Arshdeep Bains dreams of repping hometown Canucks: ‘I couldn’t even imagine’

Arshdeep Bains during his tenure with the Red Deer Rebels. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Long before he sat at that table putting pen to paper on his first NHL deal, that ballcap emblazoned with his hometown Canucks’ logo within reach, Arshdeep Bains was taking his first steps on the ice just an hour southeast of Vancouver’s Rogers Arena.

Trace the young winger’s journey back to the start, before that entry-level deal, before the historic WHL campaign, and it all points back to those early spins on the sheet in Surrey, B.C.

“Skating at Fleetwood [Arena], just on the ice — not even hockey necessarily, just skating around, learning how to skate — my mom would take me,” Bains says, reflecting on the moments that had him first falling in love with the game. “I started in Surrey, and just at a young age, I loved playing the game. I was never too serious — my parents just always took me to the rink and gave me a chance. And I loved playing.”

The serious days started a half-hour northwest when Bains eventually took his raw talent to the Burnaby Winter Club. Trying his hand at making a competitive squad for the first time, and winning out against all the kids in the area going up for those coveted roster spots, he realized he might have something special.

“Around 13, 14, I realized that maybe I could make the WHL,” he says. “So that was really my dream right there, to begin with.”

It didn’t come as easy as expected. Passed over in the WHL bantam draft, Bains caught the eyes of the Red Deer Rebels brass and eventually forced their hand with a dominant showing for the local Valley West Hawks, the then-16-year-old turning heads with a 16-goal, 56-point outburst in 22 games.

By the end of that promising season, he was in Red Deer. A half-decade on, the memory of his first moments in that Rebels jersey hasn’t faded.

“That was a great milestone for me, playing my first Rebels game,” he remembers. “That was probably the first game I had thousands of fans watching — watching our team, watching me. It was a great memory.”

With that transition to the junior ranks came the off-ice upheaval that all big-league hopefuls go through. Suiting up for B.C. clubs his whole life up to that point, the shot with the Rebels meant packing up and moving out to Alberta, farther away from family and friends, into a world that could make careers and alter futures.

But Bains took it in stride, the goal at the end of the line justifying the path to get there.

“It can be tough,” he says of that first experience of moving away for a life in hockey. “I think for me, I was always kind of [on the move] — I went to a new high school every year, just moving around for hockey. I went to an academy, and I kind of understood being away, trying to do your own thing, playing hockey. So when it came to going to Red Deer, I was super excited — that’s all I wanted.”

He collected just seven points through his first go-round as a Rebel. But the numbers started piling up with more frequency each season — 18 points in 63 games the next year, 51 in 63 the one after that, nearly a point-a-game — and an “A” on his sweater — one year later.

Off the ice, he kept moving forward too, his eyes on the prize.

“You’ve really got to grow up and become mature at a young age,” he says. “We’re a bunch of 16, 20-year-olds playing in that league, and you have to be able to take care of yourself, do everything by yourself. You do have your billets, they’re there to help you as much as they can, but there’s stuff you have to do on your own.

“Trying to balance your schooling, trying to balance your hockey, trying to get to the next level — it can be a lot for some kids. But I think if you love the game, it’s all worth it. And you give yourself a chance to move on.”

This past season, his final run in Red Deer, Bains gave himself as good a chance as he could’ve hoped for. Finishing the campaign with a dominant 43 goals and 112 points in 68 games — topped off with a point-per-game playoff run — the 21-year-old capped off his junior career as the season’s most prolific WHL scorer.

In doing so, he made his mark on a hockey community that extends far beyond Red Deer’s borders, that banner 2021-22 effort making Bains the first South Asian player to ever claim the league’s scoring title.

“It’s great that I could do that for the community,” Bains says. “Maybe it’s something that can push kids to want to play. And being a role model for kids that want to play one day, if that’s what it does, that’s super cool. I’m hoping that more kids of South Asian descent want to play hockey, and think they can achieve great things.”

Few can understand the oddly unique experience of making that type of history. Robin Bawa has been there before, the former Canuck making his mark as the first South Asian player to ever take NHL ice back in ’89.

“When you’re in the moment, you don’t think about it,” Bawa said when we spoke of his own turn at rewriting the history books. “When you’re playing the game, you’re not thinking, ‘I’m the first South Asian kid.’ You’re just trying to survive and make it. It’s a matter of survival because you know somebody else behind you is coming up and trying to steal your spot. So there’s no time to rest on your glories.”

It was a similar story for Bains. While the landmark moment was a bonus achievement in a standout year, and one he embraced, the goal at the end of the line was something loftier than junior hockey history.

“It was a special year. I really wanted to give myself a chance to get an NHL contract,” he says. “I think I always knew in the back of my head that if I keep training hard every summer and I keep sticking to it — I know things didn’t go my way for a lot of years, but I just had a positive mindset.

“And I knew that eventually, if I keep going, I’ll get my foot in the door and give myself an opportunity.”

Before the season was through, that opportunity finally arrived. In early March, his hometown Canucks announced they had signed Bains to an entry-level deal.

Passed over in the WHL bantam draft, passed over in the NHL Draft, the Surrey native had willed his way forward. He’d gotten his foot in the door.

Bains first heard word of Vancouver’s interest a week or two before, while out on a road trip through Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“My agent called me after one of the games and said that the Canucks were really interested, so just keep playing well and we’ll see where it goes,” he recalls. “There was a good amount of interest going around, so I was really excited beforehand anyways. But then he told me the Canucks were. That’s the hometown team.”

Suffice it to say, the negotiation was a simple one.

“I think every kid dreams of wanting to play at home. When you’re growing up and you’re cheering for that team that you’ve been basically raised to cheer for, and you love that team — every kid dreams that they can sign and play for that team one day,” he says. “I got that chance to sign with that team, and hopefully play one day. It was just too easy to choose.”

While Bains’ dad, Kuldip, knew of the NHL interest as it played out over those weeks of pins-and-needles, the rest of the family found out after the deal had been officially inked.

“Obviously some tears of joy. They’re super excited,” the newest Canucks signee says of his family’s reaction to the news. “That’s all they’ve ever wanted for me.”

Now, of course, the hard part begins. The focus turns to an off-season of hard-earned sweat, of making good on an opportunity, now all too real, that seemed little more than a far-off fantasy just a couple of years ago.

For any prospect on the cusp of seeing that big-league dream realized, it’s a feeling little can match. But for Bains — who took his first spins on the ice at Fleetwood, who first made his name at rinks dotted elsewhere throughout the province that houses Rogers Arena, who was with the rest of the Canucks faithful cheering on the squad during that magical 2011 run — it means just a little bit more.

“We’d take the SkyTrain to the game sometimes. It’d be full of Canucks fans,” Bains says. “Canucks jerseys on the SkyTrain, all the way down, from Surrey all the way to Vancouver. Everybody on there, cheering for the Canucks, all full and packed up. … I remember going to school and we’d have it on the TV. Everybody had a Canucks jersey on. After school, you could come back to school and watch the game on the big screen.

“It was everywhere we went. … That’s all we cared about.”

Someday, if all goes to plan, there will be another young South Asian kid making that same trek from Surrey, a Canucks jersey draped over his shoulders just like the others, all the way down. But with one notable difference: “Bains” in all caps, emblazoned on the back.

“That’s always been in my mind since I was a kid,” he says. “That would just be the perfect story. Getting that chance to play for the Canucks would be huge for everybody in Surrey, everyone who’s South Asian, anyone who wants to play for their hometown team.

“These dreams do come true. There’s always a chance for anybody. If I ever get that opportunity, that’ll be super special for everybody around me, the whole community. I couldn’t even imagine.”

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