By Derek van Diest
Jujhar Khaira had a typical Canadian childhood growing up in Surrey, B.C., on his way to becoming one of the few players of South Asian descent to make it to the NHL.
The Edmonton Oilers winger played a variety of sports before settling on hockey. Khaira’s parents, who were born in India and moved to Canada at a young age, encouraged him and his two siblings to play sports and were extremely supportive of his hockey ambitions.
“My parents were very athletic, my mom played volleyball and my dad played volleyball and basketball,” Khaira said. “Growing up, we played multiple sports. Our parents were really great, they gave us opportunities to try everything and whatever we enjoyed, they let us continue on with it.
"First off, my brother and I started playing soccer and through soccer there was a gentleman that mentioned hockey to my dad, and my parents asked me if I wanted to try it out. I was really keen on trying it out, and that’s how I got into it.”
Khaira’s road to the NHL was not typical. He wasn't always the best player on his team in minor hockey and had plenty of setbacks before getting a chance to play Jr. A with the Prince George Spruce Kings in the B.C. League.
“Just getting the opportunity in Prince George, it gave me confidence to grow my game, and the coaching staff up there was phenomenal to me,” Khaira said. “They would take extra time working with me when I wanted to get on early or stay late. They made it all happen for me.”
Khaira blossomed in his second year with the Spruce Kings, racking up 29 goals and 79 points in 54 games as a 17-year-old. He was then selected by Edmonton in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft. After two seasons with the Spruce Kings, Khaira went to Michigan Tech University for a year before returning to junior to play with the WHL's Everett Silvertips. Khaira, 26, is now his fourth full season with the Oilers.
“Still to this day, getting drafted is one of the most special moments of my life,” he said. “That’s a goal every kid wants to achieve growing up playing hockey. My parents and a couple of cousins came to the draft with me, and we were all in awe. It’s just one of those things, just the way hockey had gone the two years prior to Prince George, I don’t think anybody would ever believe it, but it was super special, and I’m glad I ended up going to the draft that year. I’m still speechless when I think about that, it was amazing.”
As only the third player of South Asian descent to make it to the big leagues, following the footsteps of Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra, Khaira believes the NHL is going in the right direction to become more inclusive.
“Even if there was nothing said before in the sense that nobody thought it was a huge deal, there are still minorities that feel that it is a big deal that it is mainly a Caucasian sport,” Khaira said. “Just seeing the NHL doing this, it gives hope to kids and to parents seeing their kids growing up and knowing that everybody is trying to make a push for that.”
Khaira is at the forefront of the diversity movement as a member of the NHL's Player Inclusion Committee, set up in September. He'll be working with the Oilers and the league on initiatives to help make hockey more diverse.
Despite being one of the few minorities on most of the teams he played for, Khaira said he was rarely treated as an outsider or made to feel as though he didn’t belong. He's following the trail blazed by Bawa and Malhotra before him, and he takes pride in being a role model for those of South Asian descent.
“It’s special meeting all kids, but meeting young kids of South Asian descent and being able to see the excitement on their faces that we used to have when we were kids and we got to meet NHL players, is awesome,” Khaira said. “Just seeing that excitement, it brings back memories of when you were a kid, and it’s really cool to see that in any kids, but especially kids of South Asian descent. You can give them that hope they too can make it. They see somebody has done it, and they want to be the next in line.”