If you could see what Jim Kyte hears, you would need very thick glasses. Kyte is practically the only hockey player in North America who actually needs to go around saying "eh?" all the time, even if he happens to be the rare Canadian who doesn't. He is entering his fifth season as a defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets, and though he will tell you he has soft knuckles ("My hand can't seem to absorb the power of my punch," he says) and a soft heart, the thing he is best known for, besides being hard of hearing, is that on the ice, the knuckles are often more in evidence than the heart.
Kyte, 23, has auditory nerve degeneration, which means that without hearing aids, he is nearly as deaf as a post. The condition is hereditary—his father and all four of his brothers are also hearing impaired, though his sister is not. Kyte has lost 65-70% of his hearing, with only about 5% of that deterioration occurring in the past 10 years.
All the Kyte boys were born with normal hearing, so they learned to speak before nerve degeneration set in at age three or four. Even a partial hearing loss, if it has existed since birth, can make it difficult to master some of the subtler nuances of speech, and for the profoundly deaf, who have no conception of how words sound, it is virtually impossible. Kyte's brother Rob is the only one in the family who needs speech therapy, and the family thinks this is because his hearing loss began earlier than his brothers'. His hearing problem became aggravated when, at about age five, he suffered a punctured eardrum; his younger brother Frayne, then three, saw him with a cotton swab in his ear and tried to push it all the way in.
Kyte's perspective on his hearing loss is not what you might expect. "I was never aware of a lack of hearing, so I don't feel I'm missing anything," Jim says. "This is just the way I am. But I also don't know what it's like to be deaf. The deaf culture is totally foreign to me."
Jim's father, John Sr., realized as a boy that he had trouble understanding people unless he could see their lips. Now an Ottawa dentist, John Kyte was an alternate on the 1948 Canadian Olympic track and field team as a high jumper, and was such a gifted all-around competitor in other sports that he was named Athlete of the Half Century at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He had always assumed that his hearing difficulties were caused by a childhood case of whooping cough. But then he and his wife, Gayle, had six children, and all except their daughter, Aynslee, developed a serious hearing loss.
"The kids were a tremendous revelation to me," says the elder Kyte, who retains just enough of an Irish brogue—the Kyte clan emigrated from Ireland to Nova Scotia in the 19th century—to sound faintly like the late actor Barry Fitzgerald. "The thing I have to ponder, now that my kids are reasonably productive members of society, is whether I would have ever had any children if I had known about their deafness."
Athletically, few Canadian families have ever soared higher than the Kytes. John Jr., 26, was a pretty fair competitive rower; Aynslee, 25, was a nationally ranked heptathlete; Jim, 23, is a starter in the NHL; Murray, 22, won the Larkin Trophy for academics, athletics and extracurricular activities at St. Francis Xavier; Rob, 19, recently won a comparable award for freshmen at the same school; and Frayne, 17, who may be the best natural athlete among the children, is an aspiring artist in his final year of high school.
All the children learned to skate as toddlers on a rink in the Kytes' backyard. By the time Jim was 15, he was playing on a team that toured Czechoslovakia, and had caught the eye of the junior team from Hawkesbury. "My family was very competitive, particularly the five boys," Jim says. "When we did something, we all wanted to be the best. We used to have contests to see who could scream the loudest into each other's ear until somebody gave in."
"To watch TV at our house, everybody had to be two or three feet from the set," recalls Aynslee. "And even though we had our own rooms, everybody usually ended up doing their homework at the dining table together." This may conjure an image of filial tranquillity at the Canadian hearthside, but it was frequently something less than that. "They would turn their hearing aids off and start singing, off-key and at the top of their lungs." says Aynslee. "It was just loud. I didn't realize how loud until I moved away from home."
One person who could not help but be aware of the constant din in her house was Gayle Kyte, a former high school math and science teacher who presided over this thundering herd. "My mother should be granted immediate entry into heaven for having to put up with five screaming boys who couldn't hear themselves," says Jim. "My dad would just take his hearing aids out and go sit in a corner when we got too loud, but she couldn't do that." Gayle, whose hearing is normal, often is overlooked when people write about the family. "She'll read one of these articles that makes no mention of her," Jim says, "and then she looks at me with very sad eyes and says, 'You don't have a mother.' "