Only if you're standing beside him would you notice that Norfolk Admiral Steve Downie wears tiny hearing aids in each ear. Their size corresponds to the impact they have on the second-year pro's play.
“It's really not a big deal,” Downie said. “One ear is really bad but it doesn't affect my game.” Downie's hearing became progressively worse as he moved into adolescence and at 13 he had surgery to correct otosclerosis, a condition where abnormal bone growth in the ear impairs hearing.
Downie said he's close to totally deaf in his right ear and wore a hearing aid only in that ear until recently. But he said adding one in his left ear has helped balance his ability to perceive sound and that he's never had a problem with the aids coming out during games or with opponents taunting him over his condition.
The aids come out when Downie sleeps or when he wants to listen to his iPod and sticks the device's speaker buds in his ears. He said he has no trouble hearing music when it's piped directly into his head.
Admirals coach Darren Rumble had some initial trouble figuring out why Downie wasn't performing practice drills correctly when the player first joined the team. He skated over to confront the wing and discovered he was the one who was lacking information.
“I got mad at him and asked if he could start paying attention because it didn't look like he gave a crap,” Rumble recalled. “Then I realized what the deal was and I felt bad for not knowing sooner.”
The coach told Downie that if he couldn't hear drill instructions, to let another player go first so he could see what was required. But communication on the bench hasn't been a problem and Downie said his hearing situation is more notable to others than to himself.
“I don't make a big deal of it,” he said. “Everyone always writes about it, but it's just a small part of my life.”
* * * * *
Downie has put up a combined six assists in his last two Norfolk games and got a franchise-record tying four of them Saturday against visiting Bridgeport. In eight Admirals games, Downie has 12 assists and he has a goal and 19 assists in 12 AHL games this season. He began the season with the Philadelphia Flyers organization and posted four assists in a game against the Admirals at Scope.
With his hustle, grit, puck protection and playmaking, Downie is a superior AHL player. But he's also battling to play within the rules and lay to rest past disciplinary incidents.
Saturday's game, when Downie drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shouting at the referee in a tie game with 12 minutes remaining was a prime example. He had just been tackled in front of the Sound Tigers' net without a penalty being called.
“He lost his mind because he got mugged, but that's no excuse to put the team at a disadvantage,” Rumble said. “I told him that he might as well get used to fighting through that adversity [refs watching him closely] because he's going to deal with it his whole career.”
* * * * *
Chris Gratton appears to be taking his assignment from Tampa Bay to Norfolk in stride. Make that long strides. The veteran center was flying around Scope's rink Monday during practice drills, impressing those who hadn't seen much of him in person with his mobility.
“I didn't realize he was that good a skater,” Rumble said. “He's big but he's smooth and has very quick feet. Plus he's been one of the top faceoff guys in the NHL and he has a big-league wrist shot. He gets the puck on and off his stick in a hurry.”
Gratton is expected to make his AHL debut against visiting Albany either Wednesday or Friday at Scope.