NHL Brings Sign Language Interpreter to Commissioner

Bryce Christianson poses for a photo after interpreting NHL Commissioner Gary Pittman's annual press conference from English to American Sign Language, Wednesday, June 15, 2022, at the Ball Arena in Denver before game one of the Stanley Cup Final NHL hockey.  It's the first time the league has used a sign language interpreter at a press conference.  (AP Photo/Stephen Wino)

Bryce Christianson poses for a photo after interpreting NHL Commissioner Gary Pittman’s annual press conference from English to American Sign Language, Wednesday, June 15, 2022, at the Ball Arena in Denver before game one of the Stanley Cup Final NHL hockey. It’s the first time the league has used a sign language interpreter at a press conference. (AP Photo/Stephen Wino)

AP

Bryce Christianson went to sporting events as a child and realized how difficult it was to get into this world for his deaf father.

On Wednesday night, he stood 10 feet away from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as he translated English into American Sign Language for the annual State of the League address in the Stanley Cup Final. Christianson has been shown picture-in-picture on the NHL Network as he interprets remarks by Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

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

“We’re just scratching the surface,” said Christianson, CEO of PXP, which specializes in making sports and entertainment accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. “Before, we always felt lucky. As if I felt we were lucky to be here, they give us a chance, and I don’t mean this arrogantly, but now I feel like we belong.”

Christianson and PXP COO Jason Altman don’t just belong. They were the guests of honor at the final, spending time with Bettman and other league executives in the green room of the Ball Arena after assisting with the press conference. Altman signed that it is important to have access to ASL to play through, comment and news to make the sport more welcoming.

“Fans are diverse, and the deaf and hard of hearing belong to that,” he said in American Sign Language as Christianson interpreted. “I am a fan of the NHL too. Many deaf and hard of hearing fans are hockey fans but they are often left out.”

Having Christianson there to translate for Bettman and Daly is an offshoot of the league’s diversity and inclusion initiatives that have prominently focused on improving gender and racial balance. Executive Melissa Barnagian knows that the deaf and hard of hearing are not usually the first group considered in this section, but she spoke often with Christianson and Altman about what can help and is needed.

“What they emphasized to us is that it’s easy to capture a lot of what you can see in the gameplay, but a lot of the kind of feedback and game action, and the culture of the game – the off-ice stuff – is often lost because it’s less visual,” said Barnagian, NHL Director of Growth Strategies and Social Impact. “The Commissioner’s title is one of those big moments where you start to see where the game is going, all out of the icy context, and we thought this was a good moment to really get this moment of accessibility and something we hope to build on.” “

The National Association of the Deaf has commended the NHL for the move. CEO Howard Rosenblum called it another milestone and said, “We hope this momentum will lead to full reach everywhere, including appearances on broadcast television.”

Christianson, who first worked with the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA, hopes one day soon his presence will become a new thing. Its goal is to help normalize and “automatic” sign language interpreters for teams and leagues to use at major events.

“Deaf and hard of hearing fans have been left out in many aspects of our lives, but primarily in professional sports,” he said. “Ideally every team and every league has some kind of accessibility and inclusion in mind for deaf and hard of hearing fans but also for people with disabilities and how do we maximize that and inclusion rather than a token type for them.”

Bill Melius, interim CEO of Deaf Main Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping businesses owned by deaf people, said there is a reluctance in this community to adapt to improving access based on a concern that it won’t become a permanent thing. He’s hoping the NHL can keep that up.

“A lot of times it’s tried and then removed,” said Melius, who is deaf. “What the NHL has to understand is that this is a long-term commitment. If they really believe in access, they have to do it every time. Deaf hockey fans will develop over time.”

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

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

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