FRASER, Mich. -- Hannah Garcia’s take on hockey sounds like typical advice for any budding young player.
“Make sure you know where the puck is, and your head is up, and you know what’s going on around you,” she said. “Just make sure you’re in a good spot where you can hear and see what’s going on. The main idea is just to make sure you know what’s happening.”
Garcia isn’t a coach — not yet, anyway — she’s a teenage hockey player with a hearing impairment. And by following those solid words of wisdom, she has been able to fare very well on the ice.
The 16-year-old, hailing from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, appears to be every bit a conventional teen athlete, participating in softball, basketball and hockey. She got involved in the latter after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and the kids on her block were into it as well.
“I have two neighbors down the street that are always playing street hockey, I’ve always loved that,” Garcia said. “I’d stay there all night, after I was supposed to be home.”
Hannah, who also plays on her high school district’s team, doesn’t hesitate to name hockey as her favorite sport. As a catcher and first baseman, softball came pretty easy because the action was always in front of her. In basketball, she was outfitted with a tiny FM transmitter so her coach could give her instructions while on the court.
But there aren’t too many modifications necessary for hockey, so that’s why the sport has a good following among hearing-impaired players. Most notably, there are strobe lights at the four corners of the rink that flash on when there is a stoppage in play, but otherwise, it’s the same game.
“For the most part, if you’ve been playing hockey your whole life, you know when the whistle’s going to blow, and you know you have to use your eyes more than anybody else does,” said Michele Gintoli of Shelton, Connecticut, who coached the hard-of-hearing squad at USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Festival in the Detroit area from April 7-10.
“The biggest difference is that it just takes longer to get their attention, and it takes longer to explain a drill, particularly because I have a lot of different levels [of experience] with me right now,” Gintoli said. “I have to make sure everybody understands what I’m saying. The hockey rink is probably the worst place in the world for acoustics, and so it just takes longer, that’s all.”
“And to have a whole team of that, you just have to be really patient and understand that I have the same disabilities, so I would want someone to be patient with me,” she added.
To assist the coaches, players wear a strip of tape on their helmets, coded with an H (meaning they can hear when wearing a device), an L (they can lip-read) or S (they use sign language). Several players have interpreters, or signers, with them when they participate.
“They’re just athletes that can’t hear, that’s all,” said Jeff Sauer, President of the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA). “They’re just like any kid, you’ve got to get their attention, and you’ve got to get them to focus on what they’re doing.”
The difference is subtle, but becomes noticeable when hearing-enabled players try to empathize. Since there aren’t enough hearing-impaired or deaf players at the Disabled Hockey Festival for an entire tournament bracket, the games are often showcase contests against local teams, who agree to wear earplugs during the second period.
“It’s really cool to show them all we can’t do is hear,” Gintoli said. “I have gotten feedback and even the coaches say, ‘Oh my God, I take for granted what I have. I had to figure out a different way to communicate, and now I know what it’s like to have to communicate with someone who’s hard of hearing if I have that player on my team,’ and that’s the point of it. You never know if you’re going to have a player like that.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.