RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A blind diehard Carolina Hurricanes fan in Finland has a different kind of goal in mind: Helping visually impaired refugees from the war in Ukraine.
And she’s getting an assist from the biggest Caniac of all — analyst Tripp Tracy.
That’s just one of the many layers of a complicated, inspirational story for Laurel Wheeler.
“She doesn’t have her eyesight,” Tracy said. “And she’s turned it into a massive, colossal inspirational strength to see the world and make a difference in the world.”
The native Texan and graduate student in Helsinki whose need to quickly learn the Finnish language blossomed into a love for the Hurricanes — to the point that she can tell the players apart by the sound of their individual skates — and a means by which she can help other blind refugees from war-ravaged Ukraine through the foundation that bears her name.
“There’s a wide variety of needs,” Wheeler told CBS 17 News. “And we’re just trying to be flexible and help as many as we can reach, really. And truly, 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 supplies ranging from laptop computers and mobile phones with screen-readers to white canes and Braille paper.
When Ukranians fled their country during the Russian invasion, even greater needs emerged for the blind — many of whom, Wheeler said, had to leave behind the desktop computers they relied on to communicate.
She traveled to Warsaw, Poland, last month to bring laptops and mobile phones to “between 60 and 70” Ukranian refugees along with enough canes for up to 50 people.
She’s planning to return later this month to bring more supplies — including more laptops, smartphones and Braille printers — and this is where Tracy comes in.
The Hurricanes analyst says he is donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the sales of his “Huge Caniac” line of shirts and hats “to help her cause and the amazing life-changing work that she’s digging in and involved in,” Tracy said.
“She’s a whole different level, in terms of courage,” Tracy said. “Everything she does is 10,000 percent.”
Wheeler and Tracy became close friends over social media in recent years. But what’s even more remarkable is the happenstance way Wheeler wound up falling in love with the Hurricanes in the first place.
She has always been a hockey fan who plays blind hockey and needed to learn Finnish — her ninth language — in a hurry in 2020.
So to speed up the process, she searched for NHL-related Finnish content and said she “and found a ton with the Hurricanes” — namely, native Finns Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Antti Raanta.
“And (I) literally taught myself Finnish because of that,” she added.
From there, she began listening to broadcasts of the games from the playoff bubble that summer.
The team, and the fan groups on social media, brought her even greater comfort after the death of her guide dog on Christmas Day 2020.
She says she hasn’t missed a game since the team was playing in the playoff bubble, waking up at 2 a.m. local time to catch the broadcasts.
“I became a hockey fan at a super-unique time,” she said.
That’s because with no fans allowed in the bubble, the rinks were mostly silent — and that helped her already keen sense of hearing differentiate between the sounds of each player’s skates, she said. The swooshing of a shorter player’s skates is different from that of a taller player, she said.
“No two people have the same walking stride or sound,” Wheeler said. “It’s very much like that when people skate. No two pairs of skates sound the same. … Some guys, based on kind of where they should be on the ice, you know? Some of it is context.”
She’s visited the Triangle a couple of times since then, met Tracy at 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, I’m coming there.”