Color of Hockey: Bains’ path to Canucks inspiring South Asian community

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for 10 years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in sports. He is presenting a profile today as part of the NHL’s Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrations Arshdeep Bainsa Vancouver Canucks junior who became the first player of South Asian descent to lead the Western Hockey League as top scorer in 2021-22.

Arshdeep Bains started his final season with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League with one goal.

“I know I could be a good player in this league, I could be one of the best 20-year-olds and hopefully get in and hopefully get a shot at the next level,” Bains said. “I already had this idea in the summer, but to implement it is something very special.”

Drafted by WHL and NHL teams in their drafts, the now 21-year-old left winger from Surrey, British Columbia, achieved his goal by scoring many points last season.

Bains became the first player of South Asian descent to win the WHL title with 112 points (43 goals, 69 assists) in 68 games.

He led the WHL in assists and tied for sixth in goals with the right wing Connor McClennon of Winnipeg, a prospect for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Bains finished the 2021-22 regular season with 32 points (14 goals, 18 assists) during a 14-game scoring streak from March 5 through April 16, and he had 35 multipoint games.

The Vancouver Canucks signed Bains to an entry-level contract on March 11, a dream come true for someone who used to regularly take the SkyTrain from Surrey to Rogers Arena with his older brothers Amrit and Harvir to attend Canucks home games.

“‘Bainsey’ came all year with the right attitude to work hard and achieve his goals, and he did that,” said Red Deer coach Steve Konowalchuck, who played 790 games for the Washington Capitals from 1991-2006 Colorado Avalanche denied. “And I think it’s going to be very satisfying for him to be an undrafted guy who persevered and held on to getting an NHL contract. He should be very, very proud of that.”

Bains said signing with his hometown team is also special because of the potential impact he could have within the vast South Asian community, whether that be in Vancouver or Abbotsford, where the Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate plays.

“Of course when I signed I got a lot of messages from all kinds of people saying how proud they are of me, how they look up to me, so it was really special when that happened,” he said. “When someone has to look up to me, I’m proud of it and I always want to be there for someone. If I can help children from Surrey or any other ethnicity to play hockey it is very special and I will continue to try to be a role model for all who want to.”

Robin Bawaa retired forward who became the first NHL player of Indian descent when he debuted with the Capitals against the Flyers on Oct. 6, 1989, said Bain underestimated potential hockey footprints in the Vancouver area and beyond can become.

Four players of Indian descent have made it to the NHL: the Chicago Blackhawks forward Jujhar Khaira; Bawa, who played for Washington, Vancouver, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks from 1987 to 1999; Manny Malhotra, an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs who was a forward for the Canucks, Sharks, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens from 1998 to 2016; and Andrew Martinsenwho was a forward for the Canadiens, Avalanche and Blackhawks from 2016 to 2019.

“‘Arsh’ is a role model now,” Bawa said. “A lot of underage hockey kids, their parents, will be really excited to see one of their own play. It gives them hope: ‘Hey, one of us plays in the American Hockey League or even the NHL. ‘”

Bains developed a passion for hockey from his father, Kuldip, who quickly fell in love with the sport when he immigrated to Terrace, British Columbia from India in July 1982.

“He loved soccer, he loved field hockey and he was playing ball hockey when he came here,” Bains said. “He got all his sons into hockey. Everyone started at a young age. He just loved watching us play and he loved playing hockey.”

Bains said his parents and brothers encouraged him to become the best player he could be and gave him strong moral support when he was not selected for the 2017 WHL bantam draft.

He signed with Red Deer as a free agent in 2017. Brent Sutter, the team’s former coach and current general manager, said Bains (6ft, 184lbs) was special.

“He wasn’t drafted into the WHL or the NHL draft, but you could see how committed he was to training off the ice and working out in the gym,” Sutter told the Canucks website in March. “It’s no coincidence that he’s leading the WHL as the top scorer this season. He’s gotten better and better every year. I’ve always had great faith in him because of who he is.”

Bains credits his family and Sutter for getting into the NHL.

“Mr. Brent Sutter, he’s always been there for me, always pushed me, he’ll always be a mentor to me,” Bains said. “Just working with him, working with my parents, working with my coaches just to see if I can get a contract, get a chance to go to (an NHL) camp.

“Now I have this opportunity and I have people pushing me and I’m super excited to see what I can do,” he said.

Photos: Red Deer Rebels/Rob Wallator

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