The Bravest Guy I Know

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I got yanked from a game recently. It was brutal. The worst part was that it was in my own home.

My son Nolan is five years old, and he loves to play mini sticks with me. He’d play every day if he had it his way. We have a routine. Before we start each game, we have to pick our teams. He has these little magnets with all the NHL logos, and he sticks the matchup on the board.

He always gets to pick first. Usually, he picks the Dallas Stars. He really likes the Stars for some reason. But this time, he picked daddy’s team.

“I’m the Hurricanes!” he says.

I’m like, “O.K., bud. Who’s starting in goal tonight?”

“Hmmm … Cam Ward.”

Daddy gets the start. Nice. The game is first-to-five, and he does a running commentary the whole time like he’s the play-by-play announcer. Video replays are a must.

“Skinner has the puck … shoots … scooooooores!”

He’s up on me 41, when all of a sudden I score one to limit the damage and make it 42. He calls a timeout!

“Uh-oh,” he says, “The Hurricanes are making a goalie change.”

I’m like, “What?”

“Yeah, we’re making a change. Eddie Lack is going in.”

“But, buddy … you’re winning 42. I don’t understand. Why are you pulling Cam Ward?”

“Sorry, coach wants to make a change.”

“But, Daddy was —“

“Lack is in.”

He starts doing stretches like he’s Eddie, warming up after coming off the bench.

Daddy got yanked. With a lead. So what do I do?

Let’s just say daddy made a little comeback to win 54. Sorry, Eddie.

For a lot of dads, this kind of moment is almost routine. A lot of kids love to play mini sticks. A lot of kids grow up doing their own play-by-play. But for me, the fact that I can hear my son calling out goals is something I will never take for granted.

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One of the happiest days of my life was the day my son was born. Thanksgiving 2010. I was on such a high. But I had no idea about the emotional roller coaster that we were about to embark on.

My wife, Cody, called me from the hospital the day after Nolan was born. We were in Boston on a road trip. I could tell right away from the tone of her voice that something wasn’t right. She explained to me that Nolan had failed the newborn screening hearing test at the hospital, but the doctor said that it happens all the time.

“Could be fluid,” he said.

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When a newborn fails their initial hearing test, they are automatically set up to have a follow-up appointment.

My wife took Nolan to the pediatric audiologist’s office, and tried to remain positive. They put Nolan through a bunch of tests, and the doctor seemed optimistic. They actually told her after it was over, “Everything looks pretty good. Go on home and we’ll call you if anything comes up.”

But as soon as she got home, their office called. My wife is the only one who can describe what happened next.

Cody
“Hi, Mrs. Ward. Can you please bring Nolan back in. We want to run a few more tests.”

Even at that point, I still thought everything was going to be fine.

When I brought him back, the audiologist stopped in the middle of one of the tests and gave me a look. She said the words I’ll never forget.

“Do you want to call your husband?”

I said, “Um, he’s in the middle of hockey practice.”

“I see. But maybe it’s best if he’s here.”

“He’s … he’s at hockey practice. He can’t just …”

I almost fell apart.

I knew. I knew the second she said that to me.

Cam
Practice is over, I get the phone call.

My wife was saying something that I couldn’t really comprehend. She was telling me that Nolan had failed another screening.

Our son was deaf.

I was numb. Kind of in disbelief. I wasn’t accepting it.

We took Nolan to the UNC Medical Center for some additional tests and they confirmed that he was “profoundly deaf.” He wasn’t hearing anything at all.

I just couldn’t understand how that was possible. The pregnancy had been smooth. The delivery had been perfect. No history of hearing impairment in either of our families. Cody and I both got genetic testing done and it all came back negative. They told us it was a spontaneous genetic mutation.

Carolina Hurricanes v Philadelphia Flyers

Even after the diagnosis, I still questioned it. There were times when Nolan would be sleeping in his crib, and I would stand behind him and clap my hands right next to his ear. Nothing. I’d clap as hard as I could, just hoping that I would see some kind of reaction — hoping that he could hear me somewhere deep down. But he would just keep sleeping.

Eventually, after more appointments and tests than I can count, the specialist at UNC told us that we should consider cochlear implants for Nolan.

Cochlear implants? I had never heard the term before. The doctor explained that it’s an electronic medical device that provides sound signals to the brain. It would be implanted in Nolan’s inner ear. On the outside, a “processor” would be attached to the side of his head with a magnet. Think of it like a microphone that picks up all the outside sounds, and then transmits a signal to the electrodes in the cochlea, which stimulate the auditory nerve.

All the terminology kind of made my head spin. Still does.

But we were willing to try any technology that could help our child hear us tell him that we loved him. However hard it might be.

Nolan was 9½ months old when he underwent surgery for his right-side implant. Nothing can prepare you to see your baby boy go through a major surgery. But everything went smoothly, and we brought him home from the hospital the same day.

The question was, where should we set our expectations?

There was so much uncertainty. Keep in mind, Nolan hadn’t heard a sound for the first 9½ months of life. My wife … I can’t say enough about what she has done for Nolan. I’d be away playing hockey and she’d be working with him every single day. She would sit with him and repetitively go over every sound. I never knew there was so much that goes into teaching speech. There’s so much in a baby’s development that you take for granted.

You have to make the fluctuations in your voice so he gets the different pitches and different sounds. Every sound was “ba-ba-ba, boo-boo-boo, bee-bee-bee.” We had to bring everything down to the most basic level to build it back up.                       

But Nolan kept on working, and then one day, after he had just turned two years old, I got the best text message ever. We were on a road trip (of course), and I was in the hotel when my wife sent me a video of Nolan sitting in his highchair. I could hear her offscreen, extremely excited.

“What did you say, Nolan? What did you say?”

“I wuv you.”

Whoa. Just, whoa.

“Say it again! What did you say, Nolan?”

“I wuv you.”

When I got that video, I was so emotional. As a hockey player, you’re away from your family so much, and unfortunately you sometimes miss out on the big moments like this. To be able to experience that moment, even through the phone in my hotel room, was indescribable. Barely a year prior, Nolan couldn’t hear us tell him that we loved him. Now, he was saying it back.

I could not wait to get home and see it for myself.

Soon enough, he was adding even more words, and I was getting videos like this one all the time.

Still, it took some time to get used to seeing Nolan with his processor on. As a father, I worried for him. Would he get picked on? Would he be able to wear a helmet without his processor falling off? Could he jump in a pool with it on?

The thing is, those were only my own insecurities. Nolan has no idea that he’s different from anyone else, because he’s not. He’s now five years old and excelling at school. He’s reading and speaking at his age level. He’s got a bunch of awesome friends. There are the questions like, “What’s that on your head?” And he simply replies, “That’s my processor. It helps me hear.”

Last season, Nolan and my wife were watching our game on TV, snuggled up on the couch. Out of the blue, Nolan turned and said to her, “I’m going to be just like dad when I grow up.”

She said, “Oh yeah? You’re going to be a goalie?”

“Yeah, I’m going to play goalie for the Hurricanes. But I’m not going to have my processor. Because dad doesn’t have one. So I won’t have one.”

As tough as it is, it’s these moments when you have to remind him – he’s always going to have his processor. My wife did a great job of explaining it.

“Well, you know how Mommy has to wear glasses to see? You have to wear your processor to hear. It’s no big deal. We just need them.”

He paused to take it all in for a second.

Then he’d say, “Oh, O.K.”

And he went back to watching the game.

Our emotions may be churning deep down, but he simply moves on, just like that. In reality, he is much better at moving past his obstacles than I am. I still get mad at times, and think, “Why Nolan?”

It hurts me inside any time I see him struggle.

The day we went to get his first hockey helmet was one filled with anticipation — it was a day that should have been a big, happy moment for us. But that excitement turned into tears when we couldn’t get his processor to fit under his helmet.

In the end, we cut some foam out of the helmet and made it work. Though it pains me to see him upset, I bottle those feelings inside. He believes he can try to do anything, and so do I.

Hockey is his happiness. He loves it.  

His favorite thing in the world is going into the locker room with me after a practice or a game. It’s my favorite, too. He talks to the players and thinks he’s so cool. Then he goes into the weight room and does his ninja routine.

“Bud, it’s time to go.”

“But dad, I need to work out.”

Priceless.

During our home games, Nolan will be in the corner by the glass during the warmups. He loves that, because he always gets the fist pump from his hero, Jeff Skinner. (He wears his Skinner jersey to most games. Either that or his Justin Faulk jersey. He sneaks Dad’s jersey into the rotation every so often. But I’m definitely his No. 3.)

For a little while there, Nolan thought that the higher your jersey number, the better you were. Like the team gave out the highest numbers to the best players. If we were playing the Capitals, he’d be like, “Dad, how are you gonna win tonight? Their goalie is a number 70. You’re 30. He’s really good.”

It’s hilarious. I’d come home after a game and Nolan would tell me, “Daddy, you really need to try harder to stop the puck.”

Thanks, bud. Noted.

For the last game of the season this year, Nolan surprised me by making a sign. I looked over to his normal spot in the corner, and I see this big sign that says, GO DAD GO. SAVE THE PUCK ALL THE TIME.

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Watching Nolan and seeing his love for the game brings me back to when I was his age. I absolutely loved hanging out with my dad in the locker room, even if it was just a men’s rec hockey league. I thought it was the coolest. Growing up, my dad always said to me, “The more fun you have, the better you do.”

He called it his golden rule.

To be honest, it can be a hard rule to follow sometimes if you get caught up in the stress of your job. But Nolan, at just five years old, is now my biggest role model for my dad’s rule. Kids are resilient. They live life in the moment. They just have fun. Nolan reminds me of that every time I look at him.

I’d come home after a game and Nolan would tell me, “Daddy, you really need to try harder to stop the puck.”

Just last month, he gave me another reminder of how strong he is.                                     

With Nolan about to go into kindergarten this fall, we decided it was the right time for him to get a second implant in his left ear.

See, the one thing that can be tough for Nolan is big rooms or crowds of people. Because his processor was only on his right ear, he could hear you, but he couldn’t always tell where the sound was coming from. A second processor would hopefully make it easier for him to locate sounds. But, of course, that meant another surgery.

This time it was different. He wasn’t a baby anymore. At five years old, he had a better understanding about what was about to happen.

He was just about to go in for surgery when, all of a sudden, he panicked. In the spur of the moment, my wife had to go into the O.R. and help restrain him while they put him under anesthesia. I can’t even imagine seeing that.

We thought, Is he going to resent us for this? Is he in pain?

After a few hours, the surgeon came out and told us that everything went great.

When I went in to see Nolan, he woke up, and you know what he did?

He asked for his iPad. He wanted to play his Team Canada Table Hockey game.

Incredible.

He was back to his hockey games, back to his happiness. If that was me, I would have been moaning and complaining for weeks. I’d be milking it as best I could.

When you first get the news that your son is deaf, you worry that he’s not going to be a “normal kid.” But what’s been so amazing about this roller coaster we’ve been on the past five years is that Nolan isn’t just a normal kid. He’s way more than that. He never complains. He doesn’t see himself as different. He’s the bravest guy I know.

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When I re-signed with the Carolina Hurricanes last month, Cody and I were so happy. To be honest, the thought of going into free agency and moving to another city was pretty scary. To me, it’s so much more than just signing with a team. Raleigh has become home, and I want to be here, to win here — and right now, Nolan needs to be here.

The doctors at UNC gave me the ability to talk to my son and have him hear me — to tuck him in at night and talk about how his day was. I can’t express how much we owe to those doctors and his speech therapist, and to have them right in our backyard for Nolan is so important. Thankfully, the Hurricanes were confident in my abilities and wanted to bring me back.

So after the deal was official, I was putting Nolan to bed, and I decided to tell him the news. When Eric Staal was traded last season, it was a big deal, because Nolan had become really good friends with Eric’s sons. We had to tell him that they were moving to New York. So Nolan is already a little bit familiar with the business side of hockey.

I sat on his bed and said, “Guess what, bud? Daddy had a talk with the team today, and we got some good news.”

He said, “We’re staying in Carolina?”

“Yeah buddy, we’re staying.”

“Cool.”

Dramatic pause. Then he says…

“But after we’re done playing in Carolina, can we go play for the Stars?”

Hockey Dad

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