When he was a little boy, he watched hockey on TV and dreamed the dreams of so many kids his age.
Could that be me? Could I do that?
For Michael Filardo, though, the challenges of seeing those dreams reach fulfillment extended beyond the usual ones of size, skill, quickness and agility. He faced the additional hurdles of his own body’s limitations and the potential prejudices that went along with them.
Michael Filardo was — and remains — hearing-impaired. Not hearing-impaired at the level of your Aunt Ethel for whom you occasionally have to repeat things. But hearing-impaired at a very significant level, one where reading lips and years upon years of speech therapy are ways of life.
And so, at the age of eight, he dreamed his dreams but figured he could never play hockey because he wouldn’t be able to hear what was going on. However, his father, Andrew Filardo, sensed both his son’s interest and self-conscious fear. He encouraged his son to give it a try.
“I was very nervous at first because I was the only one who was hearing-impaired,” says Michael. “But I worked hard for many years and many, many coaches gave me a chance. It was a good thing they did that. Now they can watch me and say, ‘He’s a really good goalie!’
“Hard of hearing or deaf people, like myself, can do anything. Here I am now at UNH, a Division I school.” He smiles broadly and adds, “I can’t believe I made it!”
Yes, this is a story with a happy ending. Filardo is now a backup goaltender for the New Hampshire Wildcats with hopes of working his way into a more significant role in the future.
And he’ll also backstop the United States team in the Deaf Olympics this upcoming February in Switzerland.
“He’s a fighter,” says his father, Andrew Filardo. “Michael has never really fallen back on the fact that he’s hearing-impaired. He’s always gone along as though everything was normal. Other people would bring it up more than he would.”
Michael wasn’t born with his disability. Although the Filardo family doesn’t know for certain, the likely culprit seems to be a doctor’s overdose of medication to combat a high fever Michael had when he was 16 or 17 months old.
After the overdose, his mother, Linda Filardo, noticed that Michael was suddenly mumbling, something he hadn’t done previously. Tests confirmed the damage to both ears. Although the news was devastating, his parents moved quickly to try to ensure the most normal possible life for their son.
“They wanted me to talk so everyone could understand,” says Michael. “So my parents sent me to speech therapy right after they found out I lost my hearing. I went to speech therapy for 11 years.
“I was supposed to go forever, but I left after 11 years because I was doing fine. I could go on my own.”
Hockey, which seemed an impossibility when he first contemplated playing as an eight-year-old, became a very positive force in his life.
“Sports has really been his saving grace,” says Andrew Filardo. “It helped his confidence. I always told him that he was as good as anybody else and just to try his hardest and have fun. That’s what he did.
“For him, it was the equalizer. It ended up where he wasn’t even equal. He was surpassing everybody.
“I think his hearing impairment actually helped his reflexes. They say that if you have an impairment in one reflex, your other reflexes get sharper. Michael always had uncanny hand-eye reflexes. Even his coaches would say that. I attributed that, in part, to his hearing impairment.”
While no one ever questioned his reflexes, there would be obvious concerns about his ability to hear the whistle or his teammates.
“Most of the time, I wear a hearing aid in the game,” says Michael. “Sometimes I don’t because sometimes the noise distracts me and I can’t concentrate. I feel more comfortable without the hearing aid, but I usually wear it.
“If I cover the puck, I can hear the whistle very little, but I will know the game stopped because everyone else has stopped. If they keep going, then I keep working the puck.
“Or if I go behind the net to play the puck for my defensemen and I’ve got to find an open space so I can pass the puck to my teammate, I will know that the game has stopped because everybody has slowed down.
“Sometimes they could fake, so I have to be very careful and watch the referee, but most of the time I hear the whistle.”
Over his career, these concerns about Michael’s ability to communicate with his teammates and coaches may have denied him some opportunities.
“There were times during his hockey career that I felt he maybe got the short end of the stick only because some people were just not willing to take the chance,” says Andrew Filardo. “When you’re beyond recreational hockey and you’re into serious travel and getting on junior and select teams, there are a lot of kids that are good.
“Then if you’re good, but the other guy is good, too, maybe there’s something about you that they’re not sure of. Why take the chance? There were times that I thought that might have happened with Michael, but I could be wrong because there were only a few times.”
Ironically, Michael’s greatest disappointment came not from an experience with a hearing team, but rather with the USA Hockey hearing-impaired team preparing for the 1995 Deaf Olympics.
“My father was reading the USA Hockey magazine and there was something about a training camp for the Deaf Olympics,” recalls Michael. “My father looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Mike, I didn’t know they had deaf hockey.’
“I didn’t know anything about deaf hockey either. All I knew about was just hearing hockey. I feel like I’m from the hearing community rather than the deaf community. I’ve grown up in the hearing world.”
The father and son packed their bags and headed to Lake Placid. There, Michael would be an outsider of sorts.
“I felt so weird because I wasn’t used to being with deaf players,” he says. “They were signing. No voice, nothing. I didn’t know what to say.
“I didn’t know how to sign. I knew the sign alphabet, but that’s all.”
Michael may not have known how to sign, but he did know how to play between the pipes. Getting over the awkwardness of being thrust into a group that seemed to know each other but not him, he played his way onto the team.
He signed the contract to represent his country and, while the rest of the team flew to Finland, he headed home to get his next month’s worth of schoolwork and a passport.
When he and his father returned to the house with passport in hand, however, one look at Michael’s mother told them something was wrong.
She’d received a gut-wrenching phone call. The Olympic Committee had ruled that the rosters had been frozen as of one year earlier and Michael could not play on the team that would go on to win the gold medal.
“I was very disappointed,” says Michael, “but I never gave up. I never give up.”
He returned to his junior team, New York Applecore, and one year later backstopped them to the US. National Jr. B Championship. In the title game, Applecore faced the Minneapolis Kodiaks, the same team that had denied them in the finals the previous year. This time, they came out on top, 6-4.
“The other team played very well, but I made a lot of good saves,” says Michael. “I knew we would win, but it was still like a dream.
“I remember after the game, everybody came over and said to me, ‘You’re the greatest goalie that I’ve ever seen play!’ That was the best part. That made me feel really happy.”
Michael had been the first hearing-impaired hockey player to play for Applecore and would eventually earn that same distinction at UNH.
The road to Durham, New Hampshire, however, had a few more potholes. In the fall of 1997, after failing to attract any D-I attention, Michael turned down offers from D-III schools and instead enrolled in nearby Nassau Community College.
The school played only club hockey at a low level, so Michael concentrated on his studies, finished his tenure with Applecore and then just practiced two or three evenings a week at midnight.
Although the dream of playing Division I hockey seemed to be fading, the 1999 Deaf Olympics still represented a chance to right the wrongs that had occurred in that venue four years earlier.
Michael headed to Chicago, where the Stan Mikita School for the Hearing Impaired was serving as the tryout grounds for the USA Hockey Olympic team. There he renewed his acquaintance with UNH assistant coach David Lassonde, who doubles as the team’s goaltending instructor. Lassonde had worked with Mikita’s school for seven years running and was familiar with Michael’s abilities.
This time, Michael’s interest and UNH’s needs made for a good match. The Wildcats would be featuring a potentially great one-two punch in the nets with senior Sean Matile and sophomore Ty Conklin, but the depth chart stopped there. In the fall, open tryouts on campus would have to provide a third goaltender.
Michael Filardo, though, represented a solution to UNH’s problem.
“The thing that really made me believe that he could fill that void for us was this past year we kept 25 guys around for an extra three days once the [Mikita] school ended to further evaluate them for the [Olympic] team,” says Lassonde. “We had an exhibition game against a number of ex-college hockey players. These kids haven’t lost their touch and they really peppered them.
“And Michael did a wonderful job. I said to myself that if he could hold his own against these guys, he would be a more than adequate third goalie for us.”
Once questions were answered about Michael’s eligibility and admissibility — as well as whether or not the university provided services for hearing-impaired students — the agreement was struck.
Four years earlier, the Olympic team had dashed his dreams. This time, Michael Filardo had hit pay dirt.
He would be representing his country in the 1999 Deaf Olympics. And he would be playing Division I hockey for UNH this season.
Not a bad result for one tryout.
As a result, this fall you might see Michael wearing either UNH regalia or his red-white-and-blue Team USA jacket.
“I love that jacket,” he says with a smile. “I’m a USA citizen and a representative of Team USA.
“But I also feel proud that I am part of UNH hockey.”
Michael has opened the eyes of some doubters already this season.
“A lot of the kids have been very impressed with him,” says Lassonde. “They probably felt going in that he was a hearing-impaired kid who wasn’t very good. But he’s done more than hold his own and has earned the respect of his teammates because he’s a good kid and because of his ability.
“He’s very competitive. He wants to learn and get better. He’s very coachable. He’s a gamer.”
As the season has progressed, Michael has made strides as he has once again faced top-notch shooters after taking last year’s sabbatical from serious game competition.
“As he’s become more and more accustomed to the speed of the game,” says Lassonde, “whether it’s the shots or the playmaking that occurs in tight around the net, the rust is coming off, leaving the abilities he has possessed in the past.”
After Matile graduates this year, it won’t necessarily be any easier for Michael to move up on the depth chart. Matt Carney will be returning from a year with Des Moines in the United States Hockey League.
“Anything is possible,” says Lassonde. “Obviously, this year it’ll be difficult for him to crack our number-one or -two spots. Next season, with a year of quality practice time under his belt, you can never say never.”
Michael Filardo may be number three now, but he has a foot in the door.
And that may be all he needs.