RALEIGH, NC (WNCN) – A blind die-hard Carolina Hurricanes fan in Finland has a different goal in mind: to help visually impaired refugees from the war in Ukraine.
And she’s backed by the biggest caniac of them all – analyst Tripp Tracy.
That’s just one of the many layers of an intricate, inspirational story for Laurel Wheeler.
“She doesn’t have her eyesight,” Tracy said. “And she turned it into a massive, colossal inspirational force to see the world and make a difference in the world.”
A Texan native and PhD student in Helsinki, whose need to learn Finnish quickly blossomed into a love for the hurricanes—to the point where she can differentiate the players by the sound of their individual skates – and a means by which she can help other blind refugees from war-torn Ukraine through the foundation that bears her name.
“There’s a multitude of needs,” Wheeler told CBS 17 News. “And we’re just trying to be flexible and help as many as we can really reach. And really, it’s a never-ending need.”
She started the Laurel Wheeler Foundation five years ago to help blind people in Eastern Europe by providing them with useful accessories ranging from laptops and mobile phones with screen readers to white walking sticks and Braille paper.
As Ukrainians fled their country during the Russian invasion, there was an even greater need for the blind – many of whom, Wheeler says, had to leave behind the desktop computers they had relied on to communicate.
She traveled to Warsaw, Poland last month to deliver laptops and mobile phones to “between 60 and 70” Ukrainian refugees, along with enough sticks for up to 50 people.
She plans to return later this month to bring more supplies – including more laptops, smartphones and braille printers – and that’s where Tracy comes in.
Hurricanes analyst says he is Donate 100 percent of the proceeds from selling his “Huge Caniac” line of shirts and hats “to help her cause and the amazing life-changing work she digs into and is a part of,” Tracy said.
“She’s on a whole different level in terms of courage,” Tracy said. “Everything she does is 10,000 percent.”
Wheeler and Tracy have become close friends over the past few years via social media. But what’s even more remarkable is how Wheeler fell in love with the Hurricanes in the first place.
She has always been an ice hockey fan who plays blind hockey and in 2020 she needed to learn Finnish quickly – her ninth language.
To expedite the process, she searched for Finnish NHL-related content and said she “found a lot on the Hurricanes” — namely Finnish natives Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Antti Raanta.
“And (I) literally taught myself Finnish because of it,” she added.
From there, she began listening to broadcasts of games from the playoff bubble that summer.
The team and fan groups on social media brought her even more comfort after the death of her guide dog on Christmas Day 2020.
She says she hasn’t missed a game since the team played in the playoff bubble and woke up at 2 a.m. local time to watch the broadcasts.
“I became a hockey fan at a unique time,” she said.
That’s because the rinks were mostly silent as fans weren’t allowed in the bubble — and that helped her already keen sense of hearing distinguish between the sounds of each player’s skates, she said. The rush of a smaller player’s skates is different than that of a larger player, she said.
“No two people have the same step or the same sound,” Wheeler said. “It’s very similar when people skate. No two pairs of skates sound the same. …some guys based on where they’re supposed to be on the ice, you know? Some of that is context.”
Since then, she has visited the Triangle a few times, met Tracy at the PNC Arena on one of those visits, and is planning another trip.
“I love Raleigh,” she said. “If I ever have to move back to America, that’s where I’ll come.”
https://www.cbs17.com/sports/carolina-hurricanes/for-this-blind-hurricanes-fan-a-big-goal-in-sight-helping-refugees-from-ukraine/ This blind Hurricanes fan has a big goal in mind: to help refugees from Ukraine