Did you know that the FIRST professional athlete of Indian descent to play in a “Big Four” sports league was a hockey player? Also, the NHL is the ONLY league to broadcast nationally in an Indian language, and they awarded the 2020 Willie O’Ree Community Service Award to the co-founder of a South Asian-focused international hockey network?
If you already knew about Robin Bawa, Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi, and Apna Hockey, then you are probably aware that South Asians are becoming increasingly prominent in hockey at all levels. As players of the game, as supporters of the game, and as future leaders of the game, South Asians are making their presence known in the hockey world.
Canadian Robin Bawa became the first professional athlete of Indian descent to play in one of the major US sports leagues, joining the Washington Capitals in 1989, around the same time as Sanjay Beach became the first South Asian in the NFL with the New York Jets. Bawa would also play for the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Vancouver Canucks.
Currently, the South Asian community is represented on the ice by Jujhar Khaira, who is in his seventh season in the NHL and plays for the Chicago Blackhawks. Manny Malhotra played 16 seasons in the NHL for seven different clubs and is currently an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
South Asians are represented in many other aspects of the game as well. In 2008, Canada’s iconic television broadcast, Hockey Night In Canada, added Punjabi broadcasts along with English and French, spearheaded by Harnarayan Singh and now also featuring Amrit Gill, the first female reporter on the broadcast. The Punjabi broadcasts have grown the popularity of the sport with both Indians and non-Indians alike.
Aisha Visram broke barriers in January 2022 when she became the first woman on the Los Angeles Kings bench staff. She is the first female of South Asian descent to hold the head athletic trainer position in the American Hockey League, hockey’s top developmental league, with the Ontario Reign (affiliated with the LA Kings).
Dampy Brar and Lali Toor started Apna Hockey in 2017 to provide a hockey network for the South Asian community, with the goal of providing South Asians with the tools and mentorship they need to succeed in hockey and overcome obstacles including racism, cost, accessibility and more. Brar was awarded the Willie O’Ree Community Service Award by the NHL in 2020.
The South Asian fan base continues to grow year over year in many NHL cities, spurring many teams to host cultural events centered around them. The San Jose Sharks have hosted several South Asian-themed game nights over the years, including an annual Sikh Heritage Night; one of the features, a demonstration on tying a turban, has gone viral. The Sharks have also hosted Indian community events, such as FOG 2019 with Bollywood star Vivek Oberoi.
Vancouver Canucks fans block their calendars every year in anticipation of the annual Diwali Night function. Last year’s event included a full arena takeover, with signage, announcements, and advertising in Punjabi. The night included special warm-up jerseys designed by local Indian artist Jag Nagra, various features honoring local South Asian athletes and celebrities, and musical acts.
On March 13th, the Los Angeles Kings will become the next NHL team to jump into the Indian community, hosting their first Indian Cultural Celebration in collaboration with Indian community leaders Payal Lohia, Nidhi Mistry and Sreesha Vaman. The inaugural event will be in conjunction with their game against the Florida Panthers at Crypto.com Arena, with festivities starting at 5:30 PM.
Fans who purchase the Indian Cultural Celebration ticket pack will receive access to an exclusive pre-game reception featuring several prominent South Asian hockey and entertainment celebrities including Robin Bawa, Dampy Brar, Amrit Gill, and Datta Dave from Indian talent management company Tulsea (an event co-sponsor).
Ticket buyers will also receive a specially designed, Indian-themed commemorative scarf/dupatta (while supplies last). To kickoff the event, TikTok musical sensations Kirin+Nivi, Indian twin sisters that recently graduated from UC Irvine and now have over 2M followers, will be singing the national anthem, followed by additional Indian musical elements throughout the night.
The Kings anticipate that the Indian Cultural Celebration will become an annual event and will continue to grow over time.
The South Asian community continues to become more prominent in hockey and across the NHL, so it is only natural for that to extend to the robust Indian community in Los Angeles. We look forward to helping promote the achievements of our community in this space!