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Hockey: A Game to Call Ours

Racism drove Lali Toor from the game. Stamping it out brought him back. Now with a growing grassroots movement behind him, he finally feels like he belongs.
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By Ambika Sharma

On March 12, 2017, Lali Toor was in the stands of Rogers Place in Edmonton to watch his hometown Oilers take on the Montreal Canadiens. Most fans were fixated on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But for Toor, there was someone else who stuck out: Edmonton native Brendan Gallagher. Seeing Gallagher on the ice, the same age as Toor himself, brought on the realization of a missed opportunity that had slipped through his hockey gloves and kept him on the other side of the glass.

“I didn’t have to be playing in the NHL,” Toor said, “but I should have been playing somewhere.”

From the ages of eight to 14, Toor had played against Gallagher in Edmonton, when Gallagher played on a team from Sherwood Park, and then again in out-of-province tournaments after Gallagher had moved to Vancouver. Toor had also played with Alex Petrovic and Colton Parayko, both of whom, like Gallagher, went on to the NHL, while Toor left the game after junior. Watching Gallagher live was an “aha!” moment for Toor, one that someone in his situation might have kept quiet and never retold. But now, four years later, with a growing grassroots movement behind him, borne from attending that game, Toor has no problem retelling the tale. What started as a simple Instagram account highlighting players of South Asian heritage has now evolved into a hands-on organization that aims to make a difference in the South Asian community.

The truth is, though, the idea that hit Toor that night didn’t come from a place of high spirits. It came from someone who spent his whole minor-hockey career sticking out like a sore thumb on the ice, yet feeling invisible at the same time. “Apna Hockey never came from a place of happiness,” Toor said. “It came from a dark place. I felt really hurt by hockey.”

The term “apna” in Punjabi means “our.” It is used in the context of belonging and togetherness. As Toor was trying to bring his idea to fruition, these are the principles he kept coming back to. Out of them emerged Apna Hockey, a non-profit organization and hockey school that Toor cofounded soon after that night in Edmonton to grow the game and develop talent within Canada’s South Asian community.

Growing up, Toor never heard the word “apna” in hockey circles, and he certainly didn’t feel the sense of the principles that come with it. Toor was born in Canada, the son of immigrant Sikh parents from the state of Punjab in India. He came by the game the same way many other Canadian kids do – through his father – and loved it as much as anyone else. He was good at it, too, persevering through the AA and AAA ranks of minor hockey and eventually Jr. B in Edmonton. But no one ever made him feel like he belonged, like he was really part of a team. Not his coaches, not his teammates, definitely not his opponents, who called him all manner of unprintable names. Nor other parents, who connived to get him kicked off teams. Toor recalled a story of his family using his father’s business address to play hockey in the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert. At first it was approved. Cut to mid-season, when a young Toor was excelling in his season, and suddenly the parents of his own team brought up the issue of his address not reflecting his home.

All this, Toor believes, was because of the color of his skin. “I didn’t want other kids to go through what I went through,” Toor said. “We should all be there for the next generation of South Asian hockey players.”

Tired of the racism he faced at every level of hockey, Toor decided not to pursue a career in the minor leagues and instead decided to leave hockey behind altogether. But that night in Edmonton, Toor came back to the game and figured out his own way to create the feeling of belonging and togetherness that he never experienced as a kid. By giving back to his community, Toor would create a sense of community.

And so Apna Hockey was born. But Toor knew he couldn’t do it alone. He needed a partner, a veteran figure who could be the link between the game and his community – the kind of mentor he didn’t have as a young South Asian kid just breaking into hockey. Toor knew exactly who to bring onboard – Dampy Brar, one of a small group of players who represents the South Asian hockey community. “I would have liked to have ‘Damps’ as my mentor growing up,” Toor said. “Someone like that to guide me and my family in hockey.”

Brar spent the late 1990s and early 2000s making the rounds in the U.S. minor pro leagues. He didn’t know it then, but he was laying the groundwork for what he’s doing now in his mid-40s as cofounder of Apna Hockey – developing and teaching on- and off-ice skills to give future South Asian players the same passion for the game that he carries. “While I was playing, I was grooming to be where I am today,” Brar said. “To give back and be a mentor and a leader in our community.”

Apna Hockey began in 2017 with a hockey camp in Edmonton. Since then, Toor and Brar have scaled the program into every other NHL city across Canada. The camps provide South Asian kids with on-ice training, with an emphasis on skating, as well as off-ice conditioning. It’s a community program, funded by local South Asian businesses. Any extra costs come out of Toor’s and Brar’s pockets. “Our focus today is to properly get funded so we can start our large initiatives like the Apna Hockey talent showcase, Indian national men’s Olympic hockey team, Apna Sports Foundation Gala and building an outdoor inline ball-hockey rink in Punjab, India,” Toor said.

The goal of Apna Hockey is to equip South Asian kids with the tools they need to overcome the adversity they’re going to face in the game. For some South Asian families, the obstacles are financial, so Apna Hockey provides gear to those in need through equipment drives and donations. For others, it’s awareness. To that end, the organization gives Apna kids and their families a push to give hockey a chance. “For many South Asian families, finances are not the problem,” Brar said. “It’s the lack of knowledge and education behind hockey. They’ll put their kids in soccer because it’s easier.”

In just four years, Apna Hockey has made significant strides. Toor and Brar didn’t truly know just how much impact they were having until Brar, representing the organization, was nominated for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in 2020. Named after the NHL’s first Black player, the award goes to someone who is making a positive impact on their community through the game. When Brar won the award, it was the validation he and Toor needed that the work Apna Hockey is doing is having a real impact not only on their community but also on the game itself. “After the award, all cultures finally started to understand what Apna Hockey does,” Brar said. “It also got more people to want to put their kids in hockey.”

At the same time that Toor and Brar are growing the grassroots game in Canada’s South Asian community, they’re also planting seeds 7,000 miles away in India to grow the game there. In 2018, Apna Hockey teamed up with Hayley Wickenheiser for a visit to the Indian national women’s team in Leh, Ladakh, nestled among the Himalayas of northern India. Later that same year, Wickenheiser invited the girls to Canada to play a game in Calgary. Behind the bench was none other than Brar. “I got to see the game of hockey in their eyes and got to see the love of the game,” Brar said. “I was there with them from the start to finish.”

Back in Canada, the next steps for Apna Hockey include working with active and former pros and NHLers to grow the game for South Asian communities across Canada. They’ve recruited instructors like J.K. Gill, one of the first players of South Asian descent to play in the OHL, and ex-WHLer Tyler Sandhu, as well as Simran Sandhu, who was named MVP of the Walter Gretzky Girls Hockey Tournament in 2014 by Gretzky himself. They’re also hoping to partner with NHL clubs to create camps for fans and kids in their community.

When Brar and Toor used to play, each was always the only South Asian player around. What they say their community really needs are role models, both male and female, who play at the highest levels of the game. Robin Bawa, the first South Asian player in the NHL, and ex-NHLer Manny Malhotra, whose father is Punjabi, are among those who have helped blaze the trail. But South Asians need players they can look up to now. The most prominent player today toiled right in Toor’s backyard, where Toor was born and raised and where the idea for Apna Hockey first arose. “They look for that representation,” Toor said. “The boys in our community want to be the next Jujhar Khaira.”

Along with Bawa and Malhotra, players such as Khaira, who spent six seasons with the Oilers, are proof that South Asian kids can not only play the game but excel at it, enough to one day wear an NHL jersey themselves. For his part, Toor can’t wait to be there in the stands when the next player of South Asian descent steps on the ice in an NHL game. “The ethnic-minority players may not be the top players, but they make a massive impact just being there,” Toor said. “More kids want to get in the game because of them.” 

Note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News' Meet the New Guy issue.

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