Michael Traikos, National Post Published: Saturday, May 29, 2010
Tyler Anderson/National Post Newmarket’s Gregg Sutch, who was born with a severe hearing impairment, is in position 101 for the NHL draft.
NEWMARKET — This has all the makings of a feel-good story. A real tearjerker. The type of true-life tale that gets turned into a movie and inspires a generation of filmgoers.
It stars a small-town boy who is born with a severe hearing impairment. He is practically deaf. Sleeps through thunderstorms. Fails to flinch when a whistle is blown inches away from his ears.
But his parents refuse to raise him differently and tell him there is nothing in life that he cannot do.
What he wants to do, he says, is be like every other Canadian kid and play hockey. At first, his mother is worried. Her son cannot hear the coach call out instructions, cannot hear his teammates call for a pass, cannot even hear the roar of the crowd.
Won’t he get hurt?
It turns out he’s a natural. It’s as if his other senses are making up for the one that he lacks. He leads his midget AAA team in scoring. He is drafted 11th overall into the Ontario Hockey League. He represents his country at the world under-18 championship.
And then, just when everything is going as well as it can, adversity strikes.
During the season in which he is eligible to be drafted into the National Hockey League, he suffers a high-ankle sprain that keeps him off skates for nearly eight weeks. When he is about to return, he contracts a staph infection from an ingrown hair and misses another two weeks. Shortly after, he separates his shoulder.
“The year from hell,” says his coach.
Indeed, he had once been considered a potential first- or second-round NHL draft choice. Now, Central Scouting does not even invite him to this week’s annual combine for the brightest young prospects. Some wonder if he will even get drafted.
Out of that mess is where we join Newmarket, Ont.’s Gregg Sutch.
What happens next has yet to be written. But, based on the first 18 years of his life, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors forward has an idea how this story is going to unfold.
“I have been through much worse, and I know I can get through this,” Sutch says in a voice he constructed by studying other peoples’ lips.
“Look at where I am today. If it wasn’t for being able to deal with adversity I wouldn’t have been able to get through this position. I feel if you don’t work for anything and if you don’t battle through anything, you’re not going to get any reward.
“If it were easy, everybody would be doing it, right?”
Kim Sutch remembers when she first started to realize her son was having trouble hearing. Gregg was just an infant, maybe only nine months old. But even then, there were little signs that told her something was wrong.
Gregg would stare into space when his name was called. He would sleep through all kinds of loud noises. He would pick up a telephone receiver and move his lips like he was having a conversation, except no sound was coming out of his mouth.
“The final thing was when his uncle did one of those whistles with his fingers,” Kim remembers. “Everyone stopped what they were doing. But Gregg didn’t even turn his head.”
Sutch was taken to a hearing specialist, where it was discovered that his inner ear had been damaged. Doctors could not pinpoint the cause.
“It was just something that I was born with,” Gregg says. “Just bad luck, I guess. My ears just don’t function.”
Sutch is not completely deaf. But even with hearing aids, which he has been wearing since he was two years old, he ranks his hearing at about three or four out of 10. He lives a normal life by reading lips. But if he is not facing the person who is talking, he has no idea what is being said.
Still, he finds it offensive when people refer to him as deaf.
“I have a little bit of hearing,” he says. “And what the hearing aid does is it amplifies that. If I didn’t have a little bit of hearing then the hearing aid wouldn’t work. That would label me as deaf, and I wouldn’t be able to wear a hearing aid.
“That’s where a lot of people get confused. You would never call someone who was wearing glasses blind. You’re visually impaired. So somebody who is wearing a hearing aid is not deaf, he is hearing impaired.”
The thing is, aside from his hearing aids, you would never know that Sutch has difficulty hearing. He is an expert lip reader. And he speaks clearly and confidently.
“As you probably already know, he’s a talker,” his mother says.
He is also a bit of a joker. When asked if he knows sign language, Gregg says no, “except for the middle digit on our hands.”
On the ice, he is much more serious. Scouts describe the 6-foot-2, 190-pound winger as a prototypical power forward. “A real hard-nosed guy to play against,” Majors coach Dave Cameron says.
If he can, Sutch will use his disability to his advantage. He sometimes finishes checks long after the play has been blown dead by arguing that he did not hear the whistle. And despite wearing hearing aids, he does not hesitate in dropping the gloves.
“I can’t say enough good things about Gregg,” Cameron says. “I have guys with 100% hearing that don’t listen. Gregg was very coachable. He’s a great young man.”
Indeed, Sutch has become a role model for the hearing impaired. He writes a monthly blog for The Hockey News. And in June, he will be a guest speaker at a charity golf tournament for VOICE, an organization that supports hearing-impaired children.
His message to the kids is simple: Don’t listen to the criticism.
“I’ve been told so many times that I’m not going to be able to do this or that,” he says. “But I always take it as a challenge. All my life I have been proving people wrong.”
Gregg Sutch is sunburned. The other day he was relaxing in his parents’ backyard when he accidentally fell asleep. Four hours later, he awoke with second-degree burns covering his body.
This is what can sometimes happen when you close your eyes and get wrapped up in a blanket of silence. When you do not hear the everyday sounds of a lawn mower or chirping birds. When you need to be shaken awake.
“I’m purple,” says Sutch. “It’s really painful.”
The burn, like his disability and his unflattering draft ranking, is yet another obstacle. But he knows he will get through it. And when he does, Sutch knows that he will be a stronger person for it.
“Right now, I’m at position 101 in the draft,” he says. “I’m not going to say I agree with it. All I’m going to say is that I’m going to prove people wrong for putting me there.
“It’s all within yourself. If you want something badly enough, you can do it.”