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.