By Jean DePlacido
---- — Mike Wonoski is an old pro at playing hockey in the United States and Canada, but has never done so overseas.
The Beverly native will get the chance to fulfill that dream next month — and hopes to bring a gold medal back home with him to the States in the process.
A 5-foot-8, 170-pound, high-scoring center, Wonoski will represent his country in Finland at the second annual World Deaf Ice Hockey Championships. The tournament, which includes Canada, Russia, Sweden and the host country, begins March 30 and concludes with the gold medal game April 6. It will be played at the Tikkurila Valtti Arena in Vantaa, a suburb of Helsinki.
The 25-year-old Wonoski participated in the inaugural WDIHC in 2009 in Winnipeg, Canada, and helped the U.S. team capture bronze. He brings skill and experience to a team ranging in age from 18 to 47 (there is no age limit).
“I’m excited about going again and looking forward to bringing home the gold medal,” said Wonoski, who was born with severe bilateral hearing loss and normally wears two hearing aids. He will not, however, be allowed to wear them during the tournament.
“Mike gave up wearing his hearing aid when the time for tryouts got closer,” said Karen Wonoski, Mike’s mother. “It’s quite an adjustment, but I guess they want everyone to be on equal footing.”
Wonoski, who played his high school hockey at St. Mary’s of Lynn before transferring to Tilton School in New Hampshire, was an assistant captain for his team at Worlds four years ago. He was disappointed when the 2011 Deaflympics were canceled, but is excited to once again play on an international stage.
He and four of his USA teammates from Massachusetts (Michael Eastman from Boston, Jeff Mansfield from Cambridge, and Paul Malaney and Tony McGaughey, both from Holbook) will be honored by the Boston Bruins on Thursday night at the TD Garden in Boston during the team’s game against the Ottawa Senators.
“Our team is a combination of experienced international players and a group of young, very talented players that should develop and contribute quickly,” said USA head coach Jeff Sauer in a press release.
The team, which will train at RPI in Albany, N.Y., before leaving for Finland, operates under the guidelines of the USA Deaf Sports Federation. All athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in their better ear. No hearing aids or cochlear implants are allowed to be used while playing.
Wonoski attended the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association in Chicago, where the team (23 players from 13 states) was picked. Now in its 40th year, the AHIHA is a nonprofit organization that was founded by former NHL great Stan Mikita and Chicago businessman Irv Tiahnybik; former NHLer and current Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato now hosts the camp/tryouts.
“This biggest thing about this tournament is being with all the players from across the country again,” said Wonoski, who was an assistant captain for the Division 1 club hockey team at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Playing hockey and meeting other people are the best parts of the trip.”
Wonoski has a history of scoring big goals. Back at the 2007 Deaflympics in Salt Lake City, he had the game-winning goals against both Canada and Finland to help his team win gold.
He plays in a men’s Senior League North of Boston and also is an assistant coach in the Beverly Youth Hockey program.
“I coach the Bantams and try to make them better hockey players,” Wonoski said. “I really enjoy working with kids, and they look up to me. I’ve made some good friendships in Beverly Youth Hockey.”
Beverly High hockey coach Bob Gilligan is a neighbor of the Wonoski family and has watched Mike grow up from the time he began skating on the pond.
“Mike’s a great kid and an outstanding hockey player,” Gilligan said. “He’s a fun-type kid that you love to coach. I had him when he was very young, and we’re lucky that he’s helping to coach the kids. He has a knack for coaching, and he understands the game. I’m glad he has this wonderful opportunity.”
“It’s going to be fun, and I hope we come home with the gold,” Wonoski said.