Stanley HALEK was just six years old when his hearing slipped away. It was never quite clear where it went -- prairie medicine in 1943 wasn't what it is today.
Point is, by the time he was grown, Halek's last memories of sound were the lilting melodies of lullabies. He went to a school for deaf kids, but made his way in the hearing world, and especially in sports: As a teen, he was a top defenceman for the Saskatoon Junior Quakers, alongside future Stanley Cup champion Ed Van Impe. Sometimes, being deaf meant he'd throw a hit after the whistle blew: It's funny, now, but NHL scouts at the time weren't so amused.
So Halek gave up on a hockey career, but he never fell out of love with sports, especially not the Winnipeg Blue Bombers he loved so much. He took a job in a paper mill, married a deaf woman, raised two hearing sons and taught them everything he knew about football. For awhile, in the '60s or '70s, he held Bombers season tickets. He knew the game so well, it didn't matter that he couldn't hear: he could spot the holding calls before the refs did, most of the time.
Still, when Halek and his son Jerry turned up at Investors Group Field for the first time this year, the elder man was amazed to see closed captioning on the big screen, rattling off what announcers were saying. It is a welcome mat, of sorts, for people who need language to be seen, and not just heard. And the Bombers are the first team to do it in the CFL.
"He finally gets to be a part of that," Jerry Halek said. "It's like another level."
This is the part hearing people sometimes take for granted, just being included.
"He's been in the hearing world," Jerry explained. "Because of that, he's excluded all the time, just in basic conversation. For him to walk into something, especially a big event that you're sharing with 30,000 people, and now he can be on the same level as them. He's reading what everybody is hearing. I know that means a lot to him."
Closed captioning at football games isn't novel: NCAA and NFL teams have done it for years. But the screen at the Bombers' old Canad Inns Stadium was just too small. So two years ago, when Bombers VP Jerry Maslowsky was touring the University of Minnesota's field -- they use the same Daktronics scoreboards the Bombers were bringing to IGF -- and saw captions marching across the screen, he made a note.
"We thought it was something that was important to do," he said.
Back home, the Manitoba Deaf Association reached out to the Bombers to discuss what deaf and hearing-impaired fans would need to know.
"We as deaf people rely on our eyes," wrote Manitoba Deaf Association vice-president Gunars Butkans, who helped the Bombers develop their plan. "Ironically, many of the hearing people at football games have raved about the captioning, as they have said they now can 'see' what has been said, because being able to hear over the crowd cheers (or) musical interludes is challenging for them. Having the captioning is a win-win situation for all the fans."
And those fans are who Darcia Hewak thinks about at games, as her fingers tap-dance rhythms on her keyboard. She can press out up to five words a second, etched in a stenographer's phonetic shorthand that she honed first in college, and then for years in courts.
When the Bombers approached her to caption their games, Hewak jumped at the chance -- though she needed a bit of a crash course in football lingo, she laughed, but jumping into new topics is common in her line of work. Sometimes there are gaffes in her transcribing, fans may notice, but that's often due to the software's interpretation -- as anyone who's seen the quirks of iPhone's autocorrect function can empathize with.
Best of all, Hewak said, this gig -- still unique in the CFL, though the Bombers have fielded calls from other teams looking to get closed captioning up and running -- lets her see the impact of her efforts. "This work is so rewarding," she said, chatting in her usual spot in IGF's production booth.
"It's for the province and the people here. I'm always thinking of people sitting out there, reading the screen. I'm just really happy the Bombers did this, and kicked it off."