A League of Their Own
Manny Malhotra is the only player of Indian descent in the National Hockey League (NHL). He is the second ever, the first having been Robin Bawa who played on four NHL teams between 1989 and 1994.
Manny’s father is from Punjab, and his mother is French Canadian. After growing up in Mississauga, Ontario (near Toronto), Manny began his NHL career in 1998 with the New York Rangers. Later he played with the Dallas Stars, and now he’s with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In September 2007, Manny married Joann Nash, sister of pro basketball player Steve Nash.
You’ve received a lot of individual awards, including Ontario Hockey League (ages 15-20) Player of the Year, several All-Star Team selections, and even the Most Sportsmanlike Player at the Memorial Cup Tournament. Which of your individual awards are you the most proud of?
I’m most proud of having been named the Scholastic Player of the Year in junior hockey. It goes to the top academic player in the Ontario Hockey League. Education has always been important in my family, and balancing the rigors of junior hockey with my schoolwork was a great accomplishment.
Do you have a place in your home where you keep all of these awards and trophies?
(laughs) No, I really don’t collect any trophies or plaques. They’re mostly in boxes stored in the basement, and a few of them are at my parents’ house.
You’ve also played in several world championship tournaments, including at the junior level and as an adult. Which of those world championship tournaments was the most memorable?
It would be the 2000 World Juniors. It was my second time in the World Juniors, and we [Canada] won the bronze medal. [In the bronze medal match in Sweden, Team Canada beat Team USA in a shootout.] That was a great experience.
You were selected as the 7th overall pick in the 1988 NHL entry draft by the New York Rangers. Can you describe the moment you found out about this?
The NHL draft is held in an arena—that year it was in Buffalo—
At HSBC Arena?
Yeah, where the (NHL’s Buffalo) Sabres play. Each team has its own table, and there’s a single large stage set up for teams to announce their draft picks. The players who have a chance to get drafted are in the stands with their families and friends. So I was in the stands with my parents, my brothers, my sister, and my agent.
I was ranked in the top 10, and people were projecting that I would be selected anywhere between 5th and 20th. In that situation, you have no idea which team will pick you, so as each team gets ready to pick, you imagine what life might be like in that city, and you think about who’s playing on that team and how it would be to play with those guys.
Did you have a prediction of where you might go?
I actually thought I would probably go 6th to Calgary, because the GM [General Manager] who had drafted me at Guelph [for the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League] was now at Calgary. But Calgary passed on me, and then the New York Rangers took me with the next pick. I was really surprised because I had never had an interview or meeting with the Rangers.
You had met with other teams?
Yeah, that’s a normal part of pre-draft procedures. You meet with different teams and go through interviews, and the New York Rangers organization was one of the only ones I had not interviewed with. It was an incredible moment. All in one instant you have a sense of where you’re going to be, probably for the next few years, and whom you’ll be playing hockey with—at the time, Wayne Gretzky was playing with the Rangers—it was pretty exciting.
The National Football League holds a “combine,” where college players who are likely to be drafted go through a series of physical tests with aerobics, weightlifting, etc. Does the NHL have a combine?
Yes, it’s very similar. It’s a month prior to the draft. All the teams congregate at a hotel in Toronto. They test you on things such as push-ups, sit-ups, high jumps, bench press, [standing] vertical jump, VO2 test, the Wingate test—
What are the VO2 test and the Wingate test?
The VO2 test is an aerobic test on a stationary bike. You ride the bike for 12 minutes while you’re hooked up to monitoring equipment.
The Wingate test is an anaerobic test, also on a stationary bike.
First you pedal as hard as you can, then they add weight—proportional to your body weight—to the flywheel and you continue to pedal as hard as you can for 30 more seconds at this higher resistance level. And they measure your drop-off.
Do you skate at the combine?
No, it’s purely a place for athletic evaluation. No skating.
Do you remember your first NHL goal?
Yeah, (laughs) I don’t think anybody forgets their first NHL goal. I wish I could say that it was an end-to-end goal, that I weaved through everybody on the other team and then beat the goalie one-on-one.
But actually, I was just coming onto the ice for a shift change, and one of our defensemen hit the puck toward the corner. As I jumped out onto the ice, I skated as hard as I could, hoping to retrieve the puck in the corner. But the puck took a strange bounce off the glass in the corner, and ricocheted diagonally to the crease (the area immediately in front of the net), and the goalie had trouble with it and was bobbling the puck around as I arrived at the crease, and I just stuck out my stick and jabbed at the puck and it went in.
You’re right! Not very poetic.
(laughs) Yeah, not very fancy, but it counted.
You gained a lot of fame and money, basically overnight, at the age of 18. How did you avoid getting caught up in the distractions and excesses that were suddenly available to you—especially with your concurrent relocation to New York City?
Well, there were a couple of things that really helped.
The New York Rangers arranged for me to live with a former Ranger, Doug Sulliman and his family. He and his wife had four young daughters. That helped me a lot, going into a family environment like that. I played big brother a lot, I babysat sometimes, I played in the backyard with the kids, helped them with homework—it was a great situation and it really helped me stay grounded, as opposed to being on my own in the city with a lot of free time.
Also, the way I was brought up really helped. In my family, we’ve always been pretty low-key. We’re not flashy; we’re not big spenders.
Your parents both have doctorates, right?
Yes. My mother has a doctorate in biochemistry, and my father’s is in polymer chemistry. My father was a research chemist for Xerox, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.
And what careers have your three siblings chosen?
One brother is a teacher, my sister is an executive assistant, and my other brother is a financial advisor.
What impact did your parents have on your development as a hockey player?
I think this is where I was really fortunate.
My father, of course, did not grow up with hockey, but my mother did—she’s a Montreal Canadiens fan, and she grew up during their golden age, when they had great players like Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, and Ken Dryden.
But my parents never pushed me to be a hockey player. They just wanted me to enjoy the experience of being involved in sports. We all played soccer growing up, but I also wanted to branch off and do my own thing, so playing hockey was my escape.
I saw a lot of kids come and go who were really good hockey players, but their parents pushed them too hard, and they basically pushed those kids out of the game. Whereas my parents just said skate fast, hit somebody, shoot hard.
When we got into the car after a game, there was no going over X’s and O’s, analyzing plays, “why didn’t you do this,” etc. The only question was, “Where do you want to eat?”
It sounds as if they were also supportive in terms of driving you to and from games, and watching your games.
Yeah, that’s one of the big things about playing hockey as a kid. You really need a supportive family—to get you to the rink for early-morning and late-night practices, and to take you downtown for games on weekdays. And there’s the financial support. Hockey gear keeps getting more and more expensive every year.
How did you balance schoolwork and hockey?
Again, my parents played a huge role in that. Schoolwork always came first for all of us.
Once I had a big project due at school the next day, and it was not done yet but I went to hockey practice anyway. My mom actually called my coach and had him pull me off the ice, and she came and picked me up and took me home and made me finish my project. I was 12 or 13 and I was irate! (laughs) But now I realize why she did it.
For all four of us, sports was a privilege. Our parents wanted us to succeed in and enjoy sports, but that was always secondary to our education.
When did you start playing hockey? Were you an exceptionally good hockey player from the start, compared with your age group?
I was seven when I started.
Skill-wise I wasn’t always the best, but I always had a really strong work ethic. Plus, I grew up physically faster than most kids, so I was usually bigger and stronger than my peers. Those two things helped me to excel.
You had a very promising rookie year with the New York Rangers in 1998-1999. But then your second season was frustrating and you got very little playing time. Yet you pulled through that, and last season you were one of only three Columbus Blue Jackets to play in all 82 regular-season games. How did you get through that tough second year and turn things around?
That second year was very trying. I played in so many games my first year, but then during the second year I was constantly being told, “You’re not going to play, you’re not going to play, you’re not going to play.” It can be demoralizing and stifling to one’s growth.
But I kept telling myself, I’m still only 19 years old, and I have a lot of time to get better. So, rather than just say, “I can’t do anything about this, so I’ll just go through the motions,” I went to that rink every day with the goal of making myself a better hockey player. I knew I had to be the hardest-working guy out there.
Very few 19-year-olds would have that perspective.
Part of it was that my family helped me to have that constructive attitude; my parents had brought me up to think that way.
But also some of the veterans on the team were a big help—especially Adam Graves. He’s an incredible guy, and he was a great player. He would always take the time to talk to me, reassure me, and encourage me to keep working hard on the ice. Other guys were also very helpful that way—especially Brian Leetch and Mike Richter.
In retrospect, do you consider that second season a waste, or did you benefit from it?
I don’t think it was a waste. I grew a lot that year in terms of the mental aspect of the game. It taught me a lot about dealing with adversity, and that can only be helpful.
You often have one of the highest face-off percentages in the league. Is that something you’ve specifically worked to become good at?
Oh yes. During my rookie year, one of our assistant coaches was Craig McTavish, who is now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. And when he played he was a face-off specialist, among other things. So I worked a lot with him on my face-off tactics and techniques. And the more I worked at it, and the better I got at it, the more I realized how important the face-off is in terms of puck possession time. All that work has paid off, and facing off is now one of my strengths.
Can you describe your exercise regimen?
It depends on what part of the year it is. After the season, I take a month off. Then when I get back to working out, I spend a lot of time at the gym on the weights. I spend more time on the lower body—squats, lunges, hamstring work. And then also some upper body work. And, of course, aerobic exercise. And then as the summer progress, I get into more plyometric work, to improve speed and agility. Once the season starts, we do a lot of maintenance work—a lot of aerobic work, a lot of time on the exercise bike. Our strength coach will also put in some weight workouts.
Where do you exercise when you’re on the road?
On the road it’s more difficult. But most of the arenas supply us with basic weights—barbells and dumbbells—and stationary bikes. When we’re on the road, our schedule is tight, so we don’t usually get to do long workouts. But we’ll get in short workouts in the mornings and sometimes get on the bike after games.
Being traded is something that, as a non-athlete, I cannot identify with. When you were traded from New York to Dallas, what was your reaction?
You are right, I don’t think people can understand it if they haven’t been through it. You have to pick up your whole life and move it within a matter of two or three days.
On some level, getting traded was frustrating. I had always wanted to be one of those guys who stayed with one team for his whole career. At that time, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter had been with the Rangers for so long, and I thought that was so cool and I wanted to be like that.
But at the same time, I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to, and the responsibilities I wanted to take on were just not being given to me, so I did hope that maybe I’d get an opportunity to play more and grow more in Dallas. In that sense, it was a welcome change.
In hindsight, getting traded was actually a pretty cool experience. I got to meet and work with new people, and I switched from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, so the style of play changed, and that was interesting too.
Also, even though at the time I thought it was hard to move, I now realize that, since I was single, the move was actually pretty easy. I can imagine that getting traded is a lot tougher for the guys who are married with kids.
Have you and Joann discussed the fact that you could be traded at any time?
Oh yeah. We joke around that as a pro athlete, you’re a piece of meat. You have to be ready to move anywhere at any time. It’s not one of the more glamorous aspects of the job. But it’s more than offset by all the good in this job.
You’ve played in New York City, Dallas, and now Columbus. Those are three very different cities. What was it like living and playing in each of them?
New York has a deep hockey tradition. The Rangers are an Original Six team [one of the six teams that comprised the NHL for its first 25 seasons]. The history there is tremendous. So many Hall of Famers have played there, and many of them are still present around the team, so you get to meet those guys.
Madison Square Garden is known throughout the world, and to get to play home games there was very exciting. And of course the city itself has so much to offer in terms of culture.
I didn’t know how I’d react to Dallas. First of all, it’s hot there.
Yeah, we always associate ice hockey with cold weather and northernness.
Yeah, exactly—I’d never been in hot weather where there was hockey. So I didn’t know what to expect. What I found out when I got there was that, in Dallas, either people are completely in love with hockey and the Dallas Stars, or they have no idea what hockey even is. Also I had to get used to driving everywhere, as opposed to New York City.
The really cool thing about playing hockey in Columbus is that Columbus is truly a sports town. I think you could put a professional basket-weaving team here and the place would go crazy over it.
We have great crowds; the fans really get into it, and I enjoy playing in front of them. Some of them are still learning the game—the Blue Jackets have only existed since 2000.
You’ve been a fan favorite everywhere you’ve played. Why?
My game is pretty simple. It’s a lot of hard work: skate fast, hit hard, be aggressive. A lot of fans tell me that’s what they enjoy about watching me play: watching me outwork the other guy. And that’s really what fans want to see from pro athletes.
Oh yeah, it’s like the basketball player who’s constantly diving onto the floor to grab the loose ball. The fans invariably love that player.
Yes, that’s exactly it. Diving after the puck, blocking shots … fans appreciate that.
Describe your experience being a role model for South Asian kids.
I don’t really consider myself a role model—I’m just a guy with a really cool job. But I do think it’s pretty exciting that I’m bringing a lot of fans to the game who probably wouldn’t have ever watched hockey otherwise.
You are also the Blue Jackets’ representative to the players’ union.
I had a similar role in New York early on. I’m interested in the history of the NHL. I’m interested in where we’ve come from, and how over the years the union has helped the players to benefit from what they give to this game.
Over the last couple years, I’ve been interested in the new collective bargaining agreement and changes in a business sense. Why we are where we are. Where the NHL is going.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Now I like hanging out at home with my wife. We like to go to movies; we enjoy cooking at home. I still enjoy watching soccer.
What are your goals for the coming years?
Hockey-wise, the main goal is to win a Stanley Cup. (laughs) Or two or three. I also want to be an effective player for as long as I can. And I want to keep enjoying my life and doing the best I can with it.
Desi Athletes in American Pro-Sports
Sanjay Beach (football) was a star wide receiver for the Colorado State Rams and played pro football for the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers. Beach was the first receiver to catch a pass from Brett Favre in the pros. (Favre’s first completion was to himself.)
Mohini Bhardwaj (gymnastics) is the first Indian-American Olympic medalist. She was a member of the Silver Medal-winning U.S. Gymnastics team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In college, Mohini won both individual and team NCAA national championships with the UCLA Bruins.
Brandon Chillar (football), who starred with the UCLA Bruins, is a linebacker with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. Chillar is a starter and his number of tackles has increased every season.
Bobby Singh (football) has played in the NFL (St. Louis Rams), the XFL (Los Angeles Xtreme), and the CFL (BC Lions and currently the Calgary Stampeders). The guard has championship credentials from all three leagues—the XFL’s Million Dollar Game with Los Angeles; the CFL’s Grey Cup with BC; and he received an NFL Super Bowl ring for being a member of the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad during the team’s championship year of 1999.
Vijay Singh (golf) is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has won three majors (one Masters and two PGA Championships), was the #1 ranked player in the world for much of 2004 and 2005, and was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2004.
American Baseball ... in India?
Several organizations are working to promote baseball in India. Through the Major League Baseball International (MLBI) Equipment Donation Program—a partnership between MLBI and the Philadelphia-based Pitch In For Baseball—baseball equipment has been donated to organizations in more than 30 countries including India.
Through a partnership among MLBI’s Envoy Program, the U.S. Embassy in India, and First Pitch: The U.S.-Manipur Baseball Project, MLBI-Envoy coaches have conducted two (one in 2006 and one in 2007) 5-city tours of baseball clinics for local players and coaches in Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, and Imphal (in Manipur).
The Amateur Baseball Federation of India has been working since 1983 to promote baseball in India.
Also, filmmaker Mirra Bank is documenting the activities of First Pitch in New York and Manipur.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.