By Tim Campbell – NHL.com
Edmonton Oilers left wing Jujhar Khaira was a Canadian kid who grew up with a love of hockey, on the street and on the ice in Surrey, British Columbia. Thanks to the sacrifices of hard-working parents who went out of their way to foster his devotion to the game, he earned his way to the NHL.
Khaira’s heritage is uncommon; the 63rd pick of the 2012 NHL Draft is the third Indo-Canadian to play in the League. Robin Bawa, who played a total of 61 games over four seasons from 1989-1994 and Manny Malhotra, who played 991 games over 16 seasons from 1998-2015 are the other two. The 22-year-old is enthused about the message being highlighted by the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone month.
The Oilers will help promote Hockey is for Everyone month with their You Can Play night against the Arizona Coyotes at Rogers Place on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; SNW, FS-A, NHL.TV).
“For families that come from different countries, there’s definitely different priorities when they come over [to North America],” Khaira said. “You have to make a living, and parents work so hard here to give their kids a better life.
“I think every parent is like that, but just the hard work in coming over, they never want to see money go to waste. It’s a different culture, a different set of beliefs. Now seeing myself achieve this goal, it opens parents’ eyes and kids’ eyes that it’s possible and it doesn’t matter where you come from. Anybody can do it.
“I think that’s cool, and I hope it motivates more kids to go out there and achieve their goals. It’s a start for a lot of people to start playing.”
Khaira played 15 games for the Oilers last season. He has played three this season and scored his first NHL goal on Jan. 16, a game-winning goal against the Arizona Coyotes. Khaira sustained an upper-body injury Jan. 18 against the Florida Panthers. He was placed on the injured reserve list but is close to returning.
“It was an awesome moment,” Khaira said of his first goal. “You grow up playing road hockey and there are so many different ways the scenarios go [through your head] on the street, how you’ll score, so for it to actually happen there’s a lot that goes through your mind. It was a big smile that night.
“And the amount of support I get from the south Asian community, that’s really cool. Just to score one, I think they enjoyed that just as much as I did.”
Khaira’s support system began with his dad Sukhjinder, a gravel truck driver, and his mom Komal, a speech language pathologist.
“Growing up, my parents made sacrifice after sacrifice,” Khaira said. “My brother (Sahvan, 19, a defenseman with Swift Current of the Western Hockey League) and I were playing, and my dad and mom used to get up at 5 a.m. and take us. I’m sure it’s the same story with any other kids. My parents did a lot for us, and that’s why their opinion on my games is really important to me, even though they tell me they don’t understand it as well as coaches and others. But at the end of the day, they’ve always been honest with me.”
Khaira’s parents immigrated to Canada when they were about 5, he said.
Its also made a lot of sacrifices and their mentality was always work, work, work. And so my parents played sports, but there was never really any funding to try hockey.
“Growing up and watching TV, CBC would be on every Saturday night. They loved watching hockey. We didn’t have many channels but one was hockey on CBC, so when I was old enough to play, they asked me if I wanted to. I loved it.”
Khaira said he’s also amazed at the support and the reach of the growing phenomenon that is OMNI TV’s Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi edition.
“It’s an awesome thing they are doing, especially for the older generation of Punjabi because they can understand,” Khaira said. “My grandparents can understand English, but when it’s in their language and when the talk is fast with the commentators keeping up with the play, it’s better for them to understand it. It’s so great for some of the Canadian cities with south Asian communities, Vancouver of course, Edmonton, and Toronto for sure. This is an awesome thing they are doing.”
Khaira said that his own passion for hockey developed because he found the game inclusive.
“Everybody I’ve played with, I’ve never felt excluded,” he said. “Always felt welcome. That’s from Day One. There’s always a few people that you run into or play against where emotion will get high and stuff gets said, but since I’ve been a pro, not much of that.
“A hockey team is like a family and I don’t think anybody, especially myself, has ever been excluded or not felt part of it in any way.”
Part of the emphasis on inclusion and diversity on Tuesday will see the Oilers use Pride Tape in warmups. Pride Tape is a creation of the local communications and marketing firm Calder Bateman and after the Oilers were the first NHL team to use it to support LGBTQ awareness, it has spread to 19 other NHL cities for You Can Play initiatives this season. Pride Tape is on sale at shop.nhl.com.
Oilers vice chair and alternate governor Kevin Lowe said the team is eager to continue its support of the You Can Play program begun last year.
“Our entire organization is honored to drive positive social change and help foster more inclusive communities, as evidenced by the leadership role last season by having our players be the first NHL team to use the Pride Tape,” Lowe said. “Also important with the NHL and its member clubs, the Oilers are reaffirming that the official policy of our great game is one of inclusion, on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”
Matt Hendricks is the Oilers ambassador for Hockey is for Everyone month and You Can Play night.
“For me, this about the excitement and joy in being able to support my community through this great avenue with the Oilers,” Hendricks said. “Being a father, this gives me an opportunity to be a great role model for my kids, my teammates and to help set my foot more into this great community that has been so open and welcoming to me.
“I got a little bit involved last year with Andrew (Ference, former Oilers captain) just like the rest of the team did, and when I was asked if I wanted to follow in his footsteps to represent the team, I was more than happy to. A great honor.”