Asian and Pacific Islander communities make growing impact on NHL

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Robin Bawa remembers hearing the myths and stereotypes about hockey and people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage when he was growing up.

“A lot of boys said, ‘Colored people didn’t play hockey, your kind don’t play hockey,'” said Bawa, who became the first person of Indian descent or heritage to play an NHL game when debuted with the Washington Capitals on Oct. 6, 1989, against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Today, Bawa revels in the growth and impact of people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage in hockey in nearly all aspects of the game, from ice level to the broadcast booth and the owner’s suite.

The League has come a long way since forward Larry Kwong became the first person of Chinese heritage to play an NHL game March 13, 1948, when he played one shift for the New York Rangers at the Montreal Canadiens.

Thirty players with Asian and South Asian roots have followed Kwong into the NHL, with eight playing a game this season: Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson, his younger brother, forward Nicholas Robertson of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba have Filipino family ties; Edmonton Oilers forward Kailer Yamamoto, Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki and Colorado Avalanche forward Kiefer Sherwood are of Japanese ancestry; Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira is the NHL’s only player of Indian descent; and New Jersey Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, who was born in Zurich, is half Thai.

There are 14 other players in the pipeline who have been drafted by NHL teams in recent years. They include forward Ryan Suzuki, a first-round pick (No. 28) by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2019 NHL Draft and brother of Nick; and Tyler Inamoto, a Japanese-American defenseman for the University of Wisconsin who was selected by the Florida Panthers in the fifth round (No. 133) of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Inamoto was among more than 40 players of Asian and South Asian heritage who were on the rosters of NCAA Division I and Division III men’s and women’s teams this season. That includes Andong Song, who became the first player born in China to be drafted by an NHL team when the New York Islanders chose him in the sixth round (No. 172) of the 2015 NHL Draft. The defenseman is on Cornell University’s roster.

“When you hear (the names) Yamamoto, Jujhar Khaira, Suzuki, the Robertson brothers, and once you see them, learn their stories, where they are from, yeah, you see that the tide is slowly turning,” said Dampy Brar, winner of the 2019-20 Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award and co-founder of Apna Hockey, an initiative that provides a network and support for South Asian hockey players. “There’s been a great transition at a younger age right now as we speak of Asians and South Asians playing hockey. And our generation is giving them information about Paul Kariya, Robin Bawa, Manny Malhotra, players before. And now you have names like Suzuki, Matt Dumba, more and more, and them being open about their backgrounds.”

And experiencing success. Kariya, who is Canadian and of Japanese descent, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017. The forward scored 989 points (402 goals, 587 assists) in 989 games over 15 NHL seasons (1994-2010) for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues.

Dumba was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy last season as the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made noteworthy contributions in his community.

Jason Robertson is a contender this season for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the player voted NHL rookie of the year.

Women of Asian heritage have made their mark in international hockey. Julie Chu is tied as the second-most decorated United States female athlete in Winter Olympics history with three silver medals (2002, 2010 and 2014) and one bronze medal (2006). Chu, who is Chinese-American, won the Patty Kazmaier Award in 2007 as the best female collegiate athlete while playing at Harvard University.

Jessica Koizumi, who was born in Honolulu and is of Japanese descent, helped the U.S. women’s team win the 2008 IIHF World Championship in China and finish second at the 2007 Four Nations Cup in Sweden. She is the seventh-leading scorer in University of Minnesota Duluth history with 155 points (84 goals, 71 assists) in 132 games. Koizumi helped Boston of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League win Clarkson Cup championships in 2013 and 2015. 

“It’s great to see that there are more of these kids of Asian heritage playing, sustaining and playing at a pro level,” said Jim Paek, a former defenseman who became the NHL’s first South Korea-born player when he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91, playing on their Stanley Cup championship teams in 1991 and 1992.

Paek has been coach of the South Korea men’s national team since 2014 and guided it at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Before that, he spent nine seasons as an assistant with Grand Rapids, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings.

Paek said the growth in Asian and South Asian players in North America has had ripple effects across continents.

“The Korean kids here need to see the Asian players playing hockey to give them some goals to play in the NHL to expand hockey over here on our side of the world,” said Paek, who played 217 games with the Penguins, Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators in six seasons (1990-95). 

Elsewhere in the coaching ranks, Malhotra is in his first season as an assistant with the Maple Leafs after holding that position with the Vancouver Canucks for the previous three seasons. Malhotra, who was the NHL’s second player of Indian heritage, played 991 games for the Canucks, Rangers, Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks, Hurricanes and Canadiens in 16 seasons (1998-2015).

Sudharshan Maharaj, who is Trinidad-born, Toronto-raised and of Indian descent, has been the goaltending coach for the Anaheim Ducks since 2016 after he was a goaltending coach and consultant with the New York Islanders.

Strides are also reflected on television, where “Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition” and play-by-play announcer Harnarayan Singh are growing the game by delivering it in Canada’s fifth-most spoken language.

Video: Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

“When I was growing up, we watched ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ religiously on Saturday night, the family, for years,” said Bawa, who played 61 games with the Capitals, Canucks, Sharks and Mighty Ducks in five seasons (1989-94). “Fast forward now, the same thing is happening with these Punjabi families. They sit down and watch it together as a family, ‘Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi.'”

As for team ownership, Kim Pegula, a South Korea-born, American businesswoman, is an owner and president of the Buffalo Sabres and co-chair of the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council. 

When the Tampa Bay Lightning began play in 1992-93, it was operated by Kokusai Green Co. Ltd., a Japanese golf resorts company headed by CEO Takashi Okubo.

Charles Wang, who was born in Shanghai and raised in New York, was majority owner of the Islanders from 2000-16.

Horn Chen, a Chinese-American businessman, had a minority stake in the Blue Jackets.

Norman “Normie” Kwong, a running back in the Canadian Football League and later lieutenant governor of Alberta, was part of the ownership group that brought the Atlanta Flames to Calgary in 1980. The son of Chinese immigrants is one of the few people with his name etched on both the Stanley Cup, which the Calgary Flames won in 1989, and the CFL’s Grey Cup, which he won for each of his four championships.

“The game is growing,” Bawa said. “It’s good to see.”

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