Sunday, December 22, 1996
Deaf hockey player has ear for game

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Kyte is perfectly equipped for his place in hockey. He is a fight-prone defenseman who happens to be legally deaf.

Even with his hearing aids in place, the Kansas City Blades' enforcer is hard-pressed to distinguish boos from bravos, catcalls from commendations. Given his tendency for trouble - Kyte's season totals stood at one goal and 110 penalty minutes after Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Cyclones - maybe that's not all bad.

''I have the biggest problem with background noise,'' he said. ''If you have perfect hearing, with a crowded room you can zoom in on what you want to hear. For me, everything is amplified, and it's hard to decipher what's going on around me sometimes. When I played in the old Chicago Stadium, it was very loud. I wouldn't hear the whistle, and I'd be playing when everyone else had stopped.''

Kyte is believed to be the only deaf player in professional hockey, but he has not been much impeded by his impairment. He has played for five National Hockey League teams - Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Calgary, Ottawa and San Jose - and he might be in the NHL now had he been willing to endure the insecurity faced by fringe players.

He has made a modest mark on the ice, and a larger one on the slick surface of stereotypes. Kyte's career has served as a source of inspiration for the hearing-impaired, and a reminder to all of the rewards of perseverance.

''It shows that the language barriers can be overcome,'' said Gregory Ernst, executive director of St. Rita's School for the Deaf. ''I think any time you get a deaf adult, or even a deaf teenager who's able to get into any kind of sporting competition with a hearing person, you have an excellent role model.''

Born with perfect hearing, Kyte has suffered from gradual audio nerve degeneration since he was 3 years old. At 5, he began wearing a bulky contraption called the ''Body Aid.'' The device was strapped to his chest, with wires extending into Kyte's ears. Some of his young classmates, precocious at cruelty, took to calling him ''Radio Shack.''

At 32, Kyte's hearing loss qualifies as ''severe profound.'' His right ear recently showed a 92-decibel deficit; his left ear a 93-decibel loss. Without hearing aids, normal 65-decibel conversation would be inaudible.

Because his amplifiers are so ineffective on the ice, Kyte has been forced to compensate. Since he can't detect the sound of approaching skates, he has learned to use the plexiglass surrounding rinks as rear-view mirrors.

''It's not easy to do, and it's not something I do all the time,'' he said. ''It all depends on the arena and how new the glass is. But any edge that I can get, I'll take.''

When pursuing the puck in his own end, Kyte relies on the goaltender to provide direction with arm signals. While sitting on the bench, Kyte keeps his eyes focused on his coach's face so he can be sure when his shift is to start.

From a distance, it might appear Kyte is demonstrating for more playing time. Up close, he is reading lips.

''Every team I've played for, I haven't had to make adjustments in my game,'' he said. ''They've had to make adjustments to me. A lot of times, I'll hear my partner say something to me, but I don't understand him. So I do a lot of talking, and let them listen to me.''

Kyte wonders if his hearing difficulties may have limited his development as an offensive player, but he considers the question as a mystery rather than a lament. When a hockey player stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 220 pounds, he need not dwell on his physical shortcomings.

''When I broke in, I think I might have tied for the tallest player in the league,'' Kyte said. ''Now, they're much bigger. It doesn't matter how big you are, though. It's how you use your size.''

Not long ago, players who used their size as Jim Kyte does were known, inelegantly, as ''goons.'' More recently, the euphemism ''enforcer'' has evolved. Kyte prefers to think of himself as a ''policeman,'' a player who finishes fights others have initiated.

''I'm a blue-collar player,'' he said. ''I'm not overly skilled. I work really hard. I keep the game really simple. When I'm on the ice, I'm on the ice to play a physical game.''

In this role, deafness is not always a detriment. A man can cause grunts and groans without having to hear them.