenged lives. When you can’t see a smile, you fail to read the visual cues of how someone reacts to something you said, a gesture or a situation.
If you forget to unlock a beam on your own face, you risk giving the false impression of being too serious, too cold or too distant.
“I have to remind myself to smile,” he said. “I used to be so extroverted. Now I might walk by someone and not even recognize them. It’s tricky.”
The snapshot underscores how much there is to relearn and how many twists and turns the loss of sight piles up in front of someone.
Steinecke, however, navigates it all with a smile that would nail a job interview.
“Complain is not in his dictionary,” Laurie said.
Steinecke began playing hockey in the fifth grade, gliding between the ice and roller versions. He had a knack for the action, even as his eyesight began to elude him more than pucks did.
A recommendation letter from a high school coach for a scholarship program at Cal State San Marcos explained Steinecke’s stubborn refusal to side-step challenging situations — and his bone-deep love of the sport.
“It’s an inspiration to watch him on the rink,” the letter explained. “With his dad providing audible instructions (go to the net, back on D) from the bench, he is somehow able to compete even with extremely limited sight. The other team and coaches have no idea that he is unable to see. In fact, our players often forget. I can’t even imagine the courage and determination it takes to step out on the rink under those conditions.
“Let me be clear that this is not a token effort and Blake is not satisfied with saying, ‘Well at least I got out there.’ During our championship game … Blake somehow snagged a rebound in front of a crowded net, calmly collected the puck on his backhand and went top shelf over the goalie’s left shoulder and blocker. Up until that point, it was a tight game and this opened it up for our team to go on and win the championship.”
The cocktail of determination and age-defying maturity immediately impressed Mike Svac, the coach and general manager of the USA Blind Hockey Team.
Teams are comprised on ability, rather than age. That means the American squad includes the sexagenarian fisherman, a completely blind goalie and father in his mid-30s who went in for a routine back surgery and came out without the ability to see, and a 17-year-old.
Few, if any, outshine Steinecke.
“I’m not sure he realizes the impact he has on others,” Svac said. “He’s a role model and mentor without really trying.”
The coach walked through a story about the team’s training camp in Utica, N.Y., where players worked hard to impress and solidify spots. Steinecke came across differently.
“It’s highly competitive and guys want to prove themselves,” Svac said. “So many times, people would be so competitive that they’d undermine the competition. But he came in and embraced the whole team. It was special.”
Steinecke has started to master the intricacies of a game that institutes changes that allow sight-challenged players to adapt. The puck is bigger, thicker and more visible. Ball bearings are inserted, so it rattles and becomes trackable by sound. There must be at least one pass in the offensive zone before shots are allowed. Once a pass is completed, the referee blows a whistle to signal it’s OK to shoot.
Initially, Steinecke had no interest. A trip to a tournament in San Jose flipped the script.
“My honest first impression was, ‘No, that sounds silly. I don’t want to play some adaptive sport that the game’s changed too much,’ ” he said. “Then I was like, ‘OK, let’s check this out.’ I fell in love with it.”
The support of USA Hockey and a growing number of NHL clubs has sparked a push to add the sport at the Paralympics in 2026. Currently, only the U.S. and Canada — which has played for nearly 50 years — offer organized teams.
If more countries can be enticed, Svac said Steinecke could be wearing red, white and blue on a far bigger stage.
“I think he’d have a high probability of making the Paralympics,” Svac said. “It’s his skill and passion and what he puts into it. He’ll definitely be a strong contender in 2026.”
Laurie Steinecke explained that LHON is maternally inherited and is more likely to affect women later in their life. That means she faces the possibility of going through exactly what her son has experienced.
Without Blake, it would be a terrifying proposition. With Blake, a guiding pillar already is rooted in solid family ground.
“I could be scared, ‘Is this going to happen?’ ” she said. “But I look at his example. If he’s not complaining, I’m not complaining. He’s been amazing. He’s always been super positive. You might think he’d have this angry, mad-at-the-world thing going on, but nope.
“He’s got a very strong faith. He’s like, ‘This isn’t all there is. Everyone has something to deal with, and this is mine.’ There’s this practicality of, what good would it do to be frustrated about this?”
Some goals show up on a scoreboard. The most important and lasting ones, though, truly define the winners among us.