Hearing loss doesn't hold back Mound Westonka freshman on the rink

February 20, 2019 10:32 PM

Kailey Niccum grew up around hockey.

And there was nothing that was going to keep the Mound Westonka freshman from getting on the ice herself.

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Not even the loss of her hearing.

"When I was six-years-old, my Dad put a pair of skates on me and put me out on the rink," said Niccum, who had a goal and an assist as the third-seeded White Hawks (23-0-5) beat unseeded Mankato East/Loyola 4-2 in the quarterfinals of the Class A state girls hockey tournament Wednesday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

She now has 16 goals and 17 assists this season.

"I just fell in love with the sport from there."

KSTP Sports 2019 Girls State Hockey Tourney Central

That was over four years after Niccum began showing signs of hearing loss.

"When she was 15-months-old, we started noticing she wasn't learning new words," her mother Heather said. "At first, we just thought she was being naughty and that she wasn't listening. But a couple of months later, we got her checked out. And the doctor said she needed to go to an audiologist.

"They really don't know what caused it. She's had all kinds of genetic tests and all kinds of imaging. There were no signs of serious illness. It's just something that happened."

Despite that, though, her family was never worried about her taking up hockey. Rather, they encouraged it.

Her father Tim - who officially adopted her when she was a baby - was a former player at Mound-Westonka. And he now coaches at the U12 level in the school’s program.

"We tried different things," Heather said. "She tried gymnastics, but her hearing aid wouldn't stay in. So that became an issue there. But she really took to hockey.

"It's not a physical impediment. So we were never worried about anything happening to her."

Which isn't to say there weren't challenges to overcome. Kailey received a cochlear implant in her right ear during the summer of 2017. Prior to that, she relied solely on the use of a hearing aid to pick things up.

She still uses the hearing aid in her left ear.

"The biggest thing was not being able to hear the whistle," Kailey said. "So I had to learn to watch other players during the game. When they stopped, I would too."

Around five or six years ago, the family was at a youth hockey tournament in Bemidji when they noticed an advertisement for the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association's hockey school in the Chicago area. 

They decided to check it out, beginning an involvement that would see Kailey earn a place on the first U.S. women's deaf hockey team at the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships in April 2017.

RELATED: Hamline senior to lead first U.S. deaf women's hockey team

"It's been an amazing experience," Kailey said. "Until I got there, I had no idea there were so many other players with the same condition I had. I think I gained a lot of confidence just from seeing I wasn't alone. There was a real community there that I could reach out to with questions."

Her growing confidence has shown on the ice. 

This past summer, she participated in USA Hockey's Girls 15 National Player Development Camp in St. Cloud, along with more than 200 other athletes. Players must qualify through tryouts at the district level and at a state camp.

The camp is meant to introduce younger players to the structures and concepts of the U.S. National team program.

"People there treated me just like any other player," Kailey said. "Really, unless I tell people - or they get to know me - they usually don't have any idea."

Meanwhile, at Mound Westonka, Kailey joined the varsity squad as an eighth-grader a year ago. And this season, she is a member of one of the team's top two lines, notching three game-winning goals.

"She is deceptively fast," White Hawks co-head coach Bob Kuehl said. "She's only 5-foot-1. But she has such a smooth skating style. If there's a race to the puck, chances are she's going to win it."

Kailey is not the only player in the Mound Westonka program who deals with hearing loss. Another player on the JV squad does as well. And that player's older sister - who is also hearing impaired - was on the roster last season.

"I think that helps," Kuehl said. "If one of them missed something, the other is usually able to fill them in."

Kailey had to take almost the entire summer off from hockey while getting her cochlear implant in 2017, needing the time to heal and attend speech therapy.

But she said it's been well worth it on the ice.

"It's been so important to my game," she said. "Just being able to hear the whistle now is incredible. I don't have to spend so much time worrying about watching the other players for their reactions. I can just focus on what I'm doing."

What she'll be doing this week is taking part in the state tournament. This marks the White Hawks' second trip to state in the past three seasons. They went 0-2 as the No. 4 seed two seasons ago.

But Kailey was not on the varsity team then. And this year, she and her teammates have their sights set higher.

"All of our focus is on winning that first game, then we'll go from there," Kailey said. "That's how we've approached things all year. We've taken it one game at a time, one period at a time really. And I think we've shown people we deserve to be here."

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