How Khaira brothers went from slow starters to Surrey standouts

Harnarayan Singh sits down one-on-one with Surrey native Jujhar Khaira as they talk about Jujhar's journey to the NHL, the influence his parents had on his career and what it means to represent the Punjab community on hockey's biggest stage.

Sahvan Khaira didn’t want anything to do with hockey. It was a game that had left him in tears and he surely wasn’t going to skate back to it.

It was the mid 2000s in Surrey, B.C., and there were lots of things an elementary-school kid could do with his time. Soccer was particularly popular, but somehow Sahvan found himself back at the rink.

Excellent Ice is tucked away amid industrial complexes and offices just off Highway 10 in the southern part of the Metro Vancouver city known for its large Punjabi diaspora. Sahvan’s older brother, Jujhar, was receiving one-on-one lessons, so their mother would bring Sahvan along. The instructor took note and let Sahvan skate on the other side of the ice while Jujhar was going through drills.

That’s when he first experienced the tug of hockey’s gravitational pull.

“I had tried hockey once before,” says Sahvan, ahead of this weekend’s Rogers Hometown Hockey stop in Surrey. “I actually gave it a good go. I was really frustrated, crying. I was a little kid who didn’t enjoy it. Then I would see my brother out there and I really wanted to pursue it.

“That’s really what pushed me into hockey.”

Today, 19-year-old Sahvan is a defenceman for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, while Jujhar, four years older, is in his third season with the Edmonton Oilers. Both insist the tutelage they received at Excellent Ice by Scott Elliott, the rink’s general manger, was instrumental to their careers.

“Growing up, that’s where I remember working on my game the most,” Jujhar says.

Elliott worked with the boys during private, individual sessions covering the game’s fundamentals: checking, puck control, passing, shooting and power skating. He also ran three-on-three games that helped the boys sharpen their skills.

“[Elliott] did a ton for my brother and I,” says Jujhar. “He would come in early to help us. He always made time to fit us in. He wasn’t just doing it because it was his job — it was genuine. I remember before school, we’d go over there and he’d be waiting for us.

“He made hockey a lot of fun for us.”

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Elliott, who has worked at the arena for the past 18 years, remembers when Jujhar was a short, “on-the-bubble kid” who had trouble making a local A1 team.

“He was quite small and took a little bit of time to get going and mature,” Elliott says. “He’s a very big man now, he’s six-foot-four, but through his PeeWee and Bantam years, he was quite a bit smaller. But Jujhar worked hard — he was always willing and wanting to do more. Then he kind of blossomed and it has been a great ride since.”

That ride took Jujhar through the NCAA and AHL, then finally to the NHL, where he became only the third person of Indian descent to play in the league. The left-winger, selected in the third round (63rd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft, is gradually beginning to find his footing with the Oilers, earning more trust in recent weeks from head coach Todd McLellan.

Sahvan, meanwhile, is enjoying a breakout during his fourth season in the WHL. He has yet to be drafted by an NHL club, but still has another year of junior eligibility. He was invited to the Oilers’ development camp this past summer.

“It was really cool,” says Sahvan. “Especially since it was with the organization my brother’s with. I had some insight going into it — he let me know what to expect and it was a really fun experience.”

The brothers keep in touch every day during their respective seasons, whether it’s via texts, FaceTime or online video-game matches of FIFA or NBA 2K18. During summers, they go back home to live with their sister and parents, who moved from Surrey to neighbouring Langley a few years back.

The two train together in the gym when their schedules permit, and also frequently make the five-minute drive back to Surrey to visit Excellent Ice, where Elliott opens the rink so the Khairas can carry out off-season conditioning.

Nowadays, though, he doesn’t need to tutor them.

“Just the two of us,” says Sahvan. “It’s nice to be able to work out there with my brother.”

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