Hockey color: Bawa inspired as the first Indian-born player in the NHL
Arjun Bawa has said he won’t let slurs or racist comments about his Indian heritage deter him from his dream of playing in the NHL.
“On the ice you might get a racist comment or two, but I’m just minding my own business,” said the 16-year-old forward, who plays at Delta Hockey Academy in Delta, Colombia. -British.
“Just keep your focus on scoring goals.”
It’s a lesson he learned from his father, Robin Bawa, who made history as the first Indian-born player to play in the NHL when he made his Washington Capitals debut. against the Philadelphia Flyers on October 6, 1989.
âWhat he did was awesome, honestly it’s inspiring,â said Arjun. “I think if he was successful, I feel like anyone can do it because the odds are stacked against him.”
Elder Bawa was a robust center who scored seven points (six goals, one assist) in 61 NHL games with the Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Mighty Ducks from 1989 to 1994.
Arjun and his half-brother, Kayden Sadhra-Kang, hope to follow in their 55-year-old father’s footsteps in the NHL. Kayden is a 17-year-old defenseman who recently completed his rookie season with Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League. He got an assist in nine games after being selected by Lethbridge in the ninth round (# 195) of the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft.
Arjun, a forward, signed to play for Red Deer of the WHL in May 2020 after being selected in the second round (No.36) of the 2020 Bantam Draft.
âIt means a lot to carry on my father’s legacy,â Kayden said. “There are so few people who have multiple family members in the NHL. Especially as a South Asian, it would be very special to be able to do that.”
Robin Bawa’s path to the NHL has not been easy. Growing up in Duncan, BC, other children told him at age 7 that “people of color don’t play hockey, yours don’t play hockey.”
He and his father set out to prove them wrong.
âI went to tell my dad and the next day my dad bought me a pair of skates,â Bawa said. âHe didn’t skate at all, but he took me to a lake that froze every year. We would go after work. I would skate maybe 10 feet and come back, the next day skate 20 feet, then 30 feet. C that’s how I learned. “
Bawa became good enough to start playing organized minor hockey where he was often the only player of color on the ice. He said he suffered racist slurs in minor and junior hockey, but refused to let it derail.
âIgnore and move onâ has become his mantra.
âFirst of all, whatever your color, how difficult it is to be in the NHL,â he said. âThen, as a minority, it can be a bit more difficult. You may be taking a different path than a Caucasian player. At the time, it was a little more difficult, there was more prejudice in society and hockey is part of this society. There are always obstacles in your way to your destination, aren’t there? If you let this affect you, you will not achieve your goals. “
Bawa joined Kamloops from the WHL in 1982-83, but quickly became frustrated playing major junior hockey.
âWhen I went to junior, I left home at 16, it was a bit early for me to leave home,â he said. “The level of maturity was not where it should have been. The first two years were difficult.”
Kamloops traded Bawa to Westminster at the start of the 1984-1985 season, and Westminster brought him back to Kamloops midway through the season. The team was coached by Ken Hitchcock, who Bawa said “changed my career”.
Hitchcock said he observed Bawa in several practices and determined he was playing the wrong style of play.
âHe was tough, he was aggressive, he was physical, he had a real advantage,â Hitchcock said. The two-man match did not interest him. He saw himself as an energy player. When we observed him doing the exercises, he showed skills that impressed us.
âI sat down with him and said, ‘I think you can become a 200-footer,â said Hitchcock, who won 849 games as an NHL coach from 1996 to 2019, fourth. of the history of the League. “‘I think you can score. I don’t think you can score, but I think you have to change the accent.'”
Hearing this, Bawa “changed overnight,” Hitchcock said, and became a go-to scorer for Kamloops. He went from 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 52 games in 1984-1985 to 72 points (29 goals, 43 assists) in 63 games the following season.
He capped his last season in Kamloops in 1986-87 with 113 points (57 goals, 56 assists) in 62 games.
âHe was playing over 20 minutes a night and he really took it up to be a complete player,â Hitchcock said. “I don’t mean to say it was easy but what happened was it was like a breath of fresh air to him. He saw himself in a different light. His confidence grew every day. “
The Capitals showed their confidence in Bawa and signed him as a free agent on May 22, 1987. He played five games for Washington and was traded to the Vancouver Canucks on July 31, 1991.
Bawa played two games with the Canucks before being traded on Dec. 15, 922 to the San Jose Sharks and scored five goals in 42 games with the Sharks in 1992-93.
He was more of a physical presence than a threat to score in the NHL, but Hitchcock said he could tell Bawa never forgot the lessons he learned in Kamloops about being a complete player. .
“I know one thing,” Hitchcock said, “some of the coaches when he was in the NHL trusted him because they played him late in the game.”
Bawa said he didn’t think much of his heritage when playing because he was too busy trying to qualify for the NHL and be successful.
He helped pave the way for other players of Indian descent, including Toronto Maple Leafs assistant Manny Malhotra, who played 991 NHL games for seven teams from 1998 to 2015, and forward of the Edmonton Oilers. Jujhar khaira, the only player of Indian origin currently playing in the NHL.
âIt feels good now when you think about it,â Bawa said. “The more time passes, the more it means. My grandfather came in 1906, he is one of the first South Asians to come to Canada from India. In that sense, he broke a barrier. My barrier was in ice hockey. “
Pictures: Doug MacLellan / Hockey Hall of Fame / Red Deer Rebels / Erica Perreaux