Goss: Casey Riffle, Team USA skate for gold in World Deaf Championships
By Dick Goss firstname.lastname@example.org March 13, 2013 7:46PM
Joliet's Casey Riffle will play for Team USA in the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships. | Supplied photo
Updated: April 15, 2013 10:48AM
Back in the mid-1990, I coached my son’s baseball team at Whiteford Park.
A kid on an opposing team was hearing impaired, but man, could he swing the bat. He might have been the best hitter in the league.
But Casey Riffle did not envision himself a baseball player. “It was too boring in the field,” he said.
About that same time, at age 8, he began playing hockey, developing a love affair that shows no signs of slowing down.
Riffle, now 25 and still a Joliet resident, is preparing for his first trip outside North America. As a member of Team USA, he will skate in the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships from March 30 through April 5 at Vantaa, Finland. The competition also will include teams from Canada, Finland, Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Riffle was a member of Team USA when it won the bronze medal at these games in 2009 in Winnipeg. “That was one of the better experiences I have had,” he said.
The USA was hoping to better that effort and earn the gold in the 2011 Deaflympics in Slovakia. But those games unexpectedly were canceled.
Now, the goal is the same in Finland.
“Finland, Canada, Russia, they’ll all be good opponents,” Riffle said. “Every game will be different. Canada is real physical and a big rival. Finland likes to get inside your head, and they’ll be home.
“Our USA team is young. We have a fast team.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound Riffle said he will play “mainly forward (either wing or center)” with Team USA, although he also has experience as a defenseman.
“I prefer forward,” he said. “You move more; it’s a more physical game. But both positions are fun in different ways.”
The 23-man USA roster was chosen from a pool of players who attended the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association tryout and summer camp at Seven Bridges in Woodridge. The camp is run by Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato.
The USA team has players from 13 states, with Riffle one of three from Illinois. The other two are from Peoria.
Riffle said the team mix is “half and half. Some guys were with us two years ago, and some are new.”
“Our team is a combination of experienced international players and a group of young, very talented players that should develop and contribute quickly,” Team USA coach Jeff Sauer said in a release.
Although everyone technically was trying out for a spot on the team at the summer camp, Riffle smiled at the question. He pretty well knew his place was secure.
He has game. And now, he can’t wait for a fresh opportunity on the world stage.
The USA won the gold medal in the Deaflympics at Salt Lake City in 2007, when Riffle was not yet on the team, and was bitterly disappointed with missing the opportunity to defend in 2011.
“I was supposed to go to Slovakia in 2011 and didn’t get to,” Riffle said. “So this is my third time on Team USA and second time playing.”
To prepare, he has been training with Kevin Delaney, the Blackhawks’ power skating coach. “I started working with him about a month ago, but I’ve known him since I was little,” Riffle said.
Riffle takes the train daily to his job at WaterSaver in Chicago and he tries to work out four nights a week. It’s not a schedule for someone who is anything but 100 percent dedicated.
“I’m anxious to go over there to Finland and play and see my friends,” he said. “It’s a great feeling representing your country. Not a lot of people have the opportunity to say they played for Team USA.”
The team operates under the guidelines of the USA Deaf Sports Federation. To qualify for the games, athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55 dB in their “better ear.” Hearing aids and cochlear implants are not allowed in competition, which puts all athletes on the same level.
“I made a lot of good friends playing hockey,” said Riffle, a 2006 Joliet Central graduate who played free safety in football for the Steelmen. “Some I have known since I was 8.”
A big Blackhawks fan, Riffle said he did not play high school hockey “because I didn’t think high school hockey was that good then.”
After graduating, he went to California at the urging of a friend and played junior hockey there for one season.
“That was a good experience,” Riffle said. “After that, I just played in men’s leagues.”
That is, until he got his opportunity with Team USA. Now, it’s a gold rush.
“I’m going to Albany, N.Y., on March 23 to train for five days,” he said. “Then on March 27 we leave for Finland.”
Funding for the World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships is provided by the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association through private donations and support from the USA Hockey Foundation. Players are asked to fundraise a portion of their expenses. Donations on a player’s behalf are being accepted.
To learn about AHIHA, visit www.ahiha.org.