With the National Hockey League playoffs well into the homestretch for the 2009-2010 season, it serves as an opportune time to spotlight the national sport obsession of our neighbors from the True North. It’s not exaggerating to say that Canada’s pandemic pride — trite though it may sound — is measured in parallel to its fortunes in hockey(reference the national team’s thrilling overtime gold medal victory over Team USA at February’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver), such is the importance of the sport within the country’s national and global identity. How much? Would you believe Canadians have 5 on it?
Hockey is so ingrained within the Canadian fabric that it’s literally ingrained on some national fabric: The reverse side of the Canadian five dollar bill tributes the sport with a graphic and an excerpt from author Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater.” Take that, Curling!
And while the game engenders tear-inducing passion with our poutine-eating, Molson-drinking Canuck friends and similarly with starch and booze variants in Scandinavia, the Baltics and Central Europe, in the US, the NHL is often outside the money in a three-horse race with the NBA, NFL and MLB.
Reasons — weather chiefly — abound for the second level popularity, however, the perceived lack of diversity within the sport itself is cited as a major reason. A more detailed examination shows otherwise. Contrary to perception, the NHL, in actuality, isn’t as whitewashed as the generally-held view and Canadians of Asian ethnicity in particular have been an inordinate and rapidly-growing segment.
Testament to this are two significant pioneers on ice: Manny Malhotra and Robin Bawa.
Bawa is the NHL’s South Asian version of baseball’s Jackie Robinson. The Duncan, British Columbia native and third generation Sikh Indo-Canadian was signed by the Washington Capitals as an undrafted free agent in 1988 after a solid Junior hockey career.
“In the 1970s, there weren’t any Indians playing in the Fuller Lake Minor Hockey Asociation that I was playing in,” he told the Toronto Star. “I was the only one.”
Despite his point-scoring skills in juniors, he rapidly made his name in the minor leagues with his fists and physical play. The 6’2, 210 lb., Right Wing realized that his fighting prowess rather than his puck prowess would be his ticket onward and so, Robin Bawa, the grandson of Bawa Singh, who immigrated to Canada from the Punjab in 1906, literally fought his way into the NHL.
In his first three seasons as a professional with the minor league Fort Wayne Komets and Baltimore Skipjacks, he produced 42 goals, 111 points and a whopping 854 penalty minutes (most for fighting) earning him a late season call-up with the Capitals in 1989-90, thus making him the first South Asian to play in the NHL.
The following season, back at Fort Wayne, he had an eye-opening 381 penalty minutes and was traded for by his home province Vancouver Canucks in 1991 where his barrier-breaking made him a media sensation and a modern Desi Hero. He played parts of the balance of his career with the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks before retiring in 1999 due to repeat symptoms from a concussion. All told, he played 13 history-making seasons with four organizations.
Bawa credits his parents with helping him make it to the big leagues. “My parents are the best parents in the world,” he told The Star. “They never forced me (to do anything) at all.”
For Emmanuel “Manny” Noveen Malhotra, whose Punjab-born father and French-Canadian mother both owned doctorates, it was a case of education before hockey or anything else, so much so that he remembers a time during juniors when his mother physically pulled him out of the locker room because he hadn’t finished his homework.
If Bawa was the first, Malhotra is, thus far, the most successful. Currently in the playoffs as a popular checking line Center for the San Jose Sharks (Big Up The Sharks for having both dudes!), the 6’2, 215 lb. Missasauga, Ontario native was selected the 7th pick overall in the first round of the NHL draft by the New York Rangers, thus being the first Indo American to be selected in the NHL Draft. He was 18.
In an unspectacular but, solidly consistent 14-year career, Malhotra has spent all but, one of his seasons in the NHL. The exception being in 2004 when the NHL locked out its players during a contract dispute and he played in the Swedish Elite and Slovenian Professional leagues. Since the Rangers and prior to his current time with The Sharks, he’s had a stint with the Dallas Stars and five stellar seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“When I go to cities with large South Asian populations, to see that there are some South Asians that wouldn’t be interested or playing without knowing of me is pretty cool,” said Malhotra, acknowledging his role in the game’s diverse growth.
Malhotra’s Sharks finished with the best regular season record in their division and have been tabbed as favorites for the Stanley Cup. Interestingly enough, among his teammates — and sometime linemate — is a rising star in Devin “The Gooch” Setoguchi, a Japanese Canadian native of Alberta.
Here’s a cool featurette on Manny shot last year from NHL Network:
The groundbreaking careers of Bawa and Malhotra provide an opportunity to increase the game’s talent and fan base and has already shown signs of the former.
Ajay Baines, a high scoring, Calder Cup-winning (Minor League version of the Stanley Cup) Center idolized Bawa when watching him as a kid undoubtedly inspiring him to pursue the game professionally.
Prab Rai is a slick-skating, gifted goal scorer with skills drafted and recently signed by his hometown Vancouver Canucks. They are just two examples.
Stephen Harper, the current Canadian PM, didn’t hesitate when asked if he would trade his current title for a spot on an NHL roster.
“It’s probably a terrible thing to say,” he told Sports Illustrated, ” But any Canadian boy, if he could play in the NHL, would play in the NHL.”
And now thanks to Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra, that definition, if not, perception of an NHL’er is now expanded beyond the obvious.