Color of Hockey: Deaf teen girl driven to one day excel in college game

April 11, 2021

Niccum stars on Minnesota high school team, says ‘differences only hold you back if you let them’

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Kailey Niccum, a 17-year-old deaf Minnesota player who aspires to play college hockey.

Kailey Niccum is deaf, but that has not deterred her hockey goals and dreams.

The 17-year-old junior forward at Orono (Minnesota) High School finished this season as her team’s third-leading scorer with 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists) in 20 games, received Wright County all-conference honors and was chosen to be a team captain next season.

“I think it says that your differences only hold you back if you let them,” Kailey said.

Little seems to have held back Kailey, who began playing hockey when she was 7 and dreams of playing for an NCAA Division I women’s team.

She participated in USA Hockey’s Girls 15 National Player Development Camp in 2018, a five-day session in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with more than 200 elite players from across the country.

“She’s a leader, very respectful kid, super-competitive,” said Sean Fish, Orono’s girls’ hockey coach. “She wants to win bad, leads by example, and really wants to succeed.”

Her drive was evident at 13 when she became the youngest player on the first U.S. women’s deaf hockey team that competed in the 2017 World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships in Amherst, New York.

“It was obviously a really cool experience just being at that high a level and then it was just fun being with other girls that have the same experiences with being deaf,” she said. “Just from that experience, I learned that I’m not alone and that there are a lot of other people out there that have the same experience that I do.”

Kailey said she also gained confidence and skill by being a regular attendee since 2016 at the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a week-long summer camp in Illinois co-founded in 1973 by the late Chicago Blackhawks star center and 1983 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee.

The camp is part of the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, a nonprofit organization established by Mikita and the late Chicago business owner Irv Tiahnybik.

 “I think that definitely helped me realize how many others go through (hearing impairment),” said Kailey, who first attended the camp in 2016. “I formed life-long friendships with a lot of the girls and other players. That definitely helped me grow.”

Playing organized hockey wasn’t easy for Kailey when she first started.

“It’s definitely easier now but before I had my hearing aids, I wasn’t able to hear the whistle, so I was more dependent on those around me,” she said. “I would stop when other people stopped. But now I can hear the whistle so I’m dependent more on my own hearing.”

Kailey has a cochlear implant, a small surgically implanted electronic device that partially restores hearing, and she reads lips. When there are times that she doesn’t hear or understand what her Orono coaches are saying, she’ll ask her sister, Alexa Niccum, a 14-year-old freshman forward who is also her linemate.

Alexa was Orono’s fourth-leading scorer this season with 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in 20 games.

“Her sister does a great job of explaining stuff when Kailey doesn’t get it,” Fish said. “On ice, they just have that sister connection where they know where the other will be, on breakouts especially. They’re both wingers, so if either gets it on the wall they seem to find each other on the breakout.”

Each sister aspires to play NCAA Division I hockey after high school. But for now, their main goal is getting the Orono girls’ team into the Minnesota high school hockey tournament for the first time, which they hope to do next season.

Orono fell one game short this season, losing to Chisago Lakes 3-2 in overtime in the state’s Section 5A championship on March 20.

“I definitely want to play college hockey, but I also would like to be able make Orono girls’ hockey history,” Kailey said.

Link: original article.