When Manny Malhotra made the decision to pursue a career in hockey instead of soccer, the then 13-year-old did it at a gas station in his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario.
The decision was a difficult one. Malhotra was torn between his first loves, two sports he grew up cherishing from the age of four, but continuing to play both at a competitive level was out of the question.
A decision had to be made, his dad told him as they drove down the highway, and his parents would support him either way.
“We were talking about it and we pulled into a gas station and he went out to fill up and he had posed the question right before he went out,” said Malhotra, again driving down the highway, this time with a full tank of gas.
“My dad said I had to pick either soccer or hockey because it was a lot of travel, a lot of money and a lot of time. It was a super tough decision. He got back in the car and I told him I wanted to stick with hockey.”
While the verdict was reached quicker than he expected, Malhotra never turned his back on the beautiful game, instead he added a soccer related dream to his bucket list: practice with a professional soccer team.
That sound you just heard was Malhotra crossing it off with a squeaky black marker.
The Vancouver Whitecaps FC graciously invited Malhotra to attend practice on Friday, September 7th, at Inter River Park in North Vancouver. From 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. fields 7 & 8 were packed with footballers ranging from 18 to 37-years-old with varied skill levels all way above awesome.
Malhotra, who met the team at its headquarters at the Burnaby Lake 8-Rinks Sport Complex prior to practice and was shown the red carpet with his own stall in the change room and Whitecaps workout gear, wasn’t sure what to expect going in. The Whitecaps, in the midst of a four-game losing streak while clinging to the fifth and final Western Conference playoff spot, had work to do and despite being one of the most well conditioned athletes on the planet, Malhotra wasn’t about to step in and help with that – was he?
Even though he had not been on the field competitively since his days in Victoria’s Sunday Premiere League a few years ago, Malhotra fit right in.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting that,” Malhotra said, still trying to catch his breath, after taking part in the full 120-minute practice. “I thought we were strictly doing something small, maybe a couple of drills and then I’d watch the team. I did not expect to be full thrown into practice.
“Coolest experience, I’ve always dreamt of kicking it around with a pro soccer team and that was way beyond my expectation.”
Malhotra didn’t turn any heads at practice and that’s actually a compliment. If he had, it likely would have been for the wrong reasons and not making a fool of himself was high on his list of priorities for the day. Instead he blended in and looked right at home on the pitch.
The Whitecaps were put through barrage of exercises and drills and Malhotra held his own, he even scored two goals during a four-team mini tournament in the second half of practice.
He wasn’t coddled and nothing was sugarcoated. For a few hours Malhotra was just one of the guys, giving him a glimpse at what life might be like had his decision been different.
“By no means do I have any regrets,” he laughed. “I have a lot of respect for those guys, that was hard work out there. Their sport is so anaerobic; it’s just go, go, go. I was telling the guys how fit and agile they are, it’s incredible.
“I can close that chapter now, I made the right decision.”
Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie disagreed.
“It’s a shame for Canadian soccer that he chose to play hockey,’ said Rennie, post-practice. “I thought he did very well, he’s an excellent athlete and obviously he played soccer growing up. He’s got a lot of quality and hopefully he enjoyed it, but he did well throughout the session.”
Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit, who put Malhotra through a one-on-one training session at the end of practice, agreed with Rennie’s assessment.
“It’s amazing how they can transfer their skills and put it on the soccer field. If you looked out there, he definitely held his own and that’s a credit to him and his athletic ability.”