December 28, 2019
By Mike Copper
McDowell graduate Miles Gates, a member of the United States men’s deaf hockey team, cherishes fourth international-level event and gold-medal win.
“You don’t have to win all of the games, you just have to win the right ones.”
McDowell graduate Miles Gates, a member of the United States men’s deaf hockey team, remembered that quote after a loss to Canada during the 19th Winter Deaflympics.
The 10-day, 34-country event, open to athletes medically certified as hearing impaired, concluded Dec. 21 in Valtellina, Italy.
Its five-team men’s hockey competition was the fourth at the international level for Gates, an Erie School District employee who’s in his first year working with special education students at Strong Vincent Middle School.
Gates was an alternate captain for the U.S. players and coach Brian Swatek. At age 30, the defenseman was already an elder statesman on its roster.
However, Gates’ fourth career appearance in an international tournament also provided him enough experience to mentor younger players. He said there was plenty of consoling needed after Canada defeated the U.S. 4-1 in the teams’ last pool game.
Many of U.S. players were dejected with that outcome, even though they’d beaten Finland, Kazakhstan and Russia by a combined score of 27-5.
Gates reminded them that the loss to Canada was irrelevant, as each country was already assured of a rematch in the tournament’s Dec. 21 championship game.
It was at that moment Gates also recalled the previous advice once told to him by the late Jeff Bauer, who coached U.S. Winter Paralympics hockey teams in 2010 and 2014.
“That quote always stuck with me,” Gates said. “When I told it to our guys, I think it stuck with us. We didn’t beat Canada (in pool play), but we beat them in the medal round.”
The U.S. scored all its goals in a row over the second and third periods for a 7-3 victory. It was one of three individual or team sports won by Americans over the 10-day event.
Gates is able to communicate and speak normally because he wears state-of-the-art hearing devices. However, he’s been eligible to compete in events like the Deaflympics because he was born with holes in each ear canal.
All athletes in this month’s competition were eligible to participate in their respective events because the hearing loss in their better ear didn’t exceed 55 decibels. However, they weren’t permitted to wear their hearing aids or cochlear implants while in action.
Gates said that, besides keeping your head up at all times, deaf hockey players long ago learned various ways to adapt and communicate sans verbally.
“You can’t sign while you’re holding your stick,” he said, “but you can point to where you want (another teammate) to be. It’s kind of a weird thing, but sometimes if you want the puck passed to you in the middle of a play, you also can bang your stick on the ice. You can feel the vibration, depending on how close you are.”
Gates learned such tricks as a youth while playing ball hockey on local streets and lots, and then at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a degree in graphic design. His play in club hockey for the New York school caught the attention of USA Hockey and the US Deaf Sports Federation.
Gates was first invited to try out for its 2009 team that participated in a deaf hockey tournament in Finland. Making he cut was beyond exciting.
“I called my mother (Barb) from RIT and said, ‘Mom, I made the team!’” he said. “I was 19 years old, I had six months to get ready and, most important, I had to get a passport. It was crazy, but I took full advantage of it.”
That began a decade of occasional globe-trotting for Gates. Along with the Americans’ gold medal performance in Italy, he also received a bronze for their collective effort during the 2015 Deaflympics in Russia.
Gates only traveled to Amherst, New York, for his first international gold. He skated there when the U.S. won the 2017 World Championships.
Gates departed for Italy unsure if the Deaflympics would be his last international hockey tournament.
Such tentativeness remained when he returned home three days before Christmas.
When not at his job at Vincent, Gates is studying online for his master’s degree from Grand Canyon University. He also coaches with Mercyhurst University’s deaf hockey program.
There’s also impending nuptials. Gates and his fiancee, Connie, plan to marry next August.
Whatever Gates decides to do, though, he learned long ago not to let his hearing loss be a hindrance.
“I know I’m always going to be one step behind, but also two steps ahead,” Gates said. “I’m one behind because I’m deaf, but also two ahead because I’m always driven to meet my goals.”