Hockey is a game most Canadians take as a birthright. We grow up loving the game and immerse ourselves in it from a young age. Video cameras record children on skates for the first time; parents arise at ungodly hours to take their kids to early morning practices; and most youngsters fantasize about hearing the roar of the crowd after scoring an important goal.
Now imagine how these heartwarming Canadian traditions would seem if every step of the way was an ordeal. What if just balancing on skates took all of your focus; if you couldn't understand what the coach was teaching in those early morning practices; if you couldn't hear the roar of the crowd? Imagine the challenges faced every day by deaf kids trying to play the game they love?
Kuvin Sadher knows.
The North Delta teen has been in love with hockey ever since he was a toddler. He started playing the game when he was six and immediately ran into a big problem: skating involves balance, a sense that is centred in the ears. Born deaf, Sadher had to teach himself how to stay upright on the blades, but to do so, he had to focus on the task, making it difficult to pick up other skills like passing and shooting and stopping. He kept working hard, but like most kids, he says the most discouraging part about learning the game was the fact there were more practices than games.
"The hardest part was learning to skate and balancing," the 17-year-old Burnsview Secondary student recalls. "I don't know when I finally stopped thinking about balancing. It came slowly.
"Yes, I was frustrated at times. It was always practices and no games. My dad pushed me and supported me, telling me not to give up. When we finally got to play a game it was great. When I first stepped on the ice I was so excited; it was electrifying."
Sadher has a cochlear implant, a surgically inserted electronic device that helps him discern some of the things going on around him. The device creates an unnatural sound that can help Sadher understand some speech in a classroom setting, but in the chaos of a hockey rink, it is of limited use. He can hear whistles, but almost everything else is lost in a jumble of noise.
"When I have my cochlear on I am fine, but it's not clear because the game is loud and echoes make it very difficult to hear. When my battery is dead, then I have to watch other players to see if the play is stopped or if there's a line change. I am very visual; it's my main sense."
Despite the challenges he faced every time he laced up his skates, Sadher persisted in chasing the hockey dream. He played at the house league level in the North Delta Minor Hockey Association system beginning in novice and moving through atom, peewee and bantam.
This past spring, Sadher discovered a new aspect of the game that opened a whole new world. After hearing about deaf hockey when he was still in elementary school, Sadher dreamed of being able to play his sport with players just like him. He inquired about joining the B.C. team when he was 14 but was discouraged to learn he had to be 16 to try out. In May of this year, Sadher was chosen to play with the B.C. Rockies at the Canadian Deaf Games in Edmonton. As one of the youngest players on a team made up primarily of players between the ages of 20 and 40, coaches were initially worried his slight build might make him susceptible to injury. Fortunately, his speed and agility quickly erased such concerns.
"There's always that threat but I don't think it was that big of an issue," says B.C. Rockies coach Jim Schuck. "Kuvin and the other young guys were fine because they are quicker, younger and faster so they can get out of the way."
For Sadher, the Edmonton trip opened his eyes to the full scope of the deaf community for the first time. Cochlear implants were banned at the event, so sign language ruled the day both on the ice and off. (In deaf hockey, strobe lights take the place of whistles to let players know when play has stopped.)
Instead of being an outsider in a hearing world, Sadher was among people who understood exactly what challenges he faces every day.
"It was awesome playing with deaf players," Sadher says. "It was comforting and I felt at home. The level of communication was unbelievable. We just sat and chatted for hours. I didn't feel left out.
"Everything was awesome there; it's hard to describe it. It was the best feeling in my life and the best time. I can't wait for the next (Canada) games and I hope to make the Deaflympics team.
"That's my goal now and I'll be able to meet deaf people from around the world."
When he returned from Edmonton, Sadher spent the summer training with the Pacific Titans hockey program. The confidence he gained in Edmonton coupled with the hard work in the gym paid off when he made North Delta's midget B1 rep team in September.
"A deaf player on a minor hockey rep team is quite rare," says Schuck, who also coaches rep hockey in Richmond.
"In fact, for a deaf player to make a team like that is a feat unto itself. When a deaf player makes a rep team, they're doing it by following along and watching what everybody else is doing. A deaf player's ability to read and react is better than most other players just because it has to be - they've learned to rely on visual information. I would love to see how far some of these guys could go with proper instruction in ways that they can understand fully what the coach is trying to teach."
The significance of ascending to the rep level in a hearing world was not lost on Sadher. All of the years of work overcoming obstacles his peers would never pause to consider were suddenly worthwhile and he is extremely grateful to the North Delta Minor Hockey Association for giving him the opportunity to grow as a hockey player.
With that said, Sadher credits a spring week in Edmonton among deaf players from across Canada for opening his eyes to possibilities in the rink and beyond.
"The whole experience gave me the drive to challenge more in life," he says.
"I want to teach young deaf children how to play hockey. I can teach them in sign language, which will make them more comfortable and it'll be more fun to learn."
Sadher adds confidently, "I strongly encourage other deaf kids to play. I did it."
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