As a player, Manny Malhotra won over dressing rooms with his selfless, hardworking approach to the game. Now, that same lunchpail attitude has made the Canucks assistant one of the NHL's most promising young coaches.

The exact city doesn’t matter. Manny Malhotra remembers it as Phoenix. Ken Hitchcock believes it was Dallas. What’s important here, though, is the conversation that took place and its far-reaching impact. Both parties are aligned on that.

It’s the 2008–09 season and the Columbus Blue Jackets are in a hotel on the road. Last night Malhotra and Hitchcock had it out on the bench. The veteran isn’t comfortable with how their exchange went down or how they left things, and so he’s reaching out to his head coach for clarity. “Can we have a quick chat?” Malhotra asks over the phone. Hitchcock agrees.

The Malhotra who walked into his coach’s hotel room was a player searching for something. A first-round pick in the 1998 draft (seventh overall by the Rangers), he was in his 10th year in the league but still hadn’t figured out a defined role for himself in the game. Hitchcock had an idea about what that could look like.

In his third year at the helm of the club, the coach had grown tired of his players’ collective attitude. They were a bunch of nice guys, he says now, who were great friends to each other. If Hitchcock got angry or pushed too hard, they would band together and stand up for one another. “But we needed to have each other’s backs as a teammate,” Hitchcock says. “And sometimes being a great teammate means you’re willing to push the other guy along with yourself. And I needed someone to buy that.”

Malhotra was his target. Hitchcock had singled him out the previous night with intent — he saw something in the centreman’s character. Malhotra was the guy who Columbus players respected the most and Hitchcock needed him to become what the coach calls “the first teammate.”

Their conversation was “very intense and very emotional,” Hitchcock remembers, and centred on what the coach needed and expected from his player. Malhotra was told that he could be an alright top-six forward and enjoy a nice career, or he could have a major impact as a go-to third-line checker who took all the important faceoffs, killed all the important penalties and played against opponents’ top players. That route would require him to do all the dirty work on the ice, cover for teammates’ mistakes, fight for space and be okay with all of that. It was, after all, the most unselfish job in hockey.

“And you’ve got to drag people into the fight,” Hitchcock added. “You can’t be everybody’s friend. You’ve got to lead the charge in being a great teammate.”

For Malhotra, the exchange was a turning point in his career. “He laid it out very clearly for me,” the now 40-year-old says. “Put me in different situations where I could take pride in one particular job. Playing for Hitch, I had a very defined role and I understood where I was going to be able to make a real career of playing in the NHL.”

“You want to know how to act and behave as a professional, look at this guy.”

That season Malhotra transformed into more of a student of the game. Hitchcock showed him the importance of the “Why” behind every on-ice action and the added layers of knowledge were addictive. “At that point, I had played for a lot of coaches in a lot of different systems,” Malhotra says. “And for the most part, you’re always just told, ‘Do this. This is what we’re doing.’ Whereas for Hitch, he gave you the ‘Why.’ And for me, it was kind of like a lightbulb moment.

“It was fun for me because it gave me the freedom to think the game a little bit more,” he adds. “I really enjoyed that side of it. And then, even just communicating with my teammates and talking to them about the game, talking to them on the bench, talking between periods. I really started to enjoy that aspect of the game. So, that’s when I started to have that seed in my mind that I think I would enjoy coaching.”

Hitchcock, whose 849 wins are third on the NHL’s all-time coaching list, says Malhotra embraced the changes and was a different player literally the day after their talk. And it didn’t take long for teammates to follow. The Blue Jackets set a then franchise-high of 92 points and made the post-season for the first time in team history. Hitchcock says the accountability on the roster completely changed and it started with Malhotra.

“He helped a fledging organization really grow,” says Hitchcock. “He was the ultimate glue guy. He was the guy where if you want to know how to work, look at this guy. You want to know how to play the right way, look at this guy. You want to know how to act and behave as a professional, look at this guy. We had someone that we could point to. And it was Manny.”

For the rest of his 16-year playing career, Malhotra would be that guy, the one who led by the strength of his example and earned respect not through stats and star power but rather his approach to the game. When his playing days came to an end, a transition to coaching would’ve been a no-brainer for anyone who’d shared a dressing room with him. And since taking an assistant’s role with the Vancouver Canucks, he’s been a key behind-the-scenes asset for the club and its promising young core. Several people within the industry peg him as a rising star in the coaching ranks who’s got all the qualities of an excellent NHL bench boss. And should that happen one day, it would be more than just a sound hockey decision‚ it would also be a trailblazing moment.

Hitchcock credits Malhotra with sparking the culture change that saw Columbus claw its way to a then-franchise high 92-point season in '08-09

Mike Gillis had just finished having dinner with his client, Pavel Bure, at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when something caught his eye. As he was waiting for a cab, he noticed Malhotra walk out with some New York Rangers players. The group passed a disadvantaged person who was looking for assistance, and kept walking. Malhotra, though, unbeknownst to his teammates, turned around and offered help. “It left an indelible impression on me,” Gillis says. “He wasn’t looking for credit. He was just doing his best to help out someone who was less fortunate. I never forgot it.”

That was the late 1990s, long before Gillis left behind his job as a player agent and became general manager of the Canucks (a position he held from 2008 to ’14). When the chance to sign Malhotra came around ahead of the 2010–11 season, he was thrilled. Malhotra was coming off a season with the San Jose Sharks and quickly cemented himself as a pillar in the Vancouver locker room. Teammates noticed his meticulous commitment to everything he did, ranging from nutrition to physical and mental preparation to equipment. His ultra-positive attitude and energy also stood out.

Joining a new team and establishing yourself as a leader is a delicate assignment, says Dan Hamhuis, who also signed with the Canucks ahead of that season. Malhotra didn’t come in “guns blazing and ordering people around,” the recently retired defenceman explains. Instead, he took the temperature of the room and learned about its different personalities, while building a rapport.

“Manny was always coaching while he was playing,” says Hamhuis, who compares his former teammate to Reg Dunlop, the player-coach from the film Slapshot. “He took so much accountability to making sure that all of us players were dialled into what systems we were playing, so there were no grey areas. And he would not hesitate to go up to the board and draw a few things on there to make sure that we were listening; questioning and calling things out that weren’t going well.”

Malhotra was never a star player, which actually helped, according to Hamhuis. As a third-line centre, he provided a unique voice in the room that was relatable to many on the roster. “It’s more natural,” says Hamhuis. “Sometimes star players get a lot of respect and they deserve it for what they do. But when you get a guy that maybe is not putting up the numbers that superstars put up, but when you see his commitment level may be a lot higher than a lot of all-stars, [it resonates]. He wasn’t a star in putting his numbers up, but he was a star in his role on the team. And I think that was really respected.”

The Canucks captured the Presidents’ Trophy that season and lost to Boston in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Malhotra played in that series after an unexpected return from a scary eye injury he’d suffered in March. With his vision limited, and with legitimate concerns about his long-term health, Gillis says the Canucks wanted to transition Malhotra to a coaching role shortly after. However, he still wanted to play and when his tenure in Vancouver ended, Malhotra continued his on-ice career with Carolina, Montreal and the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters before finally hanging up his skates after the 2015–16 season.

He joined the Canucks as a player development coach ahead of the 2016–17 campaign and was promoted to assistant one season later. In the position, he’s in charge of pre-scouting, hits the ice during practices and morning skates and occupies an “eye-in-the-sky role” from an arena suite during games. He also spends individual time with some players, most notably captain Bo Horvat, whose work in the dot has steadily improved under the watch of Malhotra, one of the best to ever grace the faceoff circle — his career 58.85 winning percentage ranks fourth all-time among players with 500-plus attempts.

“He wasn’t a star in putting his numbers up, but he was a star in his role on the team. And I think that was really respected.”

“He doesn’t really focus on a lot of the negative things,” Horvat says, who works with Malhotra after every practice and finished third in faceoffs won this season with 850. “Obviously, he’ll give you advice, but he also shows you the stuff that you’re doing really well, which I think is [good]. If I’m losing a couple of draws, he’ll show me those and then he’ll go back to showing me draws where I’m winning them all and all the little things that I’m doing to win those faceoffs. ‘This is what you do when you’re at your best.’

“I think that’s a huge thing when you’re coaching or teaching — positive reinforcement.”

When Canucks head coach Travis Green took over the team in 2017, he was given the option of keeping the coaches that were on staff or bringing in his own. He met with Malhotra and talked to different people about him and quickly learned of his discipline and confidence to voice his opinions in the right way. Green says his decision to retain Malhotra was one of the best he’s made and notes that he’s seen Malhotra evolve as a coach over the past few years. He’s been trying to find ways to give his “hungry” assistant more responsibilities, which hasn’t been an easy task because there’s only so much work to go around a staff.

“I think he would be a good head coach,” Green says. “That’s gonna be a decision he has to make at some point: when he wants to do that. But he’s definitely got qualities that I see in him. I could see him being a head coach.”

Horvat has shown steady improvement in the faceoff circle since he began working with Malhotra, who he says is a constant source of positivity

Randip Janda was seven years old when he learned that there was space in hockey for someone who looks like him. He opened up a pack of Topps Stadium Club cards from the 1993–94 season and, to his surprise, there was a brown player on the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Is this for real? he wondered, before showing it to his parents and asking them if the player had a Punjabi last name. Yes, they answered, he does. That player was Robin Bawa, the first person of South Asian descent to play in the NHL.

“That was a gamechanger for me,” says Janda, a broadcaster with Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition. “Because prior to that, there were players that I would look at — Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Pavel Bure — and say, ‘Wow, these guys are hockey players.’ But at the same time, they weren’t from a similar background as me. They were different. And as a kid, I acknowledged that.”

The discovery stuck with Janda because it showed him that he could be more than just a spectator. “Representation in the game matters because it inspires people,” he says. “It gives you the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a second, I can be involved in this process, too. It’s not [just] for somebody else. It’s also for me.’”

When it comes to the coaching side of the game, however, that type of representation has been scarce at the NHL level. If you’re looking to pursue a job in that area, you’re mostly devoid of role models. Ted Nolan, Dirk Graham, Bryan Trottier and George Armstrong are among BIPOC who have run a bench, but no visible minorities currently occupy that influential, decision-making role in the league.

That’s important because the head coach is one of the faces of a franchise. They face the public every single day through their media availabilities. During games, when the television camera zooms in on the bench, they are standing there, front and centre. Fans may love or hate the moves a head coach makes, but at the end of the day, they are talking about them. If you’re trying to make the game more inclusive, bringing that effort to the bench is critical.

“If you go to local rinks across Canada, there are plenty of people of colour that are coaching at [lower] levels,” says Janda, who also co-hosts Reach Deep on Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver. “But there has never been that upward mobility. And to have somebody in those ranks, whether it’s a head coaching job or a senior management job, is something that would make a huge ripple effect.”

“To have somebody in those ranks would make a huge ripple effect.”

Along with Bawa and Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira, Malhotra is part of a tiny group of NHL players of Indian descent. His mother, Lise, is French-Canadian and his father, Shadi, is Punjabi. Born in Lahore in 1940, prior to the partition that split India and Pakistan into two independent states, Shadi grew up in various parts of India — Ambala Cantt, Chandigarh, Pune — before moving to North America. He held a doctorate in molecular chemistry and was doing work at Laval University, where he met Lise, who was completing her doctorate in neurobiochemistry. They married in Quebec and when Shadi landed a job with Xerox, they moved to the Erin Mills area of Mississauga, Ont. That’s where Malhotra, the youngest of their four children, was born.

The subject of representation in the NHL has often been glossed over in the past. In Malhotra’s case, his heritage was a focal point for South Asian news outlets, but not discussed as prominently in the mainstream. However, the societal push for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd has dragged the league and its lack of diversity into the spotlight, which makes Malhotra an even more interesting figure. He says becoming a head coach is “definitely a goal of mine” and he’s already had conversations with his wife, Joann — who grew up in B.C. and captained the University of Victoria soccer team (and is also Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash’s sister) — about what that might look like for them and their four children, aged 12, nine, seven and three. “You have to have that understanding with your family and your wife and right now, we fully understand that we’re in a very fortunate opportunity, that we live and work in the city that we want to live and work in,” Malhotra says.

“But we do understand fully that there are only a certain number of positions. And you have to go to where the work is. That’s just a part of the coaching lifestyle. So, we are ready as a family to do that if the opportunity presents itself. Or, I should say, the right opportunity presents itself.”

That fact that Malhotra could be the only visible minority head coach in the NHL hasn’t crossed his mind, he says. He considers himself, first and foremost, a Canadian but says he takes pride in both his French-Canadian and South Asian backgrounds and how they’ve shaped him and his siblings. And when it comes to the fact that he has the potential to make history as the first NHL head coach of South Asian descent, he opts to look at the situation from a different lens: “To me, that’s one of those things that holds a lot of weight and is a big statement,” he says. “And to think about it in that way and think about the gravity of that situation, gravity of that statement, seems almost a little bit too much. The way I look at wanting to be a coach is I want to be, like every coach, successful. I don’t want to just be put in a situation because of wanting to break a barrier. I want to do it because I want to be successful at it. So, if it has that tag along to it, so be it. And I can address that at the time.”

Malhotra continues: “I understand the responsibility [that would come with being the first head coach of South Asian descent] but it wouldn’t change my outlook as to how I conduct myself. A big part of that was just understanding that even as a player, as a professional athlete, you’re looked at and held to a certain standard. My goal was always to not just represent POC in the right light, it was to represent myself and represent my family, represent the way I was brought up in the best light possible. Just conduct yourself in a manner that is respectable and could be looked at as a role model.

“So, nothing would change from my standpoint, in terms of how I would conduct myself. I would understand the gravity of the situation. But in terms of my mindset or the way I thought about things, it wouldn’t change.”

Plenty of people around hockey see a head-coaching job in Malhotra's future — if he wants it. "He understands what it’s like to look like a team,” Hitchcock says.

Malhotra had spoken to several people over the years about who he felt deserved credit for helping him set his career on track. But it occurred to him one day during the 2017–18 campaign that he’d never thanked the man himself. When the Dallas Stars visited Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Malhotra saw his chance.

The Canucks assistant coach made a beeline for the Dallas bench just before the Stars took to the ice for their pre-game skate. The team’s head coach was standing there and the two shared a brief conversation. “I just want to say thank you to you directly,” Malhotra told Hitchcock. “You were a big part of my career and I appreciate what you did for me.” There was no need for further explanation. Tears welled in both men’s eyes.

“As a young person, you never really think about thanking a coach in that regard,” Malhotra says now. “But as time went on and I realized who I had become as an athlete and how I got here and understanding that attitude of gratitude, I felt it important just to go take the time, just to say thank you to him.”

Hitchcock says the encounter made him feel proud, before taking a long pause. “But that’s coaching,” he concludes.

Now, he’s awaiting the day his former pupil joins the NHL head coaching fraternity, something Hitchcock sees as nearly inevitable. Malhotra will likely have to put in time behind the bench first, either as an assistant or head coach at some level, but those who know him have no doubts he’ll do what it takes.

“I think you need to be behind the bench, not necessarily as the head coach, but you need to be in the action [before taking an NHL head coaching job],” Hitchcock says. “But one thing about it is don’t sell Manny short because he gets what it’s like to be a teammate. And he gets what the feeling is like to be on a team. And he’s relentless in the pursuit of that. So, if anybody is going to get there, it’s going to be a guy like him if he wants to take that path because he understands what it’s like to look like a team.”

Photo Credits

Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images; Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images; Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images; Derek Leung/Getty Images.