Tuesday, January 25, 2011

American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association: Magic and Medals

This piece was originally published, circa 2006, at USAHockey.com but is no longer available on the Internet as far as I can tell.

Bronze, silver, and gold medals: the US Deaf Olympic hockey team has won them all. The magic is not in the medals but in the preparation, which glitters at Stan Mikita’s summer camp for the hearing impaired, and the love, which lingers via long distance until friends meet next summer.

Mikita and Irv Tiahnybik founded the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA), which funds the hockey school, because Tiahnybik told his NHL friend that mainstream hockey groups were hassling his son, Lex, for being hard of hearing. Mikita was happy to help Lex and 30 other students who attended the first camp in 1973.

Since then, students have returned to this hockey haven not only to play their passion and to share hockey stories with loyal friends, but also to mentor younger students. You see, 2000 students have completed at least one camp. Many have graduated from high school and college, married, had kids…but still return to Illinois every summer to volunteer their time because they believe the program was—and still is—magical.

Tom Schaffner, AHIHA’s volunteer spokesman says that despite advances in technology that have helped hearing impaired hockey players, “You still get kids coming to our school at age seven or eight…they’re wild, they’re anti social because…of [their] hearing loss and rebellious by nature at that age—boys, and we have girls, frankly.

Karen Wonoski’s son Mike, who can’t wait to attend his 11th camp next summer, was feisty and frustrated. It’s hard to watch your kid struggle with the inability to communicate with peers and teachers who don’t fully comprehend that an eight-year-old is just learning how to talk.

Ten years later, Mike’s mom reflects upon he son’s first camp, “It’s amazing to see how kids found themselves.” Today, Mike plays hockey for St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, MA. There, he’s one of the guys; he has learned to adapt, and his teammates and coaches don’t give him special treatment. As much as wants to win a high school championship and hopes to play college hockey, he looks forward to next summer. Until then, he’ll stay in touch with his hearing-impaired hockey pals via the Internet.

Karen marvels at the influence hockey school has had on Mike and is proud of the way hockey players, especially disabled players, stick together. This past summer, Mike, who can speak, and a boy, who doesn’t speak at all, were planning to fly to Calgary for the Alberta Centennial to compete against other disabled hockey players from Canada and the States.

Inside Boston’s Logan Airport, Mike and his friend were paged, but even with hearing aids, they couldn’t hear the announcement. “So when you see that,” Karen recalls, “you start to go, ‘geez, is it gonna be alright?’” Just then, she saw a gentleman holding hockey sticks for a boy who had no arms. Upon learning the disabled boy and his family were also headed to Calgary for the same event, Karen asked if they could keep and eye on her son and the other boy. The man, who didn’t know Karen or her son from a hole in the wall, was too happy to help.

Karen left the airport grateful, only to receive a text message from Mike, “My flight has been cancelled, and I’m going to Dallas. Gotta go.”

Because of bad weather, Mike’s flight was diverted to the airline’s hub in the Big D. Karen had no idea if Mike was on his own or with the other family, but she later learned that Mike’s adoptive family had not only kept an eye on him and the other boy but had invited them to lunch. They had gone the extra mile to watch Mike’s games in Calgary too.

Schaffner hesitates to refer to his organization as magical, but feels it is. “We don’t solve everything—and I’m not trying to make it sound that way—but it’s good news when you have that kind of results in kids [and] when you actually give them something to look forward to, even if it’s only a week a year.

Or a few days in Salt Lake City for the 2007 Winter Deaflympics, to chase another medal, relish in the recall on the Internet until you meet again to play, to laugh, to offer each other a helping hand, if not a fully functional ear.

Update: In Salt Lake City, Mike Wonoski scored the game-winner to lift Team USA to a
4–3 victory overTeam  Canada.

Team USA went on to defeat Team Germany, 6–0 to win the gold medal.

Michael Wonoski is still playing hockey, at Rochester Institute of Technology.

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