Jujhar Khaira's goal another step forward for diversity in hockey

Surrey's Jujhar Khaira is being celebrated after scoring his debut NHL goal Monday night. Khaira is just the third Indo-Canadian in the league and his success is viewed by some as a step forward for diversity in hockey.

Cost and representation barriers to entry in Canada's national sport

Jujhar Khaira and teammate Mark Letestu celebrate a goal, during an Edmonton Oilers' game. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Jujhar Khaira can still remember imagining the moment he'd score his first NHL goal: he was playing street hockey as a child in his hometown of Surrey, B.C.

On Monday, his vision became reality when he helped the Edmonton Oilers to a 3-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes by scoring the game-winning goal.

"You always picture it in your head," Khaira told reporters after the game. "It feels good."

The centreman is the third player of Punjabi descent to play in the league.

Khaira's goal is being celebrated by more than Oilers fans, however: it's being viewed as a victory for those who want to see more diversity in the sport.

"Now, kids of Indian descent and kids who are quote-unquote 'brown' ... they're going to see somebody that looks like them in a professional league," said Moezine Hasham, co-founder and executive director of the charitable organization Hockey 4 Youth.

Hasham grew up in the East Vancouver neighbourhood of Champlain Heights, less than an hour's drive from Khaira,

The son of immigrant parents, Hasham was the first in his family to embrace hockey.

Moezine Hasham's work focuses on increasing diversity in grassroots hockey including girls, low-income people and new Canadians. (Moezine Hasham)

"I got my first set of equipment donated to me by a neighbour," he recalled. "I've got two older brothers — they didn't get a chance to play because we couldn't afford it with my parents being new to the country, but I was given the opportunity."

Playing as a child in Vancouver and later as a university student in Prince George, B.C., Hasham remembers being one of only a few non-white skaters on the ice.

Now in Toronto, he's breaking down barriers that prevent new Canadians from taking part in the country's national sport.

Obstacles to the ice

"71 per cent of new Canadians express interest in playing hockey, yet only one per cent will have an opportunity," Hasham said, citing a report from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship

"That's the Grand Canyon of gaps... we're trying to be the bridge."

The athlete said one of the main obstacles is the same one encountered by his brothers: cost. 

Hasham says one of the major barriers to hockey is the cost of equipment, especially for new immigrants and refugees. (Jack Huang)

"The average cost for child in hockey is $3,700 a year," Hasham said.

"If you're new to the country and you need to worry about rent and food and shelter and clothing your kid, that cost is an immediate barrier."

Representation is another hurdle.

"93 per cent of the league — the National Hockey League — is Caucasian or white. So when a player of colour scores a goal ... now he's going to be that person that boys and girls look up to and say, 'Hey, he did that, so I want to do it,'" Hasham said.

"When you see somebody that looks like you doing something that you want to do, it certainly helps."

Representation in sport

Jay Notay agrees with Hasham. He was six years old when he saw his first hockey game on TV in Vancouver, not long after his family fled Uganda in the early '70s. 

Though he was hooked on the sport, he noticed none of the players looked like him.

As VP Academic at the College of New Caledonia, Jay Notay tries to connect international students to hockey. (College of New Caledonia)

In 1989, Robin Bawa became the first Indo-Canadian to play in the NHL, followed by Manny Malhotra.

Now, there's Khaira.

"It is a big deal for me," Notay said. "It's my heritage, and I'm proud that you're seeing increased diversity in the game."

Notay works at Prince George's College of New Caledonia, where one of his initiatives is introducing international students to hockey.

He's partnered the college with the Prince George Cougars and Spruce Kings hockey teams to help expose students to the sport, through discounted tickets and even getting them onto the ice before a game.

"Hockey is part of Canada," Notay said. 

"I think this is just one way to help people feel comfortable in becoming Canadian."​

With files from Ash Kelly and CBC Daybreak North.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.