(photo: Walter Tychnowicz – USA TODAY Sports)

Heaven knows, the odds of making it to the NHL are long enough without adding ignorance and racism to the pile of obstacles. Your country of origin, the colour of your skin or your ethnicity shouldn’t be factors in pursuing and maybe even realizing that dream — any dream for that matter.

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I remember thinking about that when Jujhar Khaira first stepped through the gate with the Edmonton Oilers last season, when it was duly documented that the big kid from Surrey, a stone’s throw from where I grew up, became just the third player of Punjabi descent to play in the NHL. 

I remember thinking about the bad, old days and how far we’ve come since I first laid eyes on Robin Bawa as a member of the New Westminster Bruins of the WHL, about the racial slurs and hatred he faced – from both opponents and fans, including those in the home crowd at old Queen’s Park Arena. I still remember the stupid, ugly stuff that was said.

Bawa, a Vancouver Island kid who came up through the junior ranks in the 1980s as a member of Kamloops Junior Oilers, the Bruins and later the Kamloops Blazers, became the first Punjabi player to make it to the NHL when he played five games with the Washington Capitals in 1989-90. Bawa played 61 NHL games with Washington, Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim before concussions forced him out of the game in 1999.

I spent four years as a sports writer at the Kamloops Daily News before coming to Edmonton in 1989, including three seasons covering Bawa as a member of Ken Hitchcock’s Blazers. Not once did it dawn on me then how brave and determined he was, what he endured to get that far – I just thought of Bawa as a Blazer, not a trailblazer – but I think about him now as I watch Khaira.

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Even though there’s more work to do, thankfully, we’ve come a million miles in terms of inclusion and acceptance since those bad, old days when Bawa endured slurs from on the ice and in the stands that I’m not going to repeat here. Suffice to say, the kind of ignorance he endured, even from the time he was a little boy, was just brutal. 

After his retirement, Bawa recalled some of what he came up against growing up, even before he’d played his first game of organized hockey, in an interview with Hockey Night Punjabi. The interview is here. He was asked what his experience was like.

“I think racism is always there,” Bawa said. “I think that when I was young, you could see it more. Maybe now it’s a little more hidden. I remember when my grandpa came over in 1906, they couldn’t go get a haircut. It was whites only.

“You go into Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3 . . . the way I started to play hockey was, one of the kids goes, ‘Well, your kind doesn’t play. I went home with my dad and I said, ‘Hey, dad, is that true?’ He goes, ‘No, not at all.’ So, the next day he bought a pair of skates and away we went.”

Asked about the road he travelled and why we still don’t see many Indo-Canadian players, Bawa said: “My parents never really pushed me. They just let me play and away we went. It’s been 30 years. Manny (Malhotra) came in a little bit there and Jujhar came in from Edmonton. After that, I’m not sure if there’s any more coming along, but I really hope there is a few more kids coming along, you know, within the next five years.”

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Robin Bawa

In all the time I spent in the rink and on the bus with the Blazers, I don’t recall ever broaching the subject of racism with Bawa or asking what it was like to walk in his shoes in relation to writing a story about it. That, I’m embarrassed to say, is called missing the big story. Only when Bawa made it to the NHL did the significance of the feat and the road he travelled along the way really hit home.

I don’t recall Robin ever holding himself up as any type of role model, even though, in hindsight, I now realize he was. To me, Bawa was an honest player who never quit. He could skate. He could score. Bawa had 57 goals and 113 points in his final season with Kamloops. During his pro career, he put on size and became a real physical force. Off the ice, away from the battle, Bawa was a wonderful, soft-spoken, easy-going guy. 

Thirty years later, when I look at Khaira, I think of Bawa. I don’t know if Khaira considers himself a role model as he tries to carve out his place in the NHL with the Oilers, but he most certainly is – to some little girl or boy who is lacing up their skates, grabbing their stick and chasing a puck for the love of the game. We should celebrate and encourage that.

*I haven’t talked to Bawa, who lives in the Vancouver area, for several years now, but I’ve reached out to him and hope to talk to him about his experiences and Khaira. For those unfamiliar with Robin, you can learn more about him in this video. Bawa’s career stats are here.

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Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.


  • Señor Frijoles

    Great article, Brownlee.

    It’s embarrassing and shameful that that kind of racism existed in Canada – and while, like you said, it’s miles better than it was, it’s ridiculous and infuriating that it’s still something visible minority players have to deal with. Good on Bawa, Malholtra, and now Khaira for beating the odds – I hope Khaira has a long and successful career in Oiler silks.

      • ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        You’d have to ask the trashers, but possibly because the statement can be read to effectively erase Kharia’s culture and ethnicity as if didn’t exist: he’s not Punjabi; he’s just a hockey player (but he actually is Punjabi and that can’t and shouldn’t be erased some would say).

        Of course that’s not fair to Spydyr.

        Spydyr very probably meant to say that ethnicity doesn’t or shouldn’t matter one way or the other when it comes to hockey. However, the point of the article was to explicitly acknowledge ethnicity when it comes to hockey and even celebrate it, not overlook it or deny it given the history of bias and prejudice in the sport and our culture.

        As Brownlee states, that’s “missing the big story.”

        For some, Spydyr’s statement may miss the big story even though that was very probably not what he intended–not that Spydyr ever has needed me to speak for him.

        • Spydyr

          Not needed but appreciated, thanks. That is exactly what I meant. It is nice to see this country finally moving past race, sexual orientation or many of the other things that are used to divide us.

          I just see Khaira as a hockey player and one I quite like. I bet he is pencilled in as Wagon’s replacement sooner rather than later.

        • ubermiguel

          Well you sure spoke for me, my thoughts exactly.

          It’s OK to acknowledge someone’s race and ethnicity, but not judge them for it; we should only judge someone on the content of their character…and their hockey skills.

      • Erasing a person’s identity isn’t the solution either.

        I see a Canadian born player of Punjabi heritage making the NHL. I recognize that because of that he faced a lot of crap, just like European players decades ago did.

        I see a German born team mate, becoming a top tier talent. I see a team mate who is a #1 draft pick who had a mom who couldn’t afford hockey for a year so he took a year off when he was a kid. Both of them, like Khaira, inspire others because of their circumstances.

        There are many interesting back stories to these players that is inspiring for different reasons. There’s no need to erase it.

        Spyder likely meant he didn’t see heritage as a bad thing. But it gets to the point where people don’t see it as a thing to begin with, which is pretty crappy too.

        I call Hendricks “Captain America” in recognition of his background, I won’t shy away from it. I’ll keep calling Drai “der Deutsche” too. I see hockey players, but I’ll also embrace their backgrounds.

        Though I won’t be calling Khaira the “Punjabi Prince of Pucks” or anything like that, I’ll stick to Jujhar Hockey™.

    • OldOilerFan

      Hear, hear. That’s what we all should see. I for one can’t wait to see him in the lineup on a consistent basis.

      Speaking of which, ….what’s his status? Did he get hurt? Day to day? What?

  • Valar Morghulis

    Sadly the racism is still here and goes both ways. I know I have had many moments in the past 25 years fearing for my safety, but the majority of that was attending Harry Ainlay in the early 90’s. Just as recent as last year walking home alone in the dark after the Oilers/Golden Bears rookie game, a car of 4 guys rolls up and the threats start flying. There was no choice but to start running for my life. I am a white guy in my forties and I hate racism.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    I grew up playing street hockey almost exclusively with Indo-Canadian kids around the neighbourhood. So much passion for the game in that community, I think there will be a great many more NHLers to come from there.

  • Randaman

    I think Bawa’s comment that racism is just more hidden hits the nail on the head.
    Racism hasn’t gone anywhere but behind closed doors for the most part. Sadly, I believe this to be the case and to think otherwise is just being nieve.

  • oiler_head

    I think we will see more Indo-Canadians and Asian American kids moving up. My son is Indo-American but likely isn’t going to reach those levels but when we play teams from Surrey (specifically) or southern California, there are kids of Asian descent (Indian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese) on those teams. I know kids drop out due to academic pressure (at least that’s been my experience here in Portland even at a Bantam level) but hopefully a few will persevere. My son has maintained his grades well despite playing travel hockey though I think his lack of size will hold him back.

    As an East Indian growing up in Edmonton, I am proud that the Oilers have Khaira. We had the good fortune of meeting him when my son was in a tournament in Everett and he was still with the Silvertips. He is a great kid and towered over my son who was 11 or 12 at the time (hell he towered over me too).

    It is a shame that racism exists. I dealt with it as a kid in Edmonton but, truthfully, it was only a couple of kids that I had issues with in terms of blatant racism during elementary and jr high. By high school, racism wasn’t even an issue. I am still good friends with most of my mates from high school and a fair amount from elementary too.

    Sorry that was a lot of rambling….

    • Been there

      Thanks for sharing. I grew up in a very ethnic diverse neighbourhood in northern Ontario. My best friend was black, and to be honest I never realized he was or he was”different” until about grade 3 or 4 when others started making it an issue. We were just best friends, and it was great. We had French, polish, Dutch, German, scottish etc…. and none of cared less, we all got along. Eventually moved to Toronto and lived in a Portuguese neighbourhood and again got along great. To this day race, gender, religion or orientation bias does not creep into my life or beliefs. People are people, we are all capable, life, work, sports, does not matter, surround yourself with honest friends. As for Jujar Khaira, keep bringing it, I believe you are a fan favourite already, a role model, and a damn good hockey player!,

  • tileguy

    Don’t beat yourself up Robin over woulda, coulda, shoulda done back then. We are all products of our envoroment and growing up. Doing your bit by writing this article show how every man can progress and do his part. The queen would be happy to know you are doing your bit.

  • ThinkingOutLoud

    The fact that we have come a long ways and are taking steps to be more inclusive of everyone – celebrating all backgrounds while still all being equal as Canadians makes me proud to live in this country. ❤️ Canada. That is all.

  • Leef O'Golin

    I remember there was a ball-hockey team in our league back in Edmonton made up of Indo-Canadians. They were tough as all get-out and ridiculously fast. I always wondered why more Indo-Canadians\Americans aren’t in the higher levels of hockey by now. JJ’s story is getting pretty good already, and that’s without the race issues. Thanks for the story.

  • S cottV

    Somehow – we never do all that well on ON with politics and racism.

    I don’t know, but unless there is an issue, I guess I just lean to focusing on the kid being a pretty good hockey player, that should really help our club.

    Looks to me that he is being very well received by the city.

    I guess you would have to ask him, but – I would leave interviews to the hockey stuff, with maybe a few open ended questions that leave him the option of bringing in his ethnicity – if he wants. He probably just wants to talk hockey.

    Hope he’s not out of the lineup for long and I really think a no brainer that he deserves to stick for the remainder of the year.

  • Borbs

    It’s still too bad there’s racism in the game. Myself personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass what your background is, if you got two heads or even glow in the GD dark!! If you can help the Oilers win games, all I can ever say is welcome aboard!!! And I wish it was that way FOR everybody!!

  • wiseguy

    I posted this on an earlier thread but on Jason Gregor’s show (4th hour) there was an interview of Khaira where he was asked about being and inspiration to kids “in Canada and even back home”. Is Surrey not in Canada any more?

      • wiseguy

        That’s ridiculous. If someone is white and born and raised in Canada, you would never ask him about “back home”. Anyone ever ask McDavid about kids “back home” in Ireland or Scotland idolizing him?
        Being born in Canada means your home is Canada, not where your parents or grandparents moved from. The colour of his skin was the reason the question was asked, precisely due to the subconscious racism that you brought up.
        When I travel, I get asked all the time where I’m from. When I answer “Canada”, I get the followup question “No, where are you really from before?”

        Nobody asks that question of my Caucasian wife but because of the colour of my skin, it’s fine to assume I can’t be from Canada?
        So ya, I’m that guy, the guy that won’t just be subjugated because the white guy says it’s just me taking an offensive comment the wrong way. I guess that’s why Mr. Bawa didn’t speak up back then. Thankfully we don’t live in 80’s Edmonton anymore where us minorities are expected to just shut up and try not to get noticed.

  • 719

    If you want to see what modern racism looks like, go to a game where the Millwoods kids are playing. The things adults say to kids as young as 8 years old is disgusting.

  • Oilerz4life

    Way to put it out there Brownlee. The more articles and media we have in the mainstream the more you stem the tide of racism. I’m in BC and it’s great to see articles like this.