Sunday profile: Glenwood’s Troy Benson takes gold in hockey at Deaflympics
In the rink, deaf hockey player Troy Benson can’t hear the ref’s whistle or the shouts from a coach. But that didn’t stop him from helping team USA end a 20-year losing streak to Russia at the 2019 Deaflympic Games in December.
Benson, 29, has loved hockey since he was a child. Growing up in Michigan, Benson’s whole family played hockey.
“My dad was a hockey player and I got into it. Then, I realized I got really good at hockey, and I fell in love with it,” Benson said.
Throughout his youth, he played hockey for his school teams, despite having progressive hearing loss.
Growing up, and growing deaf
As an infant, Benson suffered from a hernia and had to be put on machines to oxygenate his blood.
But the treatment also damaged his hearing.
“Whatever they gave me helped me survive, but that’s what affected my hearing.”
As he grew, his hearing continued to deteriorate.
“I remember in high school I could hear OK, but as the years went by my ears got worse slowly,” he said.
His hearing loss could be challenging. He remembers pushing to be at the front of the line so he could make out the coaches’ instructions.
“When I was growing up playing in regular hockey teams for peewee sports and stuff like that, it was hard for me because not everybody understands what it’s like not to hear, or sometimes I was the only (hearing impaired) one on the team and they didn’t pay attention to me,” Benson said.
The whistle is also out of Benson’s hearing range.
“Sometimes you’ll see me playing hockey, and when the whistle’s blowing I’ll still be skating and shooting, which is embarrassing,” he said.
But the hardest part was during practice when a coach would blow the whistle and shout instructions from the sidelines. If Benson didn’t catch the words, he would have to follow what his teammates were doing.
That system must have worked, because Benson continued playing offense on regular hockey teams throughout his youth.
Once Benson found the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA) hockey camps during high school, he realized what he was missing.
“That really changed my life because I was able to learn a lot more about hockey. They would give me accurate answers that I could understand, and I became a better hockey player,” Benson said.
After high school Benson attended a few years of community college, and even tried out for the NHL (he was cut in the second round). That’s when he came to Glenwood Springs, where his eldest brother, Trace, lived and fell in love with the friendly people and gorgeous views.
Benson first made it on the American team for the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships in 2013, and even though Team USA didn’t place, he was hooked.
In 2015, Russia took the ice hockey gold and Canada the silver, leaving the USA with bronze at the Deaflympics that took place in Russia.
Two years later, Benson helped his team win the gold at the 2017 World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships.
Deaf means different things
There are treatments, like cochlear implants, that Benson could try, but he’s also learned to adapt to his disability.
“I just have to accept the fact that I have to deal with it,” he said.
The term deaf covers a broad range of hearing impairment.
“Everybody thinks when they hear a person say ‘I’m deaf,’ they think they can’t hear (anything),” Benson said.
Benson can hear certain mid-range frequencies, but high pitched or especially low voices are out of his hearing range.
“People need to understand that being deaf is unique, everyone is different,” Benson said.
No limits on the ice, or off
Tryouts for the USA teams happen in the summer, and Benson tries to keep his skills up in the off-season.
“The hardest part here is motivating myself. I have to go out on the ice and remind myself that I represent team USA,” Benson said.
When not playing competitively, he still gets out on the ice as often as possible for drop-in games and asks the other players to be extra aggressive so he can keep his skills tight.
“During hockey season here, I always tell everybody, please try to get me, try to hack me, trip me, push me, whatever you got to do to take the puck away from me,” he said.
His fellow hockey players confirm this.
“I get him a couple of times,” said Keith Pleva, who also plays drop-in hockey at the community center. Usually, Pleva can take the puck when Benson tries something fancy and Pleva is in the right place at the right time.
“I’ll get him once in a great while,” Pleva said.
When not playing hockey, Benson still seeks action and speed.
“I’m an athletic freak,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what sport it is, I’ll get involved even if I’m terrible at it.”
Deaf or not, nothing holds Benson back.
“I always live by the quote I heard from one of my teammates: The only disability you have is your attitude,” Benson said.
Miracle on Italian ice
When Benson arrived in Valtellina-Valchiavenna, Italy for the December 2019 Deaflympic winter games, Team USA hadn’t defeated the Russian ice hockey team head to head in more than 20 years.
The US was first to score in the Dec. 17 game, with Benson, left wing, giving the assist. Team USA never lost their lead, and ended with a 7 – 3 victory over Russia. Benson was named most valued player for that game.
“I had a couple of assists and played really well that game, but I wasn’t expecting to be player of the game,” Benson said.
Team USA went on to beat Canada 7 – 3 for the gold, with Benson scoring in the second period.
With a gold medal, a silver, and a world championship title, Benson says he’ll keep trying out for the deaf hockey team representing America until he can’t cut it anymore.
“I just love the game of hockey,” Benson said.
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