Jujhar Khaira learned hockey on the streets of Surrey, B.C., a Sikh kid and his little brother scoring their Game 7, Stanley Cup-winning goals while in runners, shooting a tennis ball.
Khaira was no different than millions of Canadian kids, except for one thing: He would go on to score on the big stage Monday night at Rogers Place. It was his first NHL goal as only the third Indo-Canadian to play in the National Hockey League, after Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra.
It was the game-winner in a 3-1 Edmonton victory over the Arizona Coyotes, and it’s a moment he’ll never forget.
“You think about it, at the back of your mind, always,” the 22-year-old said after the game. “Growing up as a kid, playing street hockey, you always picture it in your head as you’re playing. It’s a reality now, and it feels good.”
When this hockey writer broke in, a story like Khaira’s belonged to a kid off the farm in Redvers, Saskatchewan, like Dean Kennedy. Or Bobby Dollas, the son of a Montreal furrier who stacked pelts all summer and made his NHL dream come true when the snow flew.
Today, it’s a kid like Khaira, a first generation Canadian whose parents came from India as children, and has to bone up on his Punjabi when he speaks to his grandparents. His brother, Sahvan, is a big defenceman for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos.
Love for the game has grown so much that Hockey Night in Canada does games with commentary in Punjabi.
The first phone call Khaira made after the game was, well, you guessed it…
“My parents, for sure,” he said. “They’ll be excited, but regardless of if I score or not, I always call them after the game.”
Extremely bright, handsome as he is tall, and with a 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame, there’s a lot to like about the Oilers’ third-round pick back in 2012. No attribute stands out more, however, than the fact he still values his parents’ opinion on the game, despite the fact Dad never played.
“I love getting [his parents] opinion. It will be an honest one, always. It just kind of levels you out,” said Khaira, whose father is a Surrey gravel truck driver, and mother is a speech language pathologist. “I know my parents are happy. They probably celebrated more than I did; they’re more excited than me.”
Khaira played on the fourth line with Zack Kassian and Mark Letestu Monday, and typically, was on the tail end of a hard forechecking shift that popped a puck loose from the Arizona defence.
“I just opened up, presented my stick, and Letestu gave it on a silver platter to me. I just had to tap it in,” he said. “Thank you.”
Back in Surrey, where one of the largest Sikh populations outside India resides, it was a big Canuck that caught Khaira’s fancy.
“It was Todd Bertuzzi,” he recalled. “I was a big Vancouver fan, and whenever I saw that line — Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Bertuzzi — he stood out.
“I don’t know if I can be Bertuzzi,” he said, when asked about his NHL future, “but I think I have a good chance of working my way up, getting the coach’s confidence. We’ll see where that goes.”
Edmonton worked its way back into second place in the Pacific with a clinical victory over the formerly troublesome Coyotes—a team that had, until recently, gone 25 games without losing to the Oilers. Now, the Oilers have won two straight against Arizona, just another in a myriad of “first time in forever” statistics that Edmonton has been eliminating, one by one, this season.
They’ve won three of four on this home stand, with games against Florida and Nashville yet to come.
And now they’re even developing third-round draft picks. It truly is a season of firsts for the Edmonton Oilers.