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William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog since 2012. Douglas joined in 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles Kailey Niccum, a forward for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, the undefeated 2024 NCAA Division III women’s hockey champions, and the USA Deaf National Women’s Hockey team that will compete in the Jeff Sauer International Deaf Hockey Series April 11-14 in Amherst, New York.

Kailey Niccum would love to keep her winning streak intact when she plays for the United States in the Jeff Sauer International Deaf Hockey Series April 11-14 in Amherst, New York.

Niccum is a 20-year-old sophomore forward for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, which capped a 31-0 season with a 4-1 win against Elmira University for the 2024 NCAA Division III women’s national championship March 17.

The Falcons commemorated the 25th anniversary of women’s hockey at UWRF by setting a record for most wins in a season by a Division III women’s team and by becoming the second undefeated team in Division III women’s hockey history, joining 2022 Middlebury College in 2022 (27-0).

“It was, honestly, unreal,” Niccum said. “It wasn’t our goal when we set out; it kind of just happened.”

UWRF Championship Photo

Niccum had six points (two goals, four assists) in 24 games as a fourth-line forward. She has 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 47 NCAA games.

“Her confidence level just went through the roof at the end of the year this year,” UWRF coach Joe Cranston said. “I would put that fourth line out there and they would just dominate. They'd get two, three shifts a period and she would just fly and win battles, make things happen.”

Niccum said she’s looking forward to bringing that winning spirit to the USA Deaf National Women’s Hockey Team, which will play a three-game set against Canada as part of the Sauer international deaf hockey series.

The U.S. men’s national deaf hockey team will face Canada, Czechia and Finland in the event, which is named after the late Jeff Sauer, a 2014 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who coached men’s hockey at Colorado College and the University of Wisconsin between 1971 and 2002, and led several U.S. men’s national teams and U.S. sled hockey teams.

He served as president of the American Hearing-Impaired Hockey Association, which is hosting the series with the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Niccum said that while it would be great if the U.S. women go undefeated against Canada in the Sauer series, the games are about more than wins and losses.

“I think it will also be exciting to put deaf women’s hockey on the map again, and hopefully we can get more countries involved in it next time,” she said. “I just think it would be exciting for little girls who are deaf and want to play hockey to see that they can go somewhere with this and there are more people like me showing them what we can do.”

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A native of Orono, Minnesota, Niccum began playing hockey when she was 7. She participated in USA Hockey’s Girls 15 National Player Development Camp in 2018, a five-day session in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with more than 200 elite players from across the country.

At 13, she became the youngest player on the first U.S. women’s deaf hockey team that competed in the 2017 World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships, in Amherst, New York.

The Sauer series will be a change for Niccum because rules prevent players from wearing hearing aids. Niccum uses a cochlear implant, a small, surgically implanted electronic device that helps her understand speech and hear other sounds, in her NCAA games.

“I can’t hear anything when I take mine off,” she said. “It's really just a game of just using your eyes. You just kind of have to know the game, and hopefully the people you're playing with do too. If I can't hear, I'd have to look up and see where people are, where should I be, all that type of stuff.”

U.S. deaf women’s coach Rock Einersen said Niccum is a leader on the team and is growing into being a role model within the deaf hockey community.

“All around, she’s just the real deal,” Einiersen said. “She’s a Division III athlete on the best team in the country, and every chance she gets she commits herself 100 percent to the USA women’s deaf team and the girls really look up to that, appreciate that. We had our tryout in Minnesota back in February. Kailey had just gotten off a playoff series for River Falls and still made it up to the tryout that same weekend.”

Niccum also has taken time to work with deaf players back home. She and fellow deaf women’s national team members Jessica Goldberg and Paige Downey recently scrimmaged with players from the Minnesota Wild/Hard of Hearing hockey program.

“I think you'd be really cool to eventually get to the point where women are playing in the Deaflympics with the men's team, we'd have that many countries that are able to participate and we'd be able to play at the highest level,” she said.

Niccum with Trophy