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FEATURE: Growing the love of the game

As Oilers Ambassador for NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone throughout February, Jujhar Khaira looks forward to sharing his passion for the game

by Meg Tilley / EdmontonOilers.com

It was an eye-opening moment for Edmonton Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira.  

"I was unaware how big [hockey] was in China," he said.

The six-foot-four, 214-pound, left-winger had just wrapped up an off-season practice and workout with New York Islanders centre Mathew Barzal at an arena in Burnaby, BC, around the same time the Surrey Minor Hockey Association was holding an ice hockey tournament that was hosting teams from China and Korea.

Spotted by a few local Surrey youths, Khaira happily obliged when asked if he would be interested in meeting some of the kids from the team, including players of the international teams. 

"It was really cool," said Khaira. "At that point, I didn't know how big hockey was over there. Going into that dressing room and just seeing how excited those kids were. We watched a little bit of their practice after. They looked great out there. They amazed me for sure." 

It's a fresh, new perspective for the Surrey, BC-native, who can recall as if it were just yesterday he was the wide-eyed youth looking up to a pro athlete.

"I remember getting a signed puck from (retired professional ice hockey player) Brad May, that was a prized possession of the house for a couple of years," said Khaira.

"I went to school to tell all of my friends and teachers about who I got to meet. I remember I couldn't have been more excited…. Thinking back and seeing how excited I was, and kids now, they're just as excited. Being that person [now], that can go over and talk to someone, interact, make their day, send them a message, 'Play hockey, have fun', that kind of stuff - that can impact a kid for the rest of their career."

It's just one small piece of a larger puzzle that exemplifies the values Khaira carries as the Oilers Ambassador for the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative. 

"It's special to see people from other countries coming in and playing…being that welcomed to come in and play against players from here, I think it just spreads the game."

An annual campaign that sees all 31 NHL clubs participate, Hockey Is For Everyone focuses on awareness and activities with organizations that celebrate all people who play or watch hockey, including fans of every race, colour, religion, national origin, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and those with disabilities.

"I think [this opportunity] is really special," said Khaira. "It's huge for the community, even the people that play hockey and don't play hockey, just to see that, anybody can play and support everyone…. It's such a special game that it brings everybody together."

It's a value that Lali Toor, Founder of APNA Hockey School, believes in, recognizing that there is so much more to hockey than it just being a sport. 

 "When I heard that [Khaira] was the Hockey Is For Everyone ambassador, I couldn't think of anyone better on the Oilers, other than him," said the 26-year-old. "His impact has been pretty vast [in the South Asian community]."

An ice hockey program in Edmonton that's directed at developing hockey talent in the South Asian community, APNA, which in Punjabi means 'our', is focused on identifying and growing the number of South Asian hockey players across the country by providing on-ice and off-ice training.

"It's not limited to just the South Asian community," said Toor. "We ran our first couple of camps over the summer, it was an open invite to anyone who would like to come."

Embracing the values that hockey truly is for everyone, APNA has become more than just a program that helps teach and shape skating techniques while building and enhancing hockey skills. It encourages inclusivity.

"The applicability of APNA hockey goes way beyond instruction. I think it builds a whole new community for people that are very passionate about hockey," said Toor. "The relationships you form, the teamwork skills you build, that's kind of what we're after. We want to promote ice hockey in our community a lot."

The first South Asian-based ice hockey school of its kind, the University of Alberta student saw a need in the community and decided to fill it.

"I just wanted to provide something I never had," said Toor, who throughout his 18-year hockey career saw him, in most cases, as the only South Asian player on the team.

"I think [the program] is good for the parents, too, especially new immigrants coming to Canada… It'll be a good, nice transition phase if there're programs for information on how to get your kids involved in hockey. If they want to [join] our programs, it'll be an easy transition into Canadian culture, essentially."

Growing up in Canada, under the roof of an athletic family, Khaira has embraced the values hockey has instilled in his life.

"My parents made a lot of sacrifices and gave me the opportunity [to play]," said the 23-year-old. "If I got cut from a team, we didn't look too much into it, it was more-so a feeling to go work harder on your game, make that team the next year, just keep improving."

Welcoming his role as the Oilers Ambassador for Hockey Is For Everyone throughout the month of February, the left-winger looks forward to sharing his passion for the game and encouraging one and all to embrace what the sport he fell in love with has to offer.

"Be involved as much as you want," said Khaira.

"You don't have to play the game, there's a lot of people that play ball hockey, road hockey - just even watching the game. I'm a fan of the game and there're bigger fans than me that don't play hockey. I'm excited when I get to [meet] them, so if you could just be involved in any way I think that's awesome."

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