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Former Las Vegas, Winnipeg star Jim Kyte recalls 1st NHL whiteout

They soon will be headed back to Winnipeg, where another whiteout of “Ice Road Truckers” magnitude awaits the Golden Knights despite a Sunday Game 5 forecast of 74 degrees.

They say you hear the one at Bell MTS Place, home of the Winnipeg Jets, long before you see it.

Jim Kyte wouldn’t know a whole lot about that.

Before he served as captain for the inaugural Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League that in 1993-94 posted a ledger of 52-18-1 — the best record in all of pro hockey, Kyte reminds you — he spent seven years manning the blue line for the first iteration of the Jets, before they moved to Phoenix and howled as Coyotes.

The first Winnipeg whiteout was not at Bell MTS Place. It was at old Winnipeg Arena in 1987, Flames vs. Jets, Smythe Division semifinals.

Jim Kyte played in it.

He could see it.

He could feel it.

But he couldn’t hear it in the way Dale Hawerchuk and Paul MacLean and former Thunder teammates Andrew McBain and goalie Pokey Reddick, who also played for that Jets side, could hear it.

Only deaf player

The only legally deaf player who has skated in the NHL, Kyte was diagnosed when he was 3 years old with a hereditary condition that caused his audio nerve to degenerate. He played 598 games in the NHL, mostly as a stay-at-home defenseman. To jump up in the play, it helps if you can hear teammates shout when they are open.

“I’m an excellent lip reader,” Kyte, 54, reminded me when he and his Thunder mates were inducted as a unit into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame at Orleans Arena on May 11.

Talk and the reading of lips eventually shifted to the Western Conference Final.

“There wasn’t a team in Winnipeg for a number of years, so this is the first time in franchise history the team has been to the third round,” Kyte said. “The fans in Winnipeg are wonderful. They’ve been waiting for this for a very, very long time.

“And the very first year of the Golden Knights, they’re into the third round. I hope the fans in Vegas truly appreciate what’s going on here.”

Though he also played for the Penguins, Flames, Senators, and parlayed two excellent seasons with the Thunder into another full campaign with the San Jose Sharks toward the end of this career, Kyte said he will always consider himself a Jet.

“But I played in Winnipeg for seven years, and not one family member came to visit me,” he said with a big grin. “I would only see them when we played in Montreal, Toronto. But my door was knocked down here in Vegas. All three of my children were born in Las Vegas; they have dual citizenship. (Las Vegas) is a very special place for me.”

He said he even has developed a healthy respect — or at least some respect — for the media since he last checked somebody into the Plexiglas. Kyte was skating for the Kansas City Blades, the Sharks’ top farm club, when he suffered a severe concussion in an auto accident that wasn’t his fault during the 1996-97 season that forced his retirement.

He became a sportswriter for his hometown newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen. He wrote a weekly column about hockey, which was fun and therapeutic. Getting thoughts from his head onto paper helped him recover from the concussion.

Bonk’s bodyguard

Kyte was mostly known as a tough guy in the NHL and especially for the Thunder, for whom he racked up a career-high 246 penalty minutes in 1993-94.

“I was always having to clean up what Radek Bonk started,” he said of the shaggy-haired 17-year-old phenom who was too young to play in the NHL during 1993-94 and scored 42 goals for the Thunder.

Now instead of tough, Kyte is mostly considered a smart guy. After getting his master’s degree, he has become dean of the school of hospitality and tourism at Algonquin College in Ottawa.

At 6 feet 5 inches and maybe five pounds heavier than his playing weight of 220, he still looks like he could skate a shift for the team that drafted him in the first round, 12th overall, in 1982.

He said he’s looking forward to another Winnipeg whiteout on TV.

“It was stunning the first time you saw it,” Jim Kyte recalled. “But you have to understand that the home team jersey when I played was white. So it’s kind of funny when you see the Winnipeg Jets playing in their dark blues at home with the whiteout going on.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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