If you could see what Jim Kyte hears, you would need very thick glasses. Kyte is practically the only hockey player in North America who actually needs to go around saying "eh?" all the time, even if he happens to be the rare Canadian who doesn't. He is entering his fifth season as a defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets, and though he will tell you he has soft knuckles ("My hand can't seem to absorb the power of my punch," he says) and a soft heart, the thing he is best known for, besides being hard of hearing, is that on the ice, the knuckles are often more in evidence than the heart.
Kyte, 23, has auditory nerve degeneration, which means that without hearing aids, he is nearly as deaf as a post. The condition is hereditary—his father and all four of his brothers are also hearing impaired, though his sister is not. Kyte has lost 65-70% of his hearing, with only about 5% of that deterioration occurring in the past 10 years.
All the Kyte boys were born with normal hearing, so they learned to speak before nerve degeneration set in at age three or four. Even a partial hearing loss, if it has existed since birth, can make it difficult to master some of the subtler nuances of speech, and for the profoundly deaf, who have no conception of how words sound, it is virtually impossible. Kyte's brother Rob is the only one in the family who needs speech therapy, and the family thinks this is because his hearing loss began earlier than his brothers'. His hearing problem became aggravated when, at about age five, he suffered a punctured eardrum; his younger brother Frayne, then three, saw him with a cotton swab in his ear and tried to push it all the way in.
Kyte's perspective on his hearing loss is not what you might expect. "I was never aware of a lack of hearing, so I don't feel I'm missing anything," Jim says. "This is just the way I am. But I also don't know what it's like to be deaf. The deaf culture is totally foreign to me."
Jim's father, John Sr., realized as a boy that he had trouble understanding people unless he could see their lips. Now an Ottawa dentist, John Kyte was an alternate on the 1948 Canadian Olympic track and field team as a high jumper, and was such a gifted all-around competitor in other sports that he was named Athlete of the Half Century at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He had always assumed that his hearing difficulties were caused by a childhood case of whooping cough. But then he and his wife, Gayle, had six children, and all except their daughter, Aynslee, developed a serious hearing loss.
"The kids were a tremendous revelation to me," says the elder Kyte, who retains just enough of an Irish brogue—the Kyte clan emigrated from Ireland to Nova Scotia in the 19th century—to sound faintly like the late actor Barry Fitzgerald. "The thing I have to ponder, now that my kids are reasonably productive members of society, is whether I would have ever had any children if I had known about their deafness."
Athletically, few Canadian families have ever soared higher than the Kytes. John Jr., 26, was a pretty fair competitive rower; Aynslee, 25, was a nationally ranked heptathlete; Jim, 23, is a starter in the NHL; Murray, 22, won the Larkin Trophy for academics, athletics and extracurricular activities at St. Francis Xavier; Rob, 19, recently won a comparable award for freshmen at the same school; and Frayne, 17, who may be the best natural athlete among the children, is an aspiring artist in his final year of high school.
All the children learned to skate as toddlers on a rink in the Kytes' backyard. By the time Jim was 15, he was playing on a team that toured Czechoslovakia, and had caught the eye of the junior team from Hawkesbury. "My family was very competitive, particularly the five boys," Jim says. "When we did something, we all wanted to be the best. We used to have contests to see who could scream the loudest into each other's ear until somebody gave in."
"To watch TV at our house, everybody had to be two or three feet from the set," recalls Aynslee. "And even though we had our own rooms, everybody usually ended up doing their homework at the dining table together." This may conjure an image of filial tranquillity at the Canadian hearthside, but it was frequently something less than that. "They would turn their hearing aids off and start singing, off-key and at the top of their lungs." says Aynslee. "It was just loud. I didn't realize how loud until I moved away from home."
One person who could not help but be aware of the constant din in her house was Gayle Kyte, a former high school math and science teacher who presided over this thundering herd. "My mother should be granted immediate entry into heaven for having to put up with five screaming boys who couldn't hear themselves," says Jim. "My dad would just take his hearing aids out and go sit in a corner when we got too loud, but she couldn't do that." Gayle, whose hearing is normal, often is overlooked when people write about the family. "She'll read one of these articles that makes no mention of her," Jim says, "and then she looks at me with very sad eyes and says, 'You don't have a mother.' "
It was Gayle who prevailed upon the Ottawa school board to allow John Jr. to attend a regular school, and that paved the way for the others. The Kyte boys always sat in the front of the classroom, and they were not always sure about what was being said behind their backs. "I suppose it would have been more difficult growing up in a family in which nobody else was hearing impaired," Jim says, "because nobody else would have known what I was going through."
The heightened sensitivity in the family seems to have led to a kind of nonverbal communication between the brothers. "My son John has one capped tooth, Jimmy has two, and Murray has one," says John Sr., whose career in dentistry has come in handy. "A lot of people think they got them knocked out playing hockey, but the truth is the boys were always scrapping with each other." Somewhere in these words is an implied "tut, tut, tut," but then the patriarch of the Kytes adds proudly, "Jimmy broke his hand on John's head, y'know."
Occasionally the boys would take a break from attempted fratricide long enough to form a united front against challengers from the outside world. "We all went to the same elementary school," Jim says, "so when you picked on one Kyte, you picked on them all."
Surprisingly, the one Kyte who generally refused to invoke the family war powers act was Jim himself, who was far too gentle and too obvious a target to fight his way through life. "Jimmy got teased a lot because he was goofy looking," says Aynslee. He was born with a big, floppy left ear, so large that kids often called him Dumbo. When he was 12, he underwent plastic surgery to have the ear pinned back. "I was a big geek in school," Kyte recalls. "I was tall and skinny, and I felt really ugly. I didn't have a lot of self-confidence socially.
"Kids can be really vicious, so I had to develop a pretty good sense of humor about it. When I was younger I wore the big box [hearing aid] on my chest with wires running up to my ears. It was pretty hard to hide that. I hated it because it stuck out like a sore thumb. Kids would see that harness and they would tease me. You could get upset about it and fight everybody, or you could be more subtle. I'm not the kind of person who worries about things I can't control, so I made fun of my hearing impairment along with everybody else. I never really came to violence with other kids. I never believed in it."
When he was 16, Kyte moved away from home to play in the juniors, where opponents nicknamed him Radio Shack because of his hearing aid. And though he quickly developed a reputation as a fighter during his seasons in Hawkesbury and Cornwall, it had nothing to do with people calling him names. "A lot of things are said on the ice in the heat of the moment," he says, "but I don't get into many arguments because I usually can't hear what people are saying to me." Kyte says he began fighting because he is 6'5", and hockey logic dictates that all its behemoths must prove their toughness in an endless succession of duke outs.
Despite three years in the juniors, during which Kyte says he was "always one of the slugs, never a star." Winnipeg G.M. John Ferguson made him the 12th pick of the first round of the 1982 NHL draft. Rawboned and awkward, Kyte scarcely played at all his first three years with the Jets, and when he did he was so terrified of the puck that it did not linger long on his stick. Kyte was used primarily as an enforcer to protect the Jets' finesse players. "You can't be good without one or two heavyweights on your team," says Michael Smith. Winnipeg's assistant general manager. "They make your players better, braver, stronger. If you're a 5'7" winger and you're out on the ice with Jim Kyte, you're not going to have your head taken off, and you're better because he's your teammate. But Jimmy's not a goon. The difference between a goon and a heavyweight comes in crucial games when you can't afford to have a goon on the ice. A heavyweight can intimidate and still skate a regular shift. Jim Kyte is a true heavyweight."
When Dan Maloney became the Jets' coach last season, he increased Kyte's ice time and sought to give him a role other than just that of team thug. Both Maloney and Ferguson were physical players during their careers, and they preach hard-nosed hockey in Winnipeg. Ferguson, in fact, led the NHL in penalty minutes in 1966-67. "In my own personal opinion, he's one of the very best stand-up prizefighters in the league," Ferguson says proudly of his protègè.
Kyte, who is both genial and intelligent—not exactly the traditional hockey-goon combo platter—is of two minds on the subject of smashing in people's faces. On the one hand, he says, "As far as being 'the deaf hockey player,' that never bothered me as much as having people think I was only in the league because I was a fighter. I hate fighting. I absolutely hate it." And yet.... "Early on you have to earn respect; nobody's going to give it to you," he says. "Because we're allowed to fight in this league, I'm going to have to defend myself at times. Being known for fighting can gain you some space on the ice and maybe that extra second that can allow you to make a big play."
Even his teammates are sometimes a little surprised to see him pounding on people. "If you saw him play and then you saw him off the ice, you wouldn't think it was the same guy," says Jets center Dale Hawerchuk. And Kyte says, "When I put my equipment on, I go through a complete metamorphosis. I consider myself a neutralizes I neutralize the instigator on the other team."
"He certainly can't hear footsteps," says Maloney, who always liked Kyte's toughness but, at first, worried about having a defenseman work the corners without being able to hear clearly his partner, his goalie or the sound of the puck ricocheting off the boards. "The higher skill level you attain in any team sport, the more important communication becomes," Kyte says. "I've compensated with the type of game I play. I'm not flashy, and I'm a positional player, so my partner always knows where I am."
He uses hand signals to communicate with goalie Pokey Reddick and the mirrorlike reflection in the Plexiglas surrounding the ice to see where other players are when he skates into the corners. He plays with his hearing aids tucked in under his helmet, but he is overwhelmed by the background noise when he plays in Chicago and New York. "And because I sweat so much, the moisture sometimes shorts out the hearing aids," he says. During the Zamboni interludes, Kyte frequently must use a blow dryer on his aids to regain any semblance of his hearing. "It's just something I have to do if I want to play hockey."
Kyte knows that many well-meaning people think of him first as a deaf person and second as a hockey player. "I guess people can relate to blindness a lot easier because they can just close their eyes," he says. "Being hearing impaired is a handicap, but it's not a disability, because it doesn't keep me from doing anything I want to do. A lot of people wear glasses, but they're not blind. I wear a hearing aid, but I'm not deaf."
Two years ago he started the Jim Kyte Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired, a week-long summer camp at which children with severe hearing loss get an opportunity, in many cases their first, to play a game that is an accepted way of life for most Canadian children.
"When the kids come in they're shy and withdrawn," says Aynslee, who serves as the camp's general manager. "Some of them are so uncomfortable being around other people they don't even want to sign. Jimmy's like a god to them, but he's also one of the biggest kids we have at the school. When we took the children to Wonderland [an amusement park in Toronto], he stayed on an extra two hours because he hadn't done all the rides." On another occasion, Aynslee heard a noise well after curfew and went out to investigate. "I saw some kids watching something," she says, "and when I looked around the corner, there was Jimmy bowling in the hallway."
Kyte is eager to learn how to sign fluently, play the saxophone, fly a plane and skydive, and he hopes someday to sail around the world. He's also thinking about going into business for himself. "Since Wayne Gretzky gets all the hockey endorsements," he says, "I was thinking I should open up a chain of Kyte Hearing Centers and get some of that hearing aid endorsement money."
"He's not your normal hockey player," says Hawerchuk. "He's got a lot of interests outside the game. He likes art and stuff like that." Kyte does indeed have a small collection of art at his home. His favorite piece is an enamel sculpture of a bathroom sink in which the water is black and so is the mirror that hangs above it. Kyte bought the piece, which is called Nothing Seems Clear Anymore, during a period of confusion when he was playing only sparingly for the Jets. These days, when he looks in the mirror, everything seems perfectly clear.