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AHIHA alive and well thanks to Ubriaco and so many others

At 10:30 a.m. Friday, Chicago Wolves senior advisor Gene Ubriaco stood in front of 15 teenage hockey players at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge and offered tips for staying safe on the ice.

Some listened to Ubriaco’s words. Others stared at his lips to decipher his advice. Others didn’t look at Ubriaco at all — focusing instead on the sign-language interpreter standing next to him.

This is standard procedure at the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA) camp, where talented players from across the country have gathered this week to be immersed in hockey without having to worry whether they’ll be able to understand the coaches and the lessons. Private donations take care of their camp fees (and sometimes their transportation and hotel costs). The coaches, interpreters and everyone else volunteer their time and expertise.

Ubriaco teamed up with Hall of Famer Stan Mikita and Irv Tiahnybik to found the camp 41 years ago — inspired by Irv’s son, Lex, whose love for hockey was stalled when he encountered a coach who refused to accommodate his hearing issues. The hockey school offers clinics in the morning — including off-ice work — and games at night. It always runs the week leading up to Father’s Day.

“It just does a lot of good,” Ubriaco said as players skated past during drills. “And any time you’re involved with something that does a lot of good, you’re lucky to be a part of it.”

This week, there are 72 players (including 12 girls) from 25 states who blossom under the guidance of hockey legends who have devoted themselves to AHIHA.

Mikita came out Thursday night to watch the games — one of many Blackhawks legends involved in one way or another.

Jeff Sauer, the longtime University of Wisconsin coach who directed the U.S. National Sled Hockey team to the Paralympics gold medal this winter, is the national team’s head coach and AHIHA board of directors president.

Downers Grove native Tony Granato, who spent the last five seasons as a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant (and served as an assistant for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team), is AHIHA’s official ambassador. His role includes pulling in big names from the NHL such as Penguins forward (and Canadian Olympian) Chris Kunitz. He came to the camp last year and was slated for a return visit Friday night.

“Tony was kind enough to pick up the ball and make this his main charity and take care of the situation,” Ubriaco said. “Had he not done it, I’m not sure it’d still be going. No one had to ask him. He just jumped in and did it.”

Everywhere you look at Seven Bridges, there’s somebody who has devoted decades to AHIHA. Buffalo Grove resident Sue Spector, who coaches AHIHA’s women’s and beginner’s teams, has been a part of things for 35 consecutive years. Jerry “Chief” Patrick, who hails from Schenectady, New York, has handled security and so much more since 1979.

“We welcome all children, regardless of age and degree of hearing disability,” Stewart said. “It encourages these children to never give up. You get the feedback from the families that it has made such a big difference in their children’s lives. They’re given so much confidence that they probably accomplish more than they would have otherwise.”

As proof, Stewart cites AHIHA players who’ve gone on to graduate from Princeton and Harvard and Oxford.

Of course, there’s a hockey benefit as well. Not only do the players get to play with their peers, they get to play at the highest level. Almost all of the players who compete for the U.S. in the Deaflympics and the World Deaf Hockey Championships participate in AHIHA’s camp. Several of the camp instructors know exactly how to coach these players — because they’re former members of the camp and the United States’ national teams.

Sean Dee, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, attended his first AHIHA camp in 1978. He went on play for three United States teams in the Deaflympics and came home with two silver medals (1991, 1999) and one gold (1995).

“Should be three golds,” Dee said with a smile. “I was the captain of the 1999 team.”

Dee took this week off from work at Hartford Insurance Company, where he’s the director of agency compensation, in order to volunteer his time at AHIHA.

“I received a lot from this school,” Dee said. “It’s time for me to give back and help these kids.”