Weekly Feature

2011-12-28 / Sports

Deaf hockey player competes on Amherst-Sweet Home girls team

by PATRICK J. NAGY Reporter

Sign language interpreter Joanne Mayers interprets to Katelyn Koester what Amherst-Sweet Home (Katz) girls hockey coach Jim Ryan is saying to other players during the team’s 3-2 win over Kenmore on Thursday at the Northtown Center at Amherst Rink No. 2. Koester, a sophomore forward, is profoundly deaf. 
Photo by Nick LoVerdePurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Sign language interpreter Joanne Mayers interprets to Katelyn Koester what Amherst-Sweet Home (Katz) girls hockey coach Jim Ryan is saying to other players during the team’s 3-2 win over Kenmore on Thursday at the Northtown Center at Amherst Rink No. 2. Koester, a sophomore forward, is profoundly deaf. Photo by Nick LoVerdePurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com In some ways, Katelyn Koester is your typical hockey fanatic.

She loves watching Buffalo Sabres games and is always questioning the game with her father, Jim. She has played the sport for eight years, with the last two years as a forward for the Amherst-Sweet Home girls team — collectively known as the Katz — of the Western New York Girls Ice Hockey Federation.

But there’s a profound difference between her and everyone else — she can’t hear.

Katelyn, a sophomore at Sweet Home High School, was born deaf. Her oldest brother, Ryan, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, is also deaf.

Hockey family

Katelyn was destined to play hockey. Two of her older brothers — Chris and Jesse — both played for the Sweet Home Federation boys ice hockey team. Katelyn’s twin brother, Connor, is a sophomore forward for the Panthers.

Katelyn and Connor started playing youth hockey at age 7 in the Amherst Youth Hockey mite division. She’s also played travel hockey at the 12U, 14U and 16U levels.

“Hockey is a big part of my life,” said Katelyn through a sign language interpreter. She also plays JV volleyball and softball for Sweet Home.

“I’m not the best one, but I’m a good team player.”

Katelyn played for the Sweet Home modified boys team as a seventh- and eighth-grader. That all changed last year when the eight-team WNY Girls Ice Hockey Federation was formed. Katelyn recorded six goals and six assists in her freshman year. She has a goal and two assists this season.

“It felt great,” Katelyn said. “All the boys ever did was check.”

She credits her parents, Jim and Linda, for their support.

“Mom and Dad are behind me 100 percent,” she said. “I think they’re the best parents in the world.”

“She really works hard at it,” said Jim Koester.

Use of signing

Katelyn, 15, is profoundly deaf, meaning she cannot hear anything, whether it’s a referee’s whistle to stop a play or the crowd cheering after a goal has been scored.

She is able to communicate through sign language with two interpreters — Jennifer White and Michelle Kasmore. One of them is with Katelyn at all times during school-related activities, whether it’s a 5:30 a.m. practice at the Northtown Center at Amherst, in the classroom or at a game.

Both are independent contractors employed by the Sweet Home School District. White has worked with Katelyn since she was a third-grader. Kasmore has worked with Katelyn since the fourth grade.

A third interpreter — Joanne Mayers — tutors Katelyn for upcoming classroom work and interprets during games if White or Kasmore is unavailable.

“I always have my eye on her,” Kasmore said. “That is my role. During a game, I need to know where she is on the ice and when she is going out on the ice again.”

“I truly feel like a hockey mom,” laughed White. “People say she’s my fourth kid.”

White and Kasmore are invaluable in communicating with Katelyn — whether it is to rely a message from Amherst-Sweet Home coach Jim Ryan — or to let Ryan know if she has any questions.

“When the coach is talking and I don’t know what he is saying, the interpreters will sign to me whatever the coach is saying so I know what to do and what the plays are,” Katelyn said.

“It’s great for me,” Ryan said. “I can say to them things I want Katelyn to do and they’re able to pick it up. They’ve become as much of our coaching staff than my assistant coach Rich Beaudet or I, which has been the best experience because they have learned so much about the game. They’re big advocates for Katelyn but are rooting as much for our entire team than anyone else.”

An example of how White or Kasmore communicates with Katelyn is when Ryan explains a drill at practice.

“The coach will draw the play up on the board, and she is watching him draw and us interpret, and then he’ll go on the ice and demonstrate the play,” White said. “She’ll get in line and watch someone else do it first, and because she has been playing for so long, she understands what to do. It’s really great to have that extra communication with the interpreter because without it, she misses a lot.”

Katelyn does not have an interpreter when she plays hockey for the Amherst Knights 16U travel team.

“On my other team, I usually don’t know what to do,” Katelyn said. “People forget I’m deaf. There is no interpreter there. I always try to figure it out by myself. For school, it’s a lot easier. I use my interpreter when I need them.”

“It breaks your heart when she’s playing travel hockey,” Linda Koester said.

Katelyn is the only deaf player in Amherst Hockey. Three years ago, Jim Koester said the Amherst Hockey board met to discuss the addition of an interpreter for Katelyn during games, but the board decided against it.

One of the girls

Ryan has seen Katelyn play for the last six years at either hockey camps or as part of the Sweet Home boys program before it offered a girls team. He treats Katelyn like any other player, not holding back if she makes a mistake.

“I’m very hard on her,” Ryan said. “I don’t cut her any breaks. While I don’t think she loves it all of the time, she respects it.”

He said Katelyn’s biggest responsibility is to ask questions, which he said can be difficult at times.

“That is when I get the most frustrated, when she doesn’t ask questions and she is determined to want to know by herself,” Ryan said. “It’s a great quality to have, that perseverance, but it’s frustrating because I don’t want her to learn it at a slower pace than anybody else.”

Ryan said Katelyn’s strengths as a player are her on-the-ice awareness, shot and work ethic.

“She’s always does anything I ask of her,” Ryan said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coaching her. Her last three games have been the best I have seen her play. A lot of that has to do with Jennifer and Michelle and the girls on the team. What they have done is pretty remarkable. It’s one of the greatest things I have seen since I started coaching.”

Some of the players know a little sign language, but Katelyn is able to play at such a high level because she is looking at other players’ body language or they are pointing at her. She can also read lips well, but said it’s hard sometimes to talk to other players or the interpreters because of her mouth guard.

Ryan said Katelyn’s ability to adapt when he juggles the forward lines can’t be easy.

“She still adapts to who she is playing with,” Ryan said. “I always respect that about her. Many of the girls can’t sign, so her ability to work with them can be difficult, and she does it and usually never complains.”

White said the girls on the team are extremely respectful of her.

“They all get along with her,” White said. “We’ve never seen any problems.”

“All of the girls want to learn how to communicate with her,” Jim Koester said. “She’s good at reading lips to make sense of it. They know what she is saying.”

“As difficult as it must be not to communicate in a lot of capacities, kids love her,” Ryan said. “She has a great infectious personality. She’s always smiling.”

In school, Linda Koester said Katelyn is friends with anybody who is popular or not popular at all.

“She is very mature for her age,” Linda Koester said.

After this season, Katelyn has two more years left of high school hockey. After high school, she would like to try and play Division I collegiate hockey.

“My life would be complete,” Katelyn said.

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