Teens make hockey history on first women's deaf team

Maddie Gagliano and Hannah Garcia don't wear their hearing aides on the ice.

As members of the first U.S. National Women's Deaf Ice Hockey team, they don't have to.

All their teammates also have some degree of hearing loss - so the condition becomes not an impairment but a unifier.

"You can show you're deaf instead of hiding it," says 13-year-old Maddie of Elgin, a center who scored two goals as the new women's team took on Canada during its first and only games, exhibition contests April 22 and 23 in Amherst, New York.

To even the playing field among players, hearing aides and implants were banned during the games. So Maddie, Hannah and the 15 other young women from 10 states on the team did what they always do as athletes with a disability: adjust and conquer.

So, for example, on the rinks where they played, small lights installed around the perimeter helped players know when a penalty had been called or a coach wanted a timeout. When a referee blew the whistle, the lights activated and flashed.

"It's always chaotic," says 16-year-old Hannah of Naperville.

But it's the sport she loves, and she was thrilled for the chance to play it as the deaf hockey community launched an effort to build international interest in the women's game.

The new women's deaf team formed after tryouts in March to play twice against Canada, the only other nation with a comparable squad. The team is done for now but could form again, especially if its first action helps participation among American athletes and other nations grow.

The United States of America Deaf Sports Federation has sponsored a men's team since the Deaflympics in 1975, but coach Jackie MacMillan said the push to increase women's involvement began much more recently, with efforts led by the late coach Jeff Sauer, who died early this year. After last month's games at the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships, the hope is other countries will recruit their athletes to join in.

"The future looks bright for the program," MacMillan said.

Naturals on ice

The suburban teens who comprised the first women's deaf team both will have plenty of opportunities to continue in the game, their coach says, because Maddie and Hannah are young and skilled.

Maddie plays for the Chicago Mission under-14 team based at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, an elite squad that frequently travels out of state to face other top teams in the AAA division of youth hockey. She has partial hearing loss because of the bone structure in her left ear, but she has full hearing in her right ear.

"I want to play in college and do the NWHL," Maddie says about the National Women's Hockey League, formed in 2015. "It's pro hockey for girls."

Hannah plays for the Sabre Hockey under-19 team based at All Seasons Ice Rink in Naperville, which is in the AA division. She was born with moderate hearing loss in both ears.

Maddie has been playing since she was 4, when her parents gave her the option to try figure skating or hockey on a pond behind their house and at backyard rinks at the homes of friends. Like her older brother, Nathan, Maddie chose hockey.

Hannah picked up hockey five years ago, making her rise to the national women's team that much sweeter.

"I saw myself playing basketball," Hannah said. "I never thought this would happen."

A flyer at her audiologist's office interested her in trying the "chaotic," icy game. It advertised the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association's annual summer camp in Woodridge, a chance for players with hearing loss from across the nation to join in a week of ice time and companionship that Blackhawks great Stan Mikita launched in 1973.

Most members of the new women's deaf team have attended the camp, including Hannah and Maddie.

"How much you bond with people" is Maddie's favorite part of the game, especially at the camp, where everyone has a shared experience with deafness or hearing loss. "The intensity" is Hannah's favorite element, whether playing with deaf or hearing teammates.

  Hannah Garcia, 16, of Naperville had been playing hockey for five years before she earned one of 17 spots on the first U.S. National Women's Deaf Ice Hockey team. Daniel White/

Observant athletes

On the ice, deaf team members mainly use their sense of sight to run plays, coordinate substitutions, call for passes and watch players move on offense, defense and transition.

To qualify for the team, members must have at least 55-decibel hearing loss in their better ear. That puts them in a category of moderately severe hearing loss, in which it is difficult to understand group conversations and the clarity of speech is diminished, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Athletes also had to make it past a tryout in which 25 participated and 17 were chosen for the team.

The national team provided an interpreter to sit on the bench near MacMillan, who has coached seven seasons at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, but never led players with hearing loss before.

"You had to do a lot of pointing and drawing on the board," MacMillan said. "Saying it is a lot different than showing it."

The fledgling team had only one day to practice before taking on its opponent, the Canadians, who also were fielding their first women's team. In addition, several players didn't know how to sign or understand American Sign Language, making the interpreter useless to them.

Still, they adapted.

"They're a lot more observant and aware than players who have full hearing," MacMillan said about the players on her team of 17 skaters, ranging in age from 13 to 29. "They pick up things more quickly."

The U.S. women lost both their games - 6-3 and 6-4 - despite carrying leads into the third period.

But the results of the games weren't nearly as important as the fact there were games.

'Pick up your head'

Playing without the benefit of sound is the norm for Maddie and Hannah, both of whom say they don't wear their hearing aides on the ice, even when playing with teammates with full hearing.

The devices can be uncomfortable inside a helmet, the girls say, as the cold air of the rink breezes by and they can get screechy with feedback as they pick up the crisp scraping sounds of skates across the frozen surface.

The constant need to look up at other players actually makes for smoother hockey, Maddie says.

"It makes you pick up your head," she says, scanning the ice and sometimes using reflections off the glass for help. "Looking up helps a lot."

  Maddie Gagliano of Elgin, left, a member of the first U.S. Women's National Deaf Ice Hockey team, high-fives coach Bruce Smolen before an evening practice at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge. Daniel White/

'Neat small world'

The highlight of representing the U.S. on the first deaf women's team was the newness of it all.

"No one has ever experienced that," Maddie said. "It was cool to be the first one to put on that jersey."

The sense of belonging the team conveyed meant a lot to the girls' parents, too.

Hannah's mother, Carrie Garcia, says her daughter reads lips well and communicates in American Sign Language, especially during classes in a special program at Hinsdale South High School. Maddie also has learned to sign. But Hannah often lets others do the talking so she won't have to chime in - unless she's on the rink with deaf and hard-of-hearing peers.

"She blossoms in that environment," her mother said.

Maddie and Hannah both say they hope to continue their bond in deaf hockey and their connection to the national team, especially if it forms again in advance of the next Winter Deaflympics in 2019.

"They all realize that they have so much in common," Hannah's mother said. "It's a neat small world in deaf hockey."

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