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.
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."