Once upon a time, there was a young boy from Trinidad who fell in love with hockey after his family swapped their warm Caribbean island home for Toronto’s winter cool in search of a better life.
He went to his first National Hockey League game at the old Maple Leafs Gardens and stood by the low glass, eyes wide as the Toronto Maple Leafs briskly skated through their pregame warm-up routine.
As the Leafs left the ice, a player tossed the boy a puck, a moment that proved to be an epiphany and kismet.
Today, Sudarshan Maharaj is a goaltending consultant for the Anaheim Ducks organization. He helps train, evaluate, and scout goalies for the NHL team coached by Bruce Boudreau – the Maple Leafs player who gave him the cherished puck years ago.
“I told Bruce that story,” Maharaj told me recently. “He was shocked that I remembered. I said ‘Are you crazy? That’s a life-changing moment. It was one of my greatest experiences. My very first hockey game and a Toronto Maple Leafs player dropped a puck for me.’ To this day, if I ever see a young child in the stands I’ll always throw a puck.”
Roaming the Ducks organization, Maharaj spends time with goalies Frederik Andersen and Anton Khudobin in Anaheim; John Gibson and Matt Hackett at the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ American Hockey League farm team; and Ryan Faragher and Chris Rawlings at the Utah Grizzlies, Anaheim’s ECHL affiliate.
In a hockey playing and coaching career spanning over three decades, Maharaj has also coached Florida Panthers backup goalie Al Montoya and former NHLers Kevin Weekes, Rick DiPietro, Joey MacDonald, Steve Valiquette, Martin Biron, and Dwayne Roloson.
Maharaj is part of a small but growing army of minorities who’ve entered hockey’s coaching ranks as goalie instructors. Frantz Jean runs the goalies for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 2014-15 Stanley Cup finalist.
Fred Brathwaite, who tended net for four NHL teams, is a goaltending consultant for Hockey Canada. Grant Fuhr, who helped backstop the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups, was a goalie coach for the then-Phoenix Coyotes in the early 2000s.
“I’ve been offered opportunities to be on the bench, but I don’t like it,” he told me. “I like the behind the scene position – I’m not a front-of-the-herd guy. If ever there were a position that I would aspire to, it would be assistant general manager, but I don’t. I love what I do. I’d like to win a Stanley Cup as a goaltending coach.”
Sudarshan “Sudsie” Maharaj’s hockey story is an unconventional tale of immigration, opportunity, prejudice, and perseverance. His family, who’s of Indian descent, relocated from Trinidad to Toronto in 1970 when he was six years old.
His father found work at an auto dealership and worked his way up from washing cars to selling them. Canada took some getting used to, particularly the weather.
“I distinctly still remember the first time I ever saw snow,” Maharaj told me. “We ran outside the apartment complex where we were living and stood there in the snow watching it come down.”
The family’s assimilation to their new country was aided by hockey. Like most Canadians, the Maharaj household gathered around the television on winter Saturdays and watched “Hockey Night in Canada.”
Watching hockey led to Maharaj taking up the game. First, street hockey with neighborhood kids. Then he joined an in-house hockey league. Maharaj’s oldest brother was a huge fan of Leafs goaltender Bernie Parent and directed his younger brother to the pipes.
“He said ‘That’s it, you have to be a goalie.’ He stuck me in net all the time and then come tryout at the local house league he said ‘Okay, you’re going to tryout in net,'” Maharaj said. “I loved it and ended up playing there the rest of my life. Oh, that mask. The mask and the equipment, and I just loved the position.”
And he was good at it. He was a member of the University of Wisconsin’s hockey team briefly before moving on to York University in Toronto. When no NHL teams knocked on his door, Maharaj packed his pads and headed to Sweden where he played professionally from 1985 to 1991.
Racial taunts and hostility on and off the ice accompanied Maharaj along his hockey journey, and Sweden was no exception. There, some so-called “fans” didn’t like his looks and torched his car.
“One of the young lads didn’t particularly like the color of my skin, me being in the town, and who I was associating with and all that,” Maharaj told me. “So he decided to make a bonfire that night.”
Things could have been worse for him racially in Sweden and North America, Maharaj figures, but his goalie gear offered him a degree of anonymity.
“Back in those days you wore the mask that covered your whole face, so you didn’t get it as much until they knew who you were either before or after,” he told me. “As the years went on, when you’re playing the same people, they knew. You’d have (opposing players) come to the front of the net and say some things that today people would be shocked to hear.”
Maharaj retired as a player in 1991 at age 27. He returned to York University to complete his degree work in English and physical education. About the same time, the school’s goalie coach left the team, and he was asked to fill the vacancy. A career was born.
He liked coaching so much that he began to instruct goalies on junior teams while working as a school teacher in the greater Toronto area. His positive results with young goalies caught the attention of the New York Islanders.
He was a goalie coach or goaltending consultant for the Isles from the 2003-04 season to the 2011-12 NHL campaign. In 2013-14, He became goaltending consultant for the Norfolk Admirals, then the Ducks’ AHL team.
The Admirals moved to San Diego this season as part of the AHL’s ambitious west coast expansion and are now called the Gulls.
Maharaj’s pupils past and present sing his praises. When Faragher was called up by the Ducks from AHL Norfolk for a stint last season he said “being able to get more games down the stretch and working with Sudarshan Maharaj allowed me to feel more comfortable at the AHL level.”