(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.
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.
A DIFFERENT TIME
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.”
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.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.
RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE
- Top 100 Oilers: Jordan Eberle
- The Wonder Years
- Top 100 Oilers: Pat Hughes
- A Well-Worn Welcome Mat
- Halfway There
- Connor After 82
- Top 100 Oilers: Jeff Beukeboom
- Pack Mentality