Kailey Niccum and Maddie Gagliano lead their daily lives like most teenage hockey players. They go to school, hang out with friends, and play lots of hockey.
The two girls have formed a bond despite living in different states (Niccum lives in Minnesota, while Gagliano calls Illinois home). That bond goes beyond what takes place on the ice. Each girl lives with hearing loss.
Niccum began losing her hearing by age 2 and wears a cochlear implant in her right ear. She hopes to receive a similar implant in her left ear within two years.
Gagliano didn’t begin showing signs of hearing loss until kindergarten, when she had trouble passing several school hearing tests. Doctors discovered a problem with bone structure that caused moderate hearing loss in her left ear, requiring a hearing aid.
Ask both girls about their hearing impairment, and it becomes immediately obvious that the word “can’t” is not part of their vocabulary, especially when the topic turns to playing hockey.
Niccum, 14, first fell in love with the sport when she was around 7.
“She really liked skating, and was a good skater right from Day 1,” said her father, Tim. “So we signed her up for hockey. It took a little warming up to, but she really liked it.”
Gagliano, who is 15, was surrounded by a hockey family. Her brother also plays, and her father, Jason, played at the University of Illinois. When Gagliano stepped on the ice for the first time, she knew she had found her passion.
“It was exciting,” she recalled. “It was like something I’d never felt before, the way people bond. It was crazy.”
The girls first met five years ago at an American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA) camp in Chicago. In 2017, they were both selected for the U.S. women’s deaf hockey team and were paired on the same line against Canada in the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships, supported by USA Hockey. The rules of play required all players to remove their hearing devices. This was especially challenging for Niccum, who cannot hear without her cochlear implant. But it taught her the importance of keeping your head up in order to communicate with teammates and coaches through lip reading and signs.
“It was amazing, definitely something I’ll never forget,” Niccum said.
This past summer, both girls participated in USA Hockey’s Girls 15 National Player Development Camp in St. Cloud, Minnesota. More than 200 athletes took part in the five-day camp, which provided elite-level coaching along with training strategies and skill development players can use throughout the rest of their hockey-playing lives. To be eligible, girls must advance through district-level tryouts before being selected. Players were divided into 12 teams and spent a lot of time bonding with their teammates. The camp format introduces players to the structure and concepts that are core to the U.S. National Teams, to show the younger athletes what to expect at the highest levels. Niccum played with Team Maroon, Gagliano for the White squad.
Gagliano wasn’t surprised at the caliber of competition at the camp.
“I played against a lot of these girls before, and I knew they were on good teams,” she said. “I grew as a hockey player at the camp, and I understand the game more.”
Not surprisingly, both girls have tremendous respect for the other’s game.
“Kailey’s really smart on the ice,” said Gagliano. “She knows what she’s doing. She’s really good at keeping her head up, she has really good hands. She’s always positive on the bench.”
Niccum is impressed with Gagliano’s shooting ability and her hockey sense.
“And she’s really fast,” Niccum said. “She just knows where to be all the time. It’s fun to play with her.”
Both girls already have a clear picture of what they want their future to look like. Niccum, who plays for her Mound Westonka High School team, hopes to play at the NCAA Division I level and pursue a medical degree. Gagliano, who competed at USA Hockey Girls Nationals in 2017 and 2018, made her verbal commitment to Merrimack College and would love the chance to compete for her country on the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team or the U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team.
Both girls strive to be an inspiration to others who suffer from hearing impairments or other disabilities. Niccum mentors a younger boy in her school district who also has cochlear implants and is a constant source of encouragement to him.
“Hearing loss doesn’t prevent you from doing anything,” she said. “Yes, there will be tough times, but you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Sometimes a person has the greatest impact on the ones closest to them. Jason Gagliano, for one, couldn’t be more proud of his daughter’s accomplishments, on and off the ice.
“I definitely foresee her doing something with kids, whether it be teaching, a counselor or something related to that,” he said. “She carries herself well, she’s always got a kind heart, wants to give back to people. I look forward to what she does later on in life.”