NORTH BRANFORD — He looks up at the glass when he leaves the crease to play the puck, because arrayed there around Hand junior hockey goalie Eric Dillner’s own reflection is the game.
He can see the other team’s forecheck coming at him from behind. And he can see where his teammates are.
“Because I can’t hear them say ‘one on!’ or something like that,” Dillner said.
Dillner is hearing impaired, normally wears a hearing aid in his left ear but has trouble wearing it on the ice. Playing with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA) made him a better skater, though, and helped ease his transition to the net two years ago. And fortunately, his father, a goalie coach, is there to help.
So there in that reflection of his own is the game, as it’d like to be: inclusive, a family and proof of the value of work.
“(The Tigers) all know who the hardest worker on the ice is,” Hand coach Brian Gonsalves said. “Everyone on the roster feeds off that. They look to him for a little bit of guidance, how to get better.
“If he’s willing to do it, every single day, even when he’s having success — even if has a bad day, he comes in, ‘what can I do to get better?’ He comes after an 8-0 shutout against Scarsdale (N.Y.), the very next practice, ‘what can I do to get better?’ That feeds into the boys, from freshmen all the way to seniors.”
Dillner helped the Tigers go 18-5-1 last year, setting a school record for wins on the way to the Division III semifinals. Back in Division II this season, they are 9-1 going into Friday’s game against rival Guilford and Saturday’s game against Cheshire.
He mostly played defense growing up at Northford Ice Pavilion. But his father, also named Eric, was a goalie as a youngster and became a goalie coach at West Haven High School in recent years. The younger Eric stepped into the net at times.
“The camp I go to in Chicago, AHIHA, I’d sometimes bring a set of equipment and play goal up there,” Dillner said. “Being that Hand didn’t have a goalie, I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
He made the full-time change two seasons ago in his freshman year. That transition on its own brings one set of challenges; many of his competitors were already talking to college scouts when he was just trying to learn the position. He had to learn the technical aspects, “not just flailing all over the place.”
Doing it as a hearing-impaired goalie, at a position where communication is so important, brought other challenges.
“You’re kind of like the quarterback who sees everything. I’ve got to tell my defense and forwards what they need to do,” Dillner said.
Getting everyone on the same page defensively involves a lot of pregame discussion.
“His work ethic is unbelievable,” said Hand junior defenseman John Gagliardi. “He continues to work harder and harder every year. He’s improved greatly since freshman year. It’s an amazing accomplishment.
“His work ethic is great to feed off, too. We can look at him and say, hey, it didn’t just happen overnight. It’s countless hours.”
Wearing a hearing aid is uncomfortable on the ice, Dillner said; it rubs in his helmet. Gonsalves said he’ll check in with officials before a game to ask them to be loud with their whistles and their voices. Dillner said he hears a bit better in his right ear.
“Since I can only hear from one side, I cannot hear direction,” Dillner said. “If someone’s calling for me, I’ll spin in a circle before I find them.”
His father was a key resource in learning the position, he said, not just learning what he had to do physically, but handling the position mentally.
The elder Dillner grew up playing goal in some prominent programs in St. Louis. He thought at one point hockey might be a career; it didn’t turn out that way, but his son brought him back to the game when the family wound up near his wife’s family in West Haven. And then his son became a goalie.
“He said, what do I have to do? I said there’s angles, there’s depth and there’s attitude,” said the elder Dillner, who is allowed to coach his son, and only his son, at Hand practice. “He’s taken all of those and gone all the way with them.
“He treats it like an engineer, the whole game. It’s really cool. ‘Tell me the process by which I make this happen, and I’ll do it.’”
It’s an ethic the younger Dillner has always had, his father said, using what he has learned from his hearing impairment as a complement to his other senses.
“The community, the Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, has been very helpful for him to get it done,” the elder Dillner said. “You can call it a challenge, or you can call it a community you get to belong to.”
The younger Dillner still goes to camp in Chicago in June; he has earned a couple of AHIHA awards and organized fundraisers. He hopes to be able to give back to the organization as a coach someday, like AHIHA president and coach Kevin Delaney, who’s also a skills and skating coach for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Gintoli family of Shelton, with World Deaf Hockey champions and Deaflympic champions, are friends, among many others made there.
“A lot of them are completely deaf. I have to be able to communicate with them without saying a word,” Dillner said. “I have to wave my arms, point, say ‘you have to go over here’ without saying a word.
“It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s also fascinating to watch an entire hockey game where no one’s yelling. It’s just pucks and sticks and skates.”
The game, reflected.