EDMONTON — Less than 100 games into his NHL career, Edmonton Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira has already received an honour that has eluded many of hockey’s biggest stars: being mentioned in an official sitting of Parliament, in front of the prime minister.
On March 7, 2017, Randeep Sarai, the Member of Parliament representing Surrey Centre, said in a speech in Ottawa: “As a hockey dad, I know it’s every Canadian kid’s dream to be in the NHL. One such dream is Surrey’s own, 6-foot-4, Edmonton Oiler No. 54, Jujhar Khaira. On Jan. 16, he scored his first NHL goal on the Arizona Coyotes.”
Khaira, 23, is nearing the end of his first full season in the NHL, where he is the only active player of Indian descent. He is one of three Indians to play in the league, following Manny Malhotra, who finished a 16-season career in 2015, and the 1990s enforcer Robin Bawa.
While Khaira is accustomed to the attention that comes with representing a minority in a predominantly white league, he was still taken aback when he found out about Sarai’s comments in the House of Commons.
“I got a lot of texts from family and friends saying they heard it,” Khaira said after a recent Oilers practice. “I don’t know how to describe it — it’s just really, really cool.”
Sarai went on to praise Harnarayan Singh, a Punjabi broadcaster for Hockey Night in Canada whose “Bonino, Bonino, Bonino” call during the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals went viral after Pittsburgh Penguins forward Nick Bonino scored the winning goal in Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks. Since its inception in 2000, the Punjabi broadcast has grown from niche programming to essential viewing for thousands of hockey fans.
The Bonino call has been viewed more than 270,000 times on YouTube, and Singh and his team earned an invitation to the Penguins’ victory parade.
Last Thursday, when the Vancouver Canucks hosted the Oilers, the Punjabi broadcasters and all three Indian NHL players were in the building as part of South Asian Celebration Night. It was the first such event hosted by an NHL team. Malhotra and Bawa played for the Canucks, and Bawa, like Khaira, grew up in British Columbia.
According to a 2016 Statistics Canada survey, approximately four per cent of Canadians are of Indian descent. Khaira’s parents are part of that group, having come to Canada from India when they were children.
His mother, Komal Khaira, grew up in Victoria, while his father, Sukhjinder Khaira, grew up in Clearwater, B.C., a community of roughly 2,300 people in the province’s interior. They met while students at the University of Victoria, where they were accomplished volleyball players. Khaira’s father also competed at the provincial level.
“Growing up as a kid, we had a big property, so we were always outside, and Mom and Dad were always outside with us playing all kinds of sports,” Khaira said. “We had an opportunity to do everything.”
In 2012 he was drafted by the Oilers in the third round out of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. After a year in the NCAA at Michigan Tech, Khaira played the 2013-14 season under Kevin Constantine with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.
Constantine remembers Khaira well as a high-character individual and a player with a legitimate shot at an NHL career.
“When I had players to my house, he was always the first into the kitchen after the meal to ask my wife if there was anything he could do to help,” said Constantine, who now coaches the South Korean Daemyung Killer Whales of Asia League Ice Hockey.
Khaira, whose favourite player growing up was power forward Todd Bertuzzi, did not hesitate to stick up for teammates.
“He had no problem with opponents playing the game hard against him,” Constantine said. “But he had a much shorter fuse when he saw opponents do something he thought inappropriate to teammates.”
Khaira spent three years in the American Hockey League, twice earning call-ups to Edmonton. After signing a two-year contract extension this summer, he made the Oilers’ roster out of training camp, and has since scored 11 goals and 21 points in 66 games.
After a roller-coaster season for both himself and the team, Khaira remains acutely aware of his potential impact on other players of Indian descent.
“I remember, when I was a kid watching Hockey Night in Canada, and my brother and I would go in the basement and play mini sticks, and whoever we saw that scored a goal on ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ we’d want to be that person,” he said. “So if it’s anything like that, I think it’s pretty special.”