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Original Issue

Breaking the Silence

A clinic founded by Stan Mikita teaches hearing-impaired kids to compete in a demanding game—and in life

Two hockey players rush toward each other, their strides growing longer and longer. Within feet of a collision, the skaters put on the brakes, scattering ice chips. As their eyes meet, their gloves drop to the ice and their hands fly into action. It can mean only one thing.

They're conversing.

This is the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired. For the past 19 summers a group of deaf and hearing-impaired children and young adults, ranging in age (this year) from five to 28, their parents and a dedicated staff of instructors have gathered in suburban Chicago to teach and learn a little hockey. But it is hockey with a higher purpose.

According to Mikita, whose 22 seasons and 1,467 points with the Chicago Blackhawks earned him a place in the National Hockey League Hall of Fame in 1983, the nets are the standard size, but the goals are larger. "Hockey is the vehicle," Mikita says, "but then it moves into other areas of life."

The weeklong clinic, unlike any other in the U.S., is the only hockey school at which the players pick up hearing aid batteries along with their hockey bags and at which the initials on the players' helmets reflect their mode of communication: "L" for lip reader, "S" for signer and "H" for hearing aid. The camp began more than two decades ago when Irv Tiahnybik, the former owner of Leon's Sausage Company on Chicago's West Side, had a beef with his son's hockey coach. Tiahnybik's son, Lex, who is hearing impaired, had been introduced to hockey several years earlier through Irv's friendship with Mikita. The Tiahnybiks would attend Blackhawk practices, and afterward Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall would give the 11-year-old Lex netminding tips while Mikita offered up a few slap shots. Soon Lex was part of a team—the Chicago Minor Hawks (an independent youth team)—and no longer feeling frustrated and isolated. "He had a goal in life," says Tiahnybik. "He could be one of the boys by being a good hockey player."

But after a few years on the team, Lex encountered a new coach who had an old-fashioned way of dealing with the hearing impaired. Lex was the one with the hearing difficulty, but his family felt it was the coach who couldn't communicate. As the youngster saw opportunity fade away, his confidence faded with it. "I felt if Lex had this problem, countless other boys around the country probably had the same problem," says Tiahnybik, "and they were really being denied a chance to play."

Tiahnybik's solution was to give them that chance. Persuading Mikita to lend his name and time to the school was merely a matter of reminding him of his childhood. When Mikita first arrived in Canada from Czechoslovakia as an eight-year-old, the language barrier made the future Uncheckable Czech merely the uncomfortable Czech. "I could hear the words, but I had no idea what they meant," Mikita says. "Although I wasn't shut out by the hearing world, I was basically being shut out by my peers."

Mikita, of course, needed only to learn English to cope. Deaf children have it a bit tougher, which is why Mikita's school is part of something bigger, a nonprofit organization called the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, Inc. (AHIHA). The group raises funds through private donations, and while the hockey lessons last a week, AHIHA's reach is year round.

The hockey camp—which includes instruction from some big names in the sport such as defenseman Chris Chelios of the Blackhawks and forward Tony Granato of the Los Angeles Kings—represents only part of the package. AHIHA also assists its players in obtaining hearing aids, speech and language therapy, auditory training, counseling and diagnostic evaluations. When necessary, the organization offers financial support to the families of its players, and it provided funds for one child to receive a cochlear implant.

Communication is constant—during the camp, players' parents publish a daily newsletter, and players are asked to write letters to the AHIHA staff—so the organization often plays the role of big brother. "It's a lot more than hockey. It's a family. And like any family, AHIHA cares for its kids," says Susan Berlow, an auditory and language therapist in private practice in Chicago who spends the week of the clinic meeting with parents and players. "I know of no organization for the hearing impaired that runs so smoothly."

Indeed, while there are differences of opinion in the deaf community as to the best methods of communication and education, there are no such controversies at Mikita's school. This year's clinic, which was held June 6-13, primarily at the Northbrook Sports Complex in Northbrook, Ill., included 75 players from as far away as Georgia, Florida and Oregon. They were divided into four squads—beginners, freshmen, junior varsity and varsity—and all but the youngest group had morning practice followed by evening games against local hearing teams. Afternoons were devoted to traditional summer camp pursuits, such as barbecues and amusement park excursions.

The players were nearly outnumbered by the all-volunteer staff of 60, including at least two sign language interpreters who were on the ice at all times, several former AHIHA players (among them 37-year-old Lex Tiahnybik) and a group of instructors with experience at all levels of the game. "This program is as well run as any youth program in hockey circles across the country," says Jeff Sauer, the hockey coach of the University of Wisconsin's two-time NCAA champions.

Sauer coaches the AHIHA varsity team with the help of Gene Ubriaco, a former NHL player (with Pittsburgh, Chicago and Oakland) and coach of the 1992 Italian national team. Last year the varsity squad traveled to Banff, Alberta, to compete as the U.S. entry at the World Games for the Deaf and skated home with the silver medal.

Joey Hartge, of Glendale Heights, Ill., the 24-year-old captain of the team and a 15-year veteran of the Stan Mikita School, was overwhelmed by the sold-out attendance and the near-Olympic atmosphere. "It was so loud," says Hartge, who was born with more than a 50% hearing loss in both ears. "You don't hear, but you can actually feel the people being there. The vibration feels like it's coming right up through the ice."

The best in the AHIHA are talented enough to play collegiate-level hockey, quite a feat considering most can't hear a referee's whistle or a teammate's admonition or an opponent's approach from behind. Visual tricks, such as using the reflection of the glass as a kind of rearview mirror, become virtually instinctive forms of compensation. "Their eyes have to be their ears," says Mikita.

The sight-as-sound style has been all but perfected by Jim Kyte, 28, a defenseman with the Calgary Flames, who is the only hearing-impaired player in the NHL. Kyte, who wears hearing aids while playing, has been part of the AHIHA family since learning of the program at the start of his professional career. He thought so highly of the organization that he started a north-of-the-border version, now located in his hometown of Ottawa, Ont.

The Jim Kyte Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired has been operating for six years, but Kyte still makes it to Mikita's school every summer. "Being a professional athlete, you're a role model, whether you want to be or not," he says. "And because I'm hearing-impaired, I'm more of a role model for hearing-impaired children. I come here not because I'm obligated, but because I want to."

Every June, Kyte serves as a 6'5", 210-pound example of perseverance to the AHIHA kids, and they return the favor. "They have such great energy and enthusiasm, they inspire me, so it's a two-way street," says Kyte, who was one of several current and former pros to participate in the week's climactic confrontation—the U.S. National Deaf Team versus Stan Mikita's All-Stars.

Nearly a dozen former Chicago Blackhawk standouts formed the nucleus of Mikita's squad, including Keith Magnuson, Ivan Boldirev, Dale Tallon and Bob Murray. Mikita, 52, scored a goal, assisted by former linemate Cliff Koroll, 45, but the hearing-impaired players held their own against their aging opponents, finally losing by a slim margin.

Such is the life lesson amid the hockey teachings. If hearing-impaired athletes can hold their own on the ice, why not off it? The players learn that a little determination can turn an apparent handicap into an inconvenience, and according to Ubriaco, who has been involved from the beginning, it makes them a joy to coach.

"They can't hear," he says with a proud grin, "but they listen."



While Mikita explains technique, Donna Price translates his words into sign language.



Kyte, who is hearing-impaired, gives a novice skater a seated tour of the rink.



Dressed for combat, eager campers wait for their turn on the ice.

Brad Herzog is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.