Q&A: Robin Bawa on the journey that made him the first South Asian NHLer

Robin Bawa skates during a 1992 NHL game with the San Jose Sharks. (San Jose Sharks/NHLI via Getty Images)

There are only a handful of players who can say they altered the course of history the moment they first stepped onto NHL ice — only a few for whom that first step marked the introduction of something the game had genuinely never seen before.

Robin Bawa is a long-established member of that select club, the former big-leaguer having become the first player of South Asian descent to ever skate in the League when he hopped over the boards in a Washington Capitals sweater on Oct. 6, 1989.

But just as is the case for all the trailblazers that came before and after Bawa, that historic moment that’s come to define his on-ice legacy was, to him, just a single moment on a wild, winding history in the sport — in Bawa’s case, one that carried him through 14 cities over nearly two decades on the ice.

From seeing his game evolve under the guidance of Ken Hitchcock in his junior days to fighting through racist comments on and off the ice in the hard-nosed, old-school IHL, this is the story of the career that led Bawa to his place in NHL history, in his own words.

(Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Sportsnet: Let’s go back to the beginning. What comes to mind when you think back to your earliest memories of hockey?

Robin Bawa: I didn’t start playing hockey or skating ’til I was about eight years old. When I was younger, my mom took me to the doctor and they said I had a slight case of asthma. The doctor said, ‘Put him in sports.’ I didn’t really have any family background in sports whatsoever. I started playing soccer, and then I started skating at seven — and the only reason I did that was because in school all the Caucasian kids were playing hockey. And they’d say, ‘Your kind doesn’t play hockey.’ At the time, I didn’t know what to think of that. As time goes by, I think it was more of an innocent comment than anything, because back then we didn’t have any East Indians playing hockey. So I told my dad that, and we went and bought a pair of skates the following day.

There used to be a lake nearby, and my dad would take me each day. He would get up around four o’clock in the morning every day and go to work, and he’d get home around four or five — I’d be waiting for him, and we’d go to the lake and skate. I was basically self-taught. Mom and Dad would have their shoes on on the lake standing around, I had my skates, and I just wobbled around for about 30 minutes. I’d go about five feet. The next day, the same thing, I’d go about 10 feet. Next day, kept on going further. That’s how I learned to skate.

Born and raised on Vancouver Island in the small community of Duncan, those were the fondest memories from my childhood, because hockey was so fun back then. And my parents, they didn’t put any pressure on me at all. That no-pressure approach to hockey, or any sport I played, was probably what allowed me to succeed.

You went from figuring it out on your own to putting together a successful WHL career in Kamloops — what do you remember about first making the move out there and stepping up to that next level?

We were unsure if I should go, because my family didn’t have a history in sports. I remember my dad having a meeting with his younger brother. We were deciding what we were going to do, if I should go or not go — I was only 16. And then Bruce Harrelson came to our house — he was the head scout for Kamloops — and he convinced my parents that they should give me the opportunity to go.

So I went there, and you know, as a 16-year-old, I was very naive, very naive. An East Indian kid at 16 back in the ’80s moving away from home, it was really unheard of. Bill LaForge was our coach, and he was a pretty tough coach to play for. The following year, I got traded to New Westminster — I was there for a couple months, and things weren’t going according to plan, and I actually thought about quitting hockey at the time.

I remember Ken Hitchcock was in Kamloops, and he traded back for me. From there, I played in Kamloops at 18, 19, 20. Hitch really turned my game around — night and day. I think maybe I was one of his projects, you know, as I look back now. I had the work ethic — he taught me how to work smarter, how to get ready for the next level. I give Hitch a lot of credit for turning my game around and getting me ready for the NHL. And in that respect, I had 57 goals in 62 games in my last year of junior.

Looking back on that final year in Kamloops, going from nearly quitting hockey to putting up 113 points — how did Hitchcock help you get there?

Hitch just knew how to get the most out of me. At 18, I was a checker, just strictly a checker. Which was fine when I went to Kamloops because we already had the big guns there for scoring goals. At 19, I came back and I was playing on the second line — my skill started to show, and Hitch realized that, so he put me in a more offensive role. I was always a goal-scorer when I was young, growing up in minor hockey, so the skill started showing. Hitch believed in me, and the more he believed in me, the more confidence I got and the more ice-time I got.

My thing was just all work ethic — just work, work, work. That’s all it was. At 19, I had a good offensive year, and then built from there. We had such a powerhouse back then in Kamloops, we had so much offence. For me, the harder I worked, the more Hitch played me, and I just fed off that. I really caught onto that. I feel like Hitch instilled that confidence in me, and that’s what got me ready for the following year.

Playing on that dominant team in Kamloops, a lot of your teammates got drafted into the NHL. With the numbers you put up, were you expecting to get picked? What went through your mind when the draft came to an end and you weren’t selected?

Well, the draft was when I was 17, and when I was 17 I didn’t have a great year. I got hurt, I just didn’t get back on track. I didn’t get as much ice-time as I probably wanted — maybe it wasn’t deserved. Back then, once you got passed up in the draft, you didn’t really get taken the following year.

There was a chance. I remember running into (longtime WHL coach) Punch McLean at the end of the year, and he said, “The Canucks are going to draft you. Probably in the fourth or fifth round.” I was like, “Great!” And the draft came and went, and I didn’t get picked.

So, it gave me a lot of motivation. I knew what I was missing — I was a skilled player, but I was lacking in the physical department when I was 17, 18. When I was 20, Chicago and Washington offered me contracts, so I signed with Washington as a free agent.

After being passed over in the draft, what did it feel like to earn that contract with Washington and get your shot in the pros?

Before that, that summer, I knew I wasn’t tough enough. I was a pure goal scorer, a soft kid from Duncan. So I started working out, tried to put on 10 pounds, just so I could be stronger — you know, you’re going to the States, too, and it’s a tougher league. I just didn’t know how to handle myself physically, so I was just trying to prepare all summer for that.

I played in the IHL my first year, for Washington’s second farm team. I didn’t get off to the great start I was hoping for, as far as scoring goals. But I did have to stick up for myself a few times, and when I didn’t score, I fought, and the coach was pretty happy with me. My fourth game, I didn’t fight or score, so the fifth game I didn’t play. Sixth game, once again I got in a skirmish, got in a fight, which was not really my thing. Seventh game, I didn’t score, didn’t fight, and I didn’t play again. So that’s how the year went — it was trial and error, you know, learning how to play physical. And then I finally started scoring, my hands came back, and I was doing a little bit of both. I think I ended up with 25, 30 fights and 12, 15 goals.

The following summer I started training a little different, started working on my leg strength. My skating wasn’t up to par for the NHL, so I worked on my legs all summer. I ended up getting 22 goals and 200 penalty minutes for Washington’s first farm team, the Baltimore Skipjacks, the next year. And then the third year I made the team.

It was one of those things — I really wanted to make it so bad, I was willing to do anything. I knew I had to become stronger, I knew I had to become tougher, I knew I had to become a better skater, so that’s all I worked on for three, four, five years before I made it to Washington.

Off the ice, just from a life perspective, you had played in B.C. for so long and now you were going to these cities in the States like Fort Wayne and Baltimore — what was it like adjusting to that life change?

It was funny, when I signed with Washington, my dad and I were looking at the map and we were like, ‘Oh, Fort Worth, Texas, that’s not bad. It’s warm down there. We’d go there.’ Next thing I know, I’m in the mid-west in Fort Wayne, Indiana, freezing cold. It was funny, because we’d never been to the mid-west before, ever.

It was interesting. I had to change my game — I was missing that physical part of the game, and I wanted to make it so bad. And you know what, that year I took some beatings and I handled myself in the rest of them. It was a learning process for me, mentally, physically. The IHL back in the day, it was a tough league. If you couldn’t handle yourself, you were in trouble. So I learned the hard way, but I learned quick.

October 6, 1989, you got your first shot to play in the NHL with the Capitals. Take me back to that morning — what you were thinking about going into that night, with the nerves of getting to step onto NHL ice for the first time.

It was nerve-wracking — that was the year Washington was putting up the banner. They had won the division the year before. I was nervous when they first introduced me, and then after that, once warm-up was over, I was fine. You’re into the game.

I was always taught the first shift you either get hit or dish a hit, and I remember my first shift I had probably one of my best open-ice hits ever. The stars just happened to line up and I hit Kjell Samuelsson, the big defenceman, and that got me into the game right away. I didn’t have time to be nervous after that.

The very next game you scored your first NHL goal, against Chicago. What do you remember about that moment?

I actually remember that play clear as day — I was playing the off-wing and Bob Rouse passed it off the boards on our bench-side, and I caught it, went down the off-wing, just shot and scored. I think it was five-hole. It was pretty exciting. That was a load off my back, for sure. It was a good way to start — I had a good hit the first game, and the second game I had a goal.

The next time you were in the NHL after that first stint was with the Canucks — what was different about that experience, being back in the NHL but this time being in your home province, playing for the hometown team in front of family and friends?

It was quite exciting — everybody dreams of playing for the NHL team where they’re from, and it was no different for me. Between my uncle, my dad, my family, we had to get about 100 tickets, 150 tickets. Somehow they got them all. You know, I look back, and I wasn’t nervous. I was excited. Usually you do get nervous, but I was more excited than anything to play in front of my hometown.

You got called back up for one playoff game for the Canucks, against the Oilers in ’92. What do you remember about the atmosphere of that night in Edmonton?

It was great. I almost scored my first shift — I think if I’d have scored my first shift, I would’ve played a lot more. (Laughs.) And then at the end of the game, there was a skirmish — I have a picture in my office, and it’s a picture of me in the middle, the referees are in there, and I’m trying to get at somebody. I remember Geoff Courtnall telling me, ‘Get Manson, get Manson!’ … because Dave Manson was running around. He was going after Pavel Bure. So I was trying to get him. It was fun.

Your longest run in the NHL came in San Jose. After those shorter stints in Washington and Vancouver, what did it mean to get to San Jose and get that experience of being an everyday NHLer?

San Jose was great. I had gotten traded — you know, (Canucks coach) Pat Quinn that summer told me, ‘If you don’t make the team, it’s a numbers game, but I’ll find you a place to play.’ Which was nice. I went to San Jose’s farm team for two games, then I got called up and I had five goals in my first 20 games. I was playing on the third line, and I was scoring and I had a few fights. It was fun. I was breaking ground, becoming a regular.

San Jose at the time, we played out of San Fran, because the arena wasn’t ready yet. And the fans were great. They were crazy down there — they only held 10,000 fans there, but people in California were so excited to have hockey. It was a good experience. The following year I got picked up by Anaheim in the expansion draft. That year, between San Jose and Anaheim, I thought I was in the best shape of my life, my hands were coming back, I had that all-around game. Was I good enough to play in the top six? No. But I was good enough to play in the bottom six, skill-wise and toughness-wise.

In Anaheim, I made the team, I got up there, but I was basically the 13th man. To me, I thought I should’ve been playing more, but I wasn’t going to ruffle any feathers. So I was up there all year until February. In February, I got sent down and we played in Phoenix — I had a goal, an assist and a fight in the first period. Next game I got called back up, but I didn’t play another game. After that, I was 28, and I never really had another chance.

Looking back over all those teams, all those cities, were there ever times when you looked around and it hit you that you were the only person of colour on the ice?

It hit me when I was eight years old. When I first started playing. There were no other East Indian families there, just my parents and me. I didn’t think about it too much — you had the odd person once in a while say something in a game. Racism was there, definitely. We had more of it at school than we did in hockey — racism’s just part of society, right, and hockey’s part of society. So it’s everywhere, and it was everywhere back then.

My grandpa came over in 1906 — he was one of the first Indo-Canadians to settle in Vancouver Island. And my dad used to tell me stories — they’d go downtown for haircuts and it would be ‘Whites Only.’ So it was back then, too — back in that generation, in our generation, and now it’s even there in our kids’ generation.

In junior, I was lucky because we had a really tough team — guys like Rudy Poeschek, Craig Berube, Doug Saunders, all these guys. So if anybody said anything, they knew. And we were tight, so they knew that I was a minority kid, and they knew that I wasn’t overly tough. So people did help me out. I had good leadership, Dean Evason and all these guys, great leaders who’ve gone on to have great careers — they took me under their wing.

When I played in the minors, my first year, a lot of my first-year fights in Fort Wayne were because people would call you a racist name — nobody could hear it, but they’d come up to you and say something. So then I had to defend myself, right? And once you start defending yourself, and you get good at it, you’re not going to back down, then people stop.

In the NHL, there was nothing, not even from the fans. I remember in the minors, the New Haven fans were nuts — they were whack. It was unbelievable. But the NHL was pretty professional.

One thing — I’ve never told anybody this story — I was shaking hands with this kid and I was 10 years old. Some guy walks across and whispers, ‘You’re a Hindu.’ I went and told my mom and she’s like, ‘We’re not Hindu. We’re Punjabi.’ It’s just educating people, right? You know, equality and inclusion didn’t exist back then, that’s for sure — I don’t think people even had those words in their vocabulary.

It seems like you also had a lot of people in your corner who were on your side, on the ice or on the coaching staff — how did that balance out with the things you’d hear from opponents or fans?

It was a touchy subject. It was. Fans can be ruthless. Especially in the U.S. At that time I’d already established myself as a tough guy, so they were going to take shots at me — especially if you’d lose a fight, they come at you more. But if you win a fight, if you scored a goal, it shuts them up. And the guys on the team, they helped out — they’d stick up for me as far as some of the scuffles, they’d get in there for me and the other guy wouldn’t have the chance to say too much or do too much.

And I think a lot of the opponents, they respected a lot of the guys on our team, so they didn’t cross that line as much as people would think. When you have such good leaders, like Dean Evason, Daryl Reaugh, all these guys — I would like to think I was a likeable kid at 16, and they knew I was a little immature, so they treated me like their little brother. Which was nice, and I’m thankful for, because probably if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the position I am now.

In the moment, I’m sure you were just focused on building your career, but now that you’ve had time to reflect and look back, what does it mean to have blazed the trail that you did for South Asians in the game?

Like you said, when you’re in the moment, you don’t think about it. After it was said and done, looking back, I’d think, “Wow, that’s remarkable.” That was something, that I became a pioneer or broke a barrier. And it just happened in the last five to eight years — in 1999 when I retired, nobody really knew. Nobody really cared, I don’t think. Just recently over this new change in people’s mindsets, that’s when I really realized. It’s not just minorities in hockey or the first South Asian in hockey, but it’s the first women, it’s Willie O’Ree finally getting recognized now after how many years, and Larry Kwong, same as him. So then it was my turn.

It’s an honour to be recognized, that’s for sure. It’s something that I’m proud of, after the fact. 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.

Your sons, Arjun and Kayden, are playing hockey now, starting out their journeys in the game. Tell me about them and what it’s been like to see them following in your footsteps.

They’re realizing now, as they get more mature the last couple years, that it is very, very difficult to get to the next level.

Kayden played last year in Lethbridge — he had a good year, but it was a learning experience for him, because with COVID he only played so many games, and he didn’t have a regular year. They didn’t live with billets. They lived in an apartment complex by themselves — they couldn’t go anywhere. No fans. So mentally for them, it was tough. But it was a good learning experience for Kayden. Arjun’s two years younger, so he played academy hockey the last year. There might be a chance Arjun plays in Red Deer next year, in the WHL at 16, which is a great opportunity for him.

You know, back when you’re young, you’ve got buck teeth and you’re saying, “Dad, if you can make it, anybody can make it! Look at you!” Now they’re realizing it’s tough. It’s a lot of work, a lot of dedication. But the advantage that these guys have, everybody now has trainers, coaches, skill coaches, nutritionists. I didn’t have any of that stuff. I was just self-taught. My dad didn’t know too much, my mom didn’t know too much — they were just there for support.

Do you ever have conversations with Arjun and Kayden about what they might face down the line with discrimination in the game, the things you went through, and how to navigate those challenges when they come up?

My dad used to tell me you have to have thick skin. You have to focus — you have a goal in life, and you’re going to get a lot of distractions. And if you let those distractions bother you, then that means they’re getting the best of you. If you let those things bother you, then they’ve won. He’d always say, “Go out and score — score a goal and that’ll shut them up.”

For my boys, it’s a little different. When it first happened to Arjun, he was upset and mad. I told him, ‘You’ve got to focus on the positive, Arjun — you can’t pay attention to it. This is the way society is nowadays.’ He used to try to engage, and I said, ‘You’re not going to gain anything from that. Now you’re playing their game.’ And this is when he was only nine or 10.

A few times with Arjun, we were in a spring tournament and a kid said something, so Arjun told his coach. And I’ll always remember this — his coach, after the game, went to the other coach and made that kid apologize. So it’s awareness. It’s education. Kayden hasn’t had that — he didn’t have anything in the WHL this year, I asked him about it. I guess there were no fans there, so nobody could really say anything. And there’s also a few South Asians playing in the league — back then, there was none when I played. Now there’s more and more different nationalities playing hockey.

It’s great that Jujhar Khaira‘s playing, Manny Malhotra played — we need more. Definitely, we need more.

We still see these situations come up — we just saw what Ethan Bear went through with the racist comments he received after the Oilers were eliminated from the playoffs. To see things like that still happening all these years after you played, what does that tell you about the progress that’s still needed?

Ethan Bear — that was just brutal. That was awful. There’s no room for that. I think that we’re hearing a lot of the stuff that happens now because of social media. I think there were probably more racial incidents in the ’80s and ’90s, but there was no social media, so people didn’t know about it. Now, if something happens, everybody’s aware, everybody knows about it, which is good.

Ethan Bear’s a great hockey player. He’s playing in the NHL — less than one per cent of the people in hockey make it. So he’s a good player, and there’s no room for that — it really upsets me. You know, in the NHL, it’s not the players — the players rarely ever make racial comments. It’s the fans. It’s the people that come to watch the games. They’re the ones that are saying these comments, because they’re uneducated, I guess. And the NHL, the last couple years, I would say they’ve stepped up. The NHL has stepped up not only just for minorities, but it doesn’t matter what gender you are, what race you are, they’re starting to make everyone aware.

Have we done enough? No, we haven’t. There’s a long way to go yet. But at least it’s a start. At least it’s a start.

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