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Backchecking: Tough guy Jim Kyte overcame handicap to make NHL

Jim Kyte played 598 NHL games with the Sharks, Senators, Flames, Penguins and Jets. (Photo by Glenn Cratty/ALLSPORT)

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Jim Kyte played 598 NHL games with the Sharks, Senators, Flames, Penguins and Jets. (Photo by Glenn Cratty/ALLSPORT)

BY SABINA LAM

Jim Kyte was like any other tough guy in the NHL – big, tough and intimidating – except for one thing; he was legally deaf.

When Kyte entered the league in 1982-83, he became the first legally deaf player to suit up in the NHL. He was also the first player to wear hearing aids while playing and required a special helmet to protect them.

Kyte was born with perfect hearing, but when he was three-years-old, it was discovered that he had a hereditary condition causing his audio nerve to degenerate.

“My dad always said, ‘It may be a handicap, but it’s not a disability,’ ” Kyte said. “You should be able to do anything you want to if you work hard enough at it and have the passion for it.”

Living by his father’s words, Kyte said he learned to adapt his game to succeed in hockey without the ability to hear well. He went on to play 598 games in the NHL, scoring 66 points and collecting 1,342 penalty minutes.

“I was a student of the game,” he said. “I knew the systems inside and out. I knew them just as well as the coaches did because I had to.

“I couldn’t depend on players yelling my name, saying, ‘I’m open!’ as I understand some players can do, so I played a very positional game.”

Kyte said he also depended heavily on his sight to know what was going on around him.

“I did a lot of lip reading,” he said. “Sometimes when I went back into my own corner to retrieve a puck and didn’t have time to look over my shoulder, I would use the glass along the boards. Instead of looking through the glass to the fans, I looked at the glass to see who was behind me.”

Kyte was a tough, physical defenseman and a force to be reckoned with on the blueline. He was drafted 12th overall by Winnipeg in 1982 and spent six seasons with the Jets before moving on to play for the Penguins, Flames, Senators and Sharks.

Throughout his career, Kyte was active in charitable causes involving hearing impairment and ran a summer hockey camp for hearing-impaired children aged seven to 17 from 1988 to 1996.

“Sport is a great vehicle for building confidence, particularly in children,” he said.

Kyte said a lot of the kids who arrived at the camp had never played hockey before because they didn’t think they could or were discouraged from doing so.

“The kids are shy and introverted at the beginning but then they realize they’re with kids who have the same skill caliber and share certain social frustrations, too,” he said. “They have a lot in common on and off the ice. Their confidence improves throughout the week and, hopefully, that overflowed to when they got home.”

He said a lot of the players on the Deaflympics Team Canada hockey squad attended his camp as youngsters. The Deaflympics are an International Olympic Committee-sanctioned event for hearing impaired athletes in both summer and winter sports.

Kyte said he would’ve liked to continue with the camp, but funding dried up and his interests began to go in other directions.

Shortly after pulling the plug on his hockey camp, Kyte was forced into retirement in 1997 after an auto accident left him with severe post-concussion syndrome.

Today he keeps busy as the acting chair of marketing and management studies at Algonquin College in Ottawa, his hometown, and does speaking engagements on his time in the NHL. Before landing the Algonquin gig, Kyte was a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen for four years until the NHL lockout.

Kyte said after his accident, he put away any reminders of his NHL days, which eased his transition to life after hockey.

“Hockey had served me very well but I had to make a clean break from the game and being an NHLer, mentally,” he said. “I couldn’t live in the past and I couldn’t use hockey to identify myself for too long and had to move on.”

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