Deafness is a disability, but that doesn’t stop a growing number of hockey players from suiting up
By Warren Tabachnick
Imagine a world without sound. That’s how a good many of the hearing impaired experience daily life. While deafness and hard of hearing certainly are disabilities, they don’t seem to stop a growing number of deaf athletes from suiting up for a game of hockey.
Anthony Rumolo is just one example. A native of Barrie, Ont., Canada, he is deaf in one ear and has just 20% hearing in the other. It wasn’t always easy for Rumolo. He first stepped foot on the ice, as a goalie, at the age of 4. “There are a lot of challenges,” he recalls. “I remember growing up, I was playing [in a game] and I let a goal in and my teammates would say, ‘We were trying to tell you what to do. Why weren’t you listening?’”
Gold Medal Winner
Despite those difficulties, Rumolo captured gold medals at the 2010 and 2012 Canada Deaf Games as the starting goaltender for Team Ontario. Not to be deterred, he founded the Ontario Deaf Hockey Association, an organization that supports deaf athletes or hard-of-hearing athletes provincially and nationally. Rumolo is also the director-at-large for the Canadian Deaf Ice Hockey Federation (CDIHF), of which the Ontario Deaf Hockey Association is a member. Under CDIHF rules, the games are officiated through the use of strobe lighting around the arena. Hearing aids and cochlear implants are not allowed on the ice.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Canadian Association of the Deaf, there are 350,000 culturally deaf Canadians, and an additional 3.15 million people in Canada who identify as hard of hearing. It goes without saying that for these individuals, participation in social and cultural activities such as hockey can be a little more complicated than for others.
In the US, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders states that about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing.
Off the ice, Rumolo is a Business and Customer Service Professional at a Canadian airline.“I want to make a difference, inspire and lead change for others,” says Rumolo. “Hockey is one of the most popular and loved sports all over the world. Hockey is a part of our culture. We live and breathe it as Canadians and take pride in seeing that Red Maple Leaf in the rinks all across Canada. Sport is a universal language.
“Being able to play hockey with no sound requires us to use more vision and alertness in the game. It’s silent, but deep down inside we can hear in our own way of the game. Deaf Hockey is about playing a game and forming new ways to communicate while playing the game.”
Programs for Deaf Athletes and Hockey Players
In the US, the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association provides deaf and hard-of-hearing hockey players the opportunity to learn about and improve their hockey skills through their program. They offer these deaf athletes the opportunity to be coached by a coaching staff with college, national and international experience.
Established in 1973 by Chicago businessman Irv Tiahnybik, in cooperation with NHL Hall of Fame and former Chicago Blackhawk star Stan Mikita, the program has contributed to the growth and development of hearing-impaired players from all across the country. Tony Granato, former NHL player and now the assistant coach of the Detroit Red Wings, has continued the leadership role in the great success the program continues to achieve. Tony, along with a very dedicated staff of volunteer coaches, interpreters, support and medical personnel, serve the needs of the hockey players in the AHIHA program.
Closer to home, I personally have had the pleasure of being the teammate of one such individual. Sean Keohane first started skating when he was about 8 years old, and began his ice hockey career at age 11. He says he’d always show up at practices and scrimmages, but did not play organized hockey until finally, at the age of 16, he joined an adult rec league with his brother, Liam. Keohane is the type of hockey player that even persons without disabilities would aspire to be. I only wish I could play as well as he does.
As for how he communicates with non-hearing-impaired coaches or players, he says he often uses body language or gestures. It is not difficult to express things like who plays defense or who plays center, he adds, however with a new team it takes a little more time to get everyone to understand each other. As for reading stoppages in play, he says he can hear the whistle or see players come to a stop on the ice; it’s really just common sense.
Keohane says his deafness allows him to utilize his faculties to where he is on equal footing with most people. “My disability doesn’t stop me from playing hockey, softball, or anything,” says Keohane. “I just can’t hear or speak, but I live with pride being deaf!”
And as Anthony Rumolo says, “People with disabilities shouldn’t be afraid to go out there. They shouldn’t be afraid.”