Loneliness in the past for deaf hockey veteran

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

Mark Couture grew up like many Canadian kids with a family active in sports. His father coached minor hockey. He played volleyball. His uncle took a couple of snaps with the Montreal Alouettes and urged his nephew to take up football seriously.

But Couture's love was hockey and he was pretty good. He made the midget triple-A team in Hamilton, played with the junior Kilty-Bs and even got a couple of callups to the OHL Steelhawks in the 1980s. But he was always a stranger among friends. Couture is, ahem, different.

"I remember when I was younger, I'd see kids playing and want to get involved. I'd like to express myself. I'm a vibrant, intelligent person," he said yesterday through an interpreter. Mark Couture is deaf. He talks with his hands. In his world there has been joy, but no cheers. Tears, but no sobs. Games, but no sound of laughter.

"Physically, hockey is the same whether you can hear or not," Couture said. "When you're deaf, you just use your eyes more."

Nobody ever took liberties with him on the ice. Sure, he had his nose introduced to the end boards "but I'm a big guy. If they messed with me I could take care of myself."

Still, he lived a solitary life amidst the babble of his teammates.

"It was difficult to communicate," he said. "I remember those four- or five-hour bus rides in junior and sitting on the aisle but not having anyone stop to talk. Guys would pass notes sometimes, but it was lonely."

Then, in 1989, Couture found the Canadian Deaf Ice Hockey Federation. Now 38 and married with two children, he was in Toronto for a press conference after being named to the national deaf hockey team, which leaves for the 16th Winter Deaflympics on Feb. 1-10.

The Games, in Salt Lake City, will be his fifth. Most Canadians wouldn't even know Canada has a national deaf hockey team and might think Deaflympics is a typo. This team is the Rodney Dangerfield of Canadian sports. They get no respect.

"When we went to Sports Canada (for funding), they ranked us behind the men, the women, the junior and the paraplegic team and we just laughed," Eugene Franciosi, president of the Canadian Deaf Ice Hockey Federation said. "We're just not recognized ... as a cultural entity ... and for our ability. I'm not saying it's the CBC's fault, or the newspapers' fault, but it's difficult to get sponsorship and publicity."

The national team includes 23 players -- 10 from Ontario -- selected at a summer tryout camp. Most play with university or junior A and B teams. Casey O'Brien, a former junior in Ottawa and now playing professionally in Norway, is on the team that has won seven medals in nine Deaflympics appearances. Couture says the calibre is comparable to junior B, noting, "four years ago, we had an exhibition against the Orangeville junior B team and we won."

Parallel experiences

The medals are nice. The game is fun. But for Couture, now a resident counsellor at the Milton School for the Deaf, this is about more than sport.

"When I was younger and playing with people who could hear, our skills were comparable, but we lived parallel experiences. When I went to my first Deaflympics, I was amazed I could communicate (using sign language) with all these people. When I played on hearing teams, I never had this kind of camaraderie."

It'll cost $250,000 to send the team to the Games, which may be a small price considering the rewards it gives participants like Couture. Especially, since Franciosi said, it at least gilds a darker discrimination. He recalls a boy who earned a spot on a midget triple-A team, but when the coach discovered he was hearing impaired, he was cut.

"Deaf players don't get the ice time," Franciosi said. "People say it doesn't happen but it does. This organization gives them a second chance."


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