As the NHL actively seeks to build a stronger and more lasting reputation for inclusion, the league is hoping to encourage people of more varied ethnic backgrounds to participate. However, the gradual change in the demographic of players has been slow going and somewhat limited. This includes those of South Asian and Indian descent, even though they form a sizeable and growing portion of the population throughout North America.
Likewise, the NHL is attempting to broaden its reach with improved worldwide scouting networks, beyond the established bases in Europe. This includes providing support for ice hockey academies in Africa and Asia, where the sport itself has already started to lay down firm roots.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 7, 2016
One country eager to keep improving is India, despite ice hockey having to compete with the huge popularity of other projectile and stick sports. These include field hockey, the nearest relative and a direct descendent of ice hockey, along with cricket, which is by far the most popular sport amongst Indian fans.
It is estimated that Indians are so mad about cricket that betting on the sport is worth billions of dollars each year. This has led to a large influx of international sportsbooks focusing their attention toward the Indian subcontinent and asiabet.org lists cricket, football and horse racing as the most popular sports in the region for those betting.
However, with the influx of more international betting companies featuring a broader scope of betting markets, this should inevitably contribute towards a developing interest in ice hockey and the NHL. Interestingly, the Indian men’s national ice hockey team played their first game in 2009. Although they have only won 4 of 41 games since then, the uptake amongst participants is growing steadily.
First Indians to break the NHL ice
Surprising as it may sound, given the huge population of India itself, along with the millions who have emigrated to numerous other countries around the world, only four players of Indian ethnicity have ever played in the NHL. Especially considering the fact that, in both the United States and Canada, people of Indian ancestry are amongst the fastest growing communities.
According to data from the United States Census Bureau, around 1.3% of the total population was listed as Asian Indian. More than 4.0% of the Canadian population are of Indian ancestry, while Canada also contains the eighth-largest Indian diaspora in the world. By comparison to other ethnic groups, their level of representation in the NHL is amongst the smallest.
"I was never thinking about being the only indo-Canadian South Asian kid playing…"
— NHL (@NHL) May 27, 2021
As of the recently concluded 2020-21 season, only four players with Indian roots have featured in the NHL, with all but one being of Canadian nationality. The first was Robin Bawa, who was active between 1987 and 1999. During his professional hockey career, he played for the Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, and the Anaheim Ducks.
The second was Manny Malhotra, whose father moved from India to work as a research chemist for Xerox. He enjoyed an extensive career in the NHL between 1998 and 2016, playing for a total of seven different franchises during that time, enjoying his most important spells with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Vancouver Canucks.
Malhotra concluded his professional career with an impressive total of 991 NHL appearances, between debuting with the New York Rangers in 1998-1999 and concluding with the Montreal Canadiens in 2014-15. He also represented Canada at the 1998 and 2000 World Junior Championships, then the 2002 World Championships.
Currently active Indian NHL players
As just the third player of Indian descent to participate in the NHL, 26-year-old Jujhar Khaira is also the only active player of his ethnic background in the competition. Khaira was picked 63rd overall in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, where he has gone on to become a regular member of the roster.
Khaira made his breakthrough with the Oilers during the 2015-16 season, making 15 appearances before returning to their affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors. Another opportunity arose with the Oilers and brought 10 further appearances during the 2016-17 campaign, before establishing himself as a permanent member of the Edmonton roster.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 24, 2021
Having now played in 258 NHL games with the Oilers, it’s fair to say Khaira has firmly established himself in the NHL, providing inspiration to other players of Indian heritage who aim to follow his path. This includes younger brother Sahvan Khaira, who has already featured for the Seattle Thunderbirds, Swift Current Broncos, and the Everett Silvertips, all of the WHL.
Following several seasons playing in both Norway and Germany, the fourth player of Indian descent to play in the NHL was Andreas Martinsen, who debuted shortly after Khaira during the same 2015-16 season. Martinsen was also the first player of Indian ethnicity ever to represent the Colorado Avalanche, making 110 appearances, before less successful spells with the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Since leaving the NHL, Martinsen remains professionally active following his time in the NHL and AHL. After a brief spell with EV Zug in Switzerland, the 31-year-old has returned to Lillehammer in Norway, which is actually where his ice hockey career started out.
More opportunities for Indian players
There is currently a rapidly growing level of involvement amongst Indian communities, both in the United States and Canada, supporting their local teams and increasingly being encouraged to take up the sport. Despite there being only four players of Indian descent to have featured in the NHL, more will gradually follow.
In addition, given the steady rise in popularity of ice hockey throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the northern regions, there is potential for the country to eventually become a hotbed for future talents. The NHL would be wise to keep a keen eye on potential draft prospects hailing from India, which could be a way for the organization to reach a massive and previously untapped market.