30 Sharks: Jim Kyte Was NHL’s First Legally Deaf Player
A reliable defensive blueliner, Jim Kyte brought leadership to the San Jose Sharks and inspiration as the NHL’s only legally deaf player.
When injuries limited his playing time by the mid-1990s, Jim Kyte was unclear about his future as an NHL defenseman. However, it was during this uncertain time when Jim Kyte found a new opportunity with a brand new minor-league team, which paved the way for a return to the NHL with the San Jose Sharks.
In this installment of my “30 Sharks” series for San Jose Hockey Now, celebrating the team’s 30th anniversary, I speak with Jim Kyte, who shares his experiences, including the amusing story of how the team first contacted him, thriving under the confidence of head coach Kevin Constantine, and adapting to his role as a defenseman as the only legally deaf player in NHL history.
A Memorable First Impression
By the 1990s, Jim Kyte had already established himself as an NHL veteran. However, a broken ankle limited his play over the next few seasons, including playing just four games for his hometown team, the expansion Ottawa Senators.
Kyte, however, was given a new lease on his hockey life in 1993 when he was approached by the International Hockey League’s newest franchise.
“I almost retired after that year,” Kyte remembered. “I was looking at what I was going to do, and out of the blue, I got a call from Bob Strumm, who was putting together a new team in Las Vegas. The goalies were going to be Clint Malarchuk and Pokey Reddick and they just signed a 17-year-old phenom named Radek Bonk. So, I agreed and thought that [if I] was going to play in the minors, I’d want it to be with someone competitive.”
That team would become known as the Las Vegas Thunder.
As for Kyte, he enjoyed a career resurgence, scoring two goals and 16 assists in 75 games while collecting 246 penalty minutes for the Pacific Division winners.
Kyte’s 1994-95 campaign was just as successful, as he helped Las Vegas to the Conference Finals. At the same time, the NHL had ended their lockout and with the shortened season in full swing, one team was looking for a blueliner.
“We checked into our hotel in Denver, playing the Denver Grizzlies, and as soon as I walked into my hotel room, my phone rang,” Kyte explained. “I thought it was one of my teammates because, on the bus, we had talked about getting something to eat when we checked in. So, the phone rings, I pick it up and the voice on the other end of the line says, ‘This is Joe Will from the San Jose Sharks. I want to talk to you about joining the team.’”
Normally, players in the minor leagues would be ecstatic to receive a call from an NHL team. This, however, was not one of those times.
“I thought it was a prank call from one of my teammates, Andrew McBain,” an amused Kyte noted. “So, I said, ‘F-off, McBain,’ and hung up the phone.
“So, a minute or two later, the phone rings again.
“‘This is Joe Will from the San Jose Sharks calling.’
‘No, this is really–’”
To save the time of going back and forth, the defenseman had a solution.
“‘Look, if this is true, give me a phone number and I’ll call you back,’” Kyte recited.
“So, he gave me the phone number and the 408 [San Jose] area code,” he continued. “There was no internet back then, so I opened up the phone book and saw [that the Denver area code was] 720 and thought, ‘Oh my God, this could be real!’
“So, I called him back, and let’s just say that it was an interesting beginning where I thought I got a prank call. But, it was explained to me that [the Sharks] had a defenseman named Shawn Cronin, who was injured, and they needed somebody to come in to play.”
Once the air was ultimately cleared, Kyte became excited about this now-real opportunity.
“I was thrilled to get the call,” he beamed. “I always thought I deserved to be in the NHL, even though I was playing in the IHL.”
Doing the Right Thing
While he knew that he should have been playing in the NHL, Kyte did not let the excitement of the opportunity in San Jose get the better of him.
Loyal by nature, Kyte discussed the opportunity with his current team before making any decisions.
“I was the captain of the team, so when I got the contract offer from San Jose, I went to my general manager and I explained the situation,” the former blueliner recalled. “At that time, though, San Jose was only giving me a 10-day contract and my general manager said that he couldn’t give me his blessing for 10 games because there were only four games left in the IHL schedule and then the playoffs.
“So, he said, ‘You could be gone for 10 games but by the time you get back, the season might be over. You’re a big part of the team being the captain. But, if [the Sharks] guaranteed you the rest of the season, then, yes, certainly you have to go.’”
Kyte used this chance to renegotiate with Sharks management.
“I went back to San Jose and I said that I needed the rest of the season to be guaranteed and they agreed to that and so I left and– I’m a very loyal person, so I wanted to make sure that the guys in Vegas were taken care of per se, but everybody said that I had to go,” he elaborated. “So, I went to San Jose thinking I wasn’t going to play much. I was told that I’d only be playing a few minutes a game, that I was filling a hole, but it was an opportunity to get back [to the NHL] and I was thrilled to be there.”
A Coach-Inspired Confidence Boost
Kyte made his San Jose Sharks debut in late March of 1995 and due to the late start to the season, the NHL’s regular-season schedule still had over a month left — just in time to help his new team make a push for the playoffs.
“They had a lot of young players — Ray Whitney, Jeff Friesen, Pat Falloon — but they did have some veterans there, as well — Ulf Dahlen, Gaetan Duchesne,” Kyte said of the Sharks roster. “But, while I was a veteran presence there, you had to respect the leadership on that team and I just wanted to contribute as best as I could and lead by example: Being there early, being last off the ice, and always working hard.”
In spite of his return to the NHL, the former defenseman was low on confidence. That changed when he met his new head coach.
“I went in with not a lot of high expectations, but [head coach] Kevin Constantine showed a lot of confidence in me, and when a player has the coach’s confidence, their own confidence grows,” Kyte noted. “So, I went there thinking that I’d be playing five, six minutes a game and by the time the playoffs came around, I was playing 25 minutes a game. When I got there, I was playing well and ended up scoring a couple of goals — one in Anaheim and the other in Chicago.”
While his return to the NHL initially enamored him with the team, it was Kevin Constantine’s coaching style that helped Jim Kyte enjoy his time with the Sharks.
“He was a very good communicator and he said exactly what he wanted to happen,” stressed the former Cornwall Royal. “With the defensemen, there were a lot of grey areas. There were a lot of judgment calls you needed to make and Kevin articulated what he wanted to see in his players and what he wanted to see in terms of interpreting different plays, and I thought he was great. He was very stern and he was very clear in his communication.”
Juggling Personal and Professional Life
Despite finishing with a less-than-average 19-25-4 record, the 1994-95 San Jose Sharks made the playoffs as the seventh-seed in the West.
Hoping to repeat another first-round upset from the previous year, the Sharks faced off against the Calgary Flames.
If ever there was a time to use his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame to his advantage, it was now for Kyte.
“Jayson More and I were playing defense together and we were both physical, defensive defensemen and Calgary had the home-ice advantage,” began the former blueliner. “So, the first two games, they had last [line] change and they kept putting out [Joe] Nieuwendyk, [Theoren] Fleury, and [Gary] Roberts against Jayson More and I, and we ended up winning the first two games.”
The series, however, marked a conflict, albeit a thrilling one, for Kyte and his wife.
“Before the series started, I had told [the Sharks] that I had to talk to my wife because she was eight months pregnant and in Vegas and couldn’t travel,” Kyte recalled. “So, she said that I had to go. So, we won on May 7 and 9 in Calgary, her due date was on May 10, so I flew back to Vegas, she had the baby, Owen, then I flew to San Jose and made it for the game on the 11th. So, it was a bit of a whirlwind, and I didn’t see Owen [until] six days later, after winning the first round.
“So, we won the first two games in Calgary and in San Jose, Constantine decided not to match myself and Jayson against their top line and, I’m not saying it was the main reason, but [the Flames] ended up blowing us out three games in a row. They came storming back and afterward, Jayson and I went to the coach and said, ‘Listen, match us up against their top line. We’re going to shut them down.’”
On the precipice of elimination, Constantine and his staff made another change — and a gutsy one, at that.
“Not only did [the coaches change the lines], they also changed the goalie. Arturs Irbe had been the number-one goalie but after winning the first two games, he struggled the next three. So, they put in Wade Flaherty for Games 6 and 7, and Flats stood on his head.”
In the end, the gamble paid off for Constantine, Kyte, and the Sharks.
“We ended up winning Game 6 and Game 7,” Kyte noted. “We went back to Calgary [for Game 7] and we ended up winning in double-overtime, 5-4, with Ray Whitney scoring the goal and I believe I was a plus-five in the game. I never actually checked it but in my own head, I was.”
Kyte wasn’t far off — he was a +4.
As thrilled as he was about his team’s victory against the Flames, the big blueliner shuddered to think how little he could’ve been involved had it not been for the encouragement and belief he received from his coach.
“I had exceeded my own beliefs, had played a lot, and Kevin Constantine had played me a lot,” Kyte fondly reflected. “And you love any coach that lets you play a lot. But something that has always stuck with me, and I still use today. [It] happened midway through [our series vs. the Flames]. I had always gotten to the rink early, going through my routine, reading the games and so forth, and Kevin was there early and he came by and said, ‘I sleep better at night knowing that you’re on my team.’”
What an amazing, thoughtful sentiment — one Kyte was naturally humbled by.
“I said, ‘Wow!’,” he remembered. “I thought I was 10 feet tall. So, those are pretty powerful words for me. They really touched me and thanked him [for the kind words] and thanked him for the opportunity.”
Sticking with the Sharks
At season’s end, Jim Kyte’s contract was up, and he hoped to stay with the San Jose Sharks.
“I had an offer from another team but I’m a loyal person, so I decided to return when San Jose made me an offer,” he explained. However, while a new contract should have left the defenseman feeling optimistic, it instead left him scratching his head.
“As soon as I signed the contract, I was told by [Sharks co-GM] Dean Lombardi that [the Sharks] were in a youth movement and you may not play that much,” Kyte continued. “I would have appreciated that he told me that before I signed the contract but he waited until afterward and I said that was fine. They had [Vlastimil] Kroupa and a bunch of young defensemen, so I said that my job will be to make sure that those guys are ready to play. Unfortunately for me, though, Kevin Constantine got fired early in the season.”
While the coaching change was the result of a dismal 3-18-4 start to the 1995-96 campaign, the Sharks front office was committed to having their team play a completely different, not to mention unfamiliar, style of hockey.
“The Devils had won [the Stanley Cup] the year before and [the Sharks] had tried to implement a New Jersey system, which was fine, but a system is only good if it fits the makeup and the talent of the players that you have,” Kyte explained of the infamous trap style. “You can’t force a system on a group of players if you don’t have the right tools. Like Craig Janney, Owen Nolan, Ray Sheppard, Jeff Friesen, Ray Whitney — these guys are all offensive players and playing the trap was something that all five players on the ice needed to work in cohesion together. So, if one of the players isn’t doing it, the whole thing doesn’t work, and implementing that kind of change takes time.
“So, in any event, we didn’t have a lot of success at the beginning of the year and Kevin was fired. Then, they brought in an interim coach from Kansas City, Jim Wiley. So, I had only played 57 games that year but I was there to make sure that the guys would be ready to play and develop — Mike Rathje, Marcus Ragnarsson — so they went with a bit of a youth movement.”
For family reasons, Kyte had left the NHL but remained with the Sharks organization, getting sent down to the IHL’s Kansas City Blades.
A Positive Tenure in San Jose
While he was admittedly disappointed with his diminishing role with the club, Jim Kyte, being the true professional that he is, understood that youth movements are simply a reality of the ever-evolving world of professional sports.
Overall, though, Kyte only had the warmest memories of his time with the San Jose Sharks.
“My time in San Jose, I thoroughly enjoyed it because after my time in Calgary, I always knew that I deserved to be in the league, and not only was I able to get the opportunity by San Jose, I was given a real opportunity to play a lot of minutes, and we had a lot of success,” Kyte fondly reflected. “We beat [the Flames] who had originally bought my contract out, so that was a bit self-affirming. I really enjoyed being with the guys and everyone in San Jose was great. Just a really good group of guys.”
Adapting As an Orally-Deaf Player
Entering the NHL as a rookie can be daunting for anyone. This was especially the case for Jim Kyte who, as an 18-year-old breaking in with the Winnipeg Jets, made a less-than-ideal first impression, albeit of no fault of his. Still, while embarrassing at the time, the former defenseman can’t help but laugh about it all these years later.
“My very first roommate in Winnipeg was a guy named Moe Mantha and we were roommates for one night,” Kyte said. “I didn’t know this but you talked to Moe and he would kind of turn away like he didn’t want to listen to you. It turned out Moe was deaf in one ear. Well, he ended up sleeping on his good ear and so neither of us heard the alarm clock go off. We were supposed to be on the ice at 8 o’clock but woke up at a quarter to 8 and went, ‘Oh my God!’
“It’s safe to say that we were never roommates again after that,” Kyte added with a hearty laugh.
Light-heartedness aside, though, Kyte knew he needed to adapt as an orally deaf player if he hoped to succeed at the NHL level.
He took the time to explain how this happened, which may or not have included the advent of a now-common goaltending signal.
“I played in an era of touch icing, so whenever I went back for the puck, if I didn’t know it was icing or not and I didn’t have time to check or didn’t know where the linesman was, so, and I don’t know if I started it or not, but I told the goalie to put their arm up in the air if it’s going to be icing. I had a visual cue with the goalie going back,” Kyte described. “But, if it’s not icing, you’re going back up the ice looking to see if there’s a [line] change or not. If it’s not icing, I want [the goalie] to point with their arm one way or the other — whichever way they want me to go with the puck. So, the goalie’s telling me, based on what they can read, which way I should turn for the puck. There are times where you don’t have time to look at the goalie. So, people with good hearing, from what I understand, can hear the skates of the player chasing you on the ice. I didn’t have that luxury.
“What I did do, though, and it’s not easy to do, and something I started doing in junior because before every game [at any level], they will clean the plexiglass on the inside and the outside before every game so that the fans can see the game without any obstructions. But, as a player, when you’re going back for the puck, you get a mirror-like reflection off the glass — don’t look through the glass but at the glass — and you can see where the player is behind you when you’re going into the corner. I used my eyes and saw which side the player was behind me and if I was in the corner, I could see if there was a player on the other side of the ice.”
Dating back to the beginning of his NHL career, Kyte recalled a specific incident that involved another method he used to adapt.
“I specifically remember being in Edmonton, and back when I played, the home team wore white jerseys,” he added. “So, I’m on the offensive blueline and I subconsciously counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, making sure there were five white jerseys in front of me. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4– where’s the fifth?
“Glenn Anderson was behind me. [The Oilers] had just made a change and he came out the other side. My bench is yelling at me, ‘Hey, there’s a player behind you,” but I couldn’t hear them. But, I just knew that things didn’t add up in front of me, so I turned and saw Anderson try and take the breakaway pass. So, a player with good hearing wouldn’t need to do that because they could hear the bench scream.”
“I did all the talking on the ice, so rather than me listening to them, I did a lot of talking so they could listen to me. But, if my partner wanted to talk to me, everybody in the rink heard him. I remember [former Jets defenseman] Mario Marois. He would be a loud guy but if he didn’t speak that way, I wouldn’t have heard him. That’s one of the reasons I was a defensive defenseman: So I could stay in position all the time.”
While he had his methods of adapting, Kyte was quick to emphasize that while he did things differently, his specific methods were not necessarily right or wrong; and that is the case for anyone with a disability adapting in whatever industry to attain success.
“For others with a disability, an opportunity, they may not do things the same way you do, but they will find a way to make it work,” he noted. “Maybe it’s not better or worse but it’s a different way of doing it.”
Getting the Coaches on the Same Page
Being a person who has stuttered since childhood, I could relate to a degree to what Jim Kyte was sharing about his hearing impairment. For one thing, when speaking to others, I need the undivided visual attention of those I’m speaking to. This is one reason why conversing on the phone has always been a personally difficult ordeal. But, I digress.
For the former defenseman, practices were a challenging aspect of his hockey career, to say the least.
“Every coach [I had] had to re-train,” Kyte stated. “Like most teachers and coaches, they like to turn their back [to the players] and write on the board and speak at the same time. But, I’m a lip reader, so basically, it was Charlie Brown’s teacher for me. And it’s tougher now with people wearing facemasks all the time.
“So, I would tell the coaches, ‘Listen, please write on the board, then turn and talk to the players,’ because I need to see your mouth. And I tried to position myself, too. So, if the coach was right-handed, I’d position myself this way or that way if they were left-handed. If the coach didn’t [turn around to speak], I’d just wait for practice to be over and tell them, ‘Okay, I need you to repeat everything you said.’”
Instead of shying away, Kyte was upfront about his disability and it helped his career.
“I was very proactive about asking and clarifying questions, and you have to be proactive,” emphasized the former defenseman. “Then, when I was sitting on the bench, I was always looking down the bench to see who was up next. I was just waiting for the coach to give an indication to say, ‘Okay, Kyte, More, you’re up,’ or it’s going to be x or y?
“On the ice, I’d be focused on the play, but until then, I was looking at the coach and they’d ask, ‘Why do you keep looking at me?’ And I’d say, ‘Because I need to know. It’s not because I’m giving you the Puss ‘n Boots dough eyes. I just need to know who’s up next. If it’s not me, that’s fine. I just need to know.’”
Looking back on his career in hockey, Jim Kyte is confident in saying that he has had no regrets. Specifically with the San Jose Sharks, he thoroughly enjoyed this juncture, especially when Kevin Constantine was the club’s bench boss.
Beyond that, Jim Kyte is the only legally deaf player in the NHL, and wears that as a badge of honor. But, the former blueliner would rather not be solely remembered for his disability. After all, Kyte brought to the table a ton of size, an intimidating physical presence, and a sharp defensive prowess, just to name three assets.
Still, making the absolute most of his career while being orally deaf is enough to view Jim Kyte as an inspiration, even if the big man is too modest to agree.
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