They share a heritage, they share a team, and two of them share a line. But Everett Silvertips forwards Jujhar Khaira, Manraj Hayer and Tyler Sandhu have something else in common: undeniable talent.
The three Vancouver-area players are among the top seven in scoring on their Western Hockey League major junior team. Their scoring numbers jump off the stat sheets, but the trio also opens eyes because they are among a small but steadily growing number of Indian players who are helping change the color of hockey.
“Kids have kind of seen us in the WHL and see players go into the AHL and NHL and they’re kind of taking note that it can be done,” said Hayer, 20, who was fourth on the team in scoring with 11 goals and 17 assists in 33 games before being sidelined by a concussion. “Lately, lots of East Indian kids have started to play hockey. Little kids have come up to me and said ‘I’ve seen you play and I want to follow in your footsteps.’ That’s kind of cool.”
Sandhu, who plays on a line with Hayer, seconded his teammate’s “cool.” “It’s exciting and an honor to have kids look up to you as you looked up to older players,” said Sandhu, 18, who is fifth on the Silvertips with 13 goals and 14 assists in 40 games. “For our culture, it feels good to be able to be part of a lot kids’ development in how they look at hockey and how they dream about playing as well. For me, it’s a dream of mine to play in the NHL and I just hope kids in my culture have that dream as well.”
Carolina Hurricanes center Manny Malhotra is currently the only Indo-Canadian player in the National Hockey League. But a next generation of players could be on the way in the near future, fueled by an interest in hockey that’s grown so large within Canada’s South Asia community that CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” airs broadcasts in Punjabi.
“This broadcast has really helped the Punjabi community to connect with the sport,” Harbs Bains, president of the Surrey (British Columbia) Minor Hockey Association, told The New York Times last April. “It allows someone whose first language is not English to connect with the sport and between generations.”
Hockey is even slowly gaining a foothold in cricket-crazed India. A member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1989, the country of more than 1.2 billion people has more than 900 hockey players. In March 2012, India captured its first international ice hockey victory, a 5-1 over Macau at the IIHF’s Challenge Cup of Asia tournament.
Hayer, 20, began playing hockey as a child because his older brother did. But Hayer never played with another Indian player in a game until Silvertips Head Coach and former NHL bench boss Kevin Constantine put him on a line with Sandhu in Everett two seasons ago.
“It’s been a different experience, I’ve never played with another East Indian player my whole life on any of my teams,” he told me recently. “It’s kind of cool just to be playing on his line. I think it kind of makes history – I don’t think it’s ever been done before, so it’s kind of cool.”
Hayer, Sandhu and Khaira were brought together in Everett, a city of 104,000 about 30 miles north of Seattle, by coincidence. Sandhu was among four prospects the Silvertips obtained in a May 2012 trade with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks in exchange for the rights to defenseman Seth Jones. Jones, a Nashville Predators rookie this season, was the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Khaira, who’s seventh on the Silvertips in scoring with 10 goals and 11 assists in 30 games, played 37 games for Michigan Tech during the 2012-13 season. He exited college with three years of NCAA eligibility left after signing with the Oilers. He came to the Silvertips in a May 2012 trade from the WHL’s Prince George Cougars
“It was a lot of fun, it was probably one of the best years of my life,” Khaira said of his time at Tech. “The style of play is completely different. In college, you’re playing against older guys who are 23-24 years old and here you’re playing against guys who are 16, 17 so there’s a big difference in age.”
As for his future with the Oilers, the 19-year-old said “I’m going to focus on this season and develop my game as best as possible, and then try to make an impression at (the Oilers) camp next year and see where it goes from there.”
Hayer was scouted and signed by the Silvertips in the 2010-11 season.
The three have never played on a line together during a WHL game, but have during practices. Would they like to join the ranks of the 1970s Buffalo Sabres all-French-Canadian “French Connection” led by Gilbert Perreault ,” the Boston Bruins’ German-Canadian “Kraut Line” of the 1940s that featured Milt Schmidt, or the famed “Black Aces,” an all-black minor league line in the 1940s headlined by Herb Carnegie?
“It would be cool, but at the same time Kevin Constantine knows what he’s doing and what he needs in a line,” Khaira said. “So I’m really confident in him and what he has for us.”