NHL recruits sign language interpreter for commissioner

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DENVER — Brice Christianson went to sporting events as a child and realized how inaccessible this world was to his deaf father.

On Wednesday night, he stood 10 feet from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman translating English into American Sign Language for the league’s annual state of the league address at the Stanley Cup Finals. Christianson was shown picture-in-picture on NHL Network performing remarks from Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

Sign language interpreters were on hand for the national anthems, but this represented the NHL’s biggest step yet to make hockey stories accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing community.

“We’re only scratching the surface,” said Christianson, who is the CEO of PXP, which specializes in creating more accessible sports and entertainment for the deaf and hard of hearing. “Before, we always felt lucky. Like I feel like we’re lucky to be here, they’re giving us an opportunity, and I’m not saying that arrogantly, but now I feel like we belong.

Christianson and PXP COO Jason Altmann didn’t just belong. They were guests of honor at the Finals, spending time with Bettman and other league executives in the Ball Arena Green Room after helping out at the press conference. Altmann signed that having access to American Sign Language for play-by-play, commentary and news was important to making the sport more welcoming.

“Fans are diverse, and people who are deaf and hard of hearing are a part of that,” he said in American Sign Language interpreted by Christianson. “I am also an NHL fan. Many deaf and hard of hearing fans are big hockey fans, but are often left out.

Having Christianson there to interpret for Bettman and Daly is a branch of the league’s diversity and inclusion initiatives that have primarily focused on improving gender and racial balance. Executive Melissa Parnagian knows that the deaf and hard of hearing are usually not the first group considered in this department, but has spoken extensively with Christianson and Altmann about what would help and be needed.

“What they pointed out to us is that a lot of what you can see in the gameplay is easy to capture, but a lot of the type of commentary and activity in the game, the culture of game – the off-ice stuff – is often what gets lost because it’s less visual,” said Parnagian, NHL director of growth strategies and social impact. “The commissioner’s address is one of those big moments where you start to hear about the direction of the game, all that off-ice context, and we thought it was a good time to really have that moment of accessibility and something we hope to build on.”

The National Association of the Deaf congratulated the NHL on the decision. CEO Howard Rosenblum called it another milestone and said, “We hope this momentum leads to full access everywhere, including visibility on TV shows.”

Christianson, who first worked with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, hopes one day soon his presence won’t be a novelty. Its goal is to help standardize sign language interpreters and make it “automatic” for teams and leagues to use them at major events.

“Deaf and hard of hearing fans have been excluded in so many aspects of our lives, but mainly in professional sports,” he said. “Ideally every team, every league has some sort of accessibility and inclusion in mind for deaf and hard of hearing fans but also for people with disabilities and how we maximize that and include them rather than tokenize them in some way. so.”

Bill Millios, acting CEO of Deaf Main Street, a nonprofit dedicated to helping deaf-owned businesses, said that community was hesitant to acclimate to improved access because they feared it would become a permanent thing. He hopes the NHL will continue like this.

“Too often it’s been tried and then taken away,” said Millios, who is deaf. “What the NHL needs to understand is that this is a long-term commitment. If they really believe in access, they should do it every time. Deaf hockey fans will accumulate over time.

Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports


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