By Elliott Teaford
Sudarshan Maharaj first felt the warm, welcoming embrace of hockey as an 8-year-old, newly relocated with his family to the Toronto suburbs from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Neighborhood kids noticed him watching their summer ball-hockey game and invited him to join them.
“Hey, want to come out and play?” one asked.
Maharaj was soon hooked on hockey and on his way to a collegiate and pro career.
There was another side to his arrival amid a great wave of immigration to Canada in the 1970s, however. Unkind words were spoken at the rink, in the schoolyard, on the street and on the subway. It wasn't just the Canadian winter that was often cold and uninviting.
“You were reminded you were different,” said Maharaj, who's entering his fifth year as the Anaheim Ducks' goaltending coach after joining the organization in 2013-14 to tutor their minor-league netminders, following eight seasons with the New York Islanders.
As a goalie, Maharaj enjoyed a certain sense of anonymity while on the ice, his face covered by his mask. No one could see his face. As long as play was underway, he was just another player in uniform, in pursuit of victory with his teammates.
There was that name, though. It was unusual and tough to pronounce.
Sudarshan was shortened to “Suds,” and the inevitable hockey nickname “Sudsie” soon followed. There was a sense of camaraderie as he rose up through the ranks, but it only went so far. He had to take the mask off eventually. He had to enter and leave the rink, and he stood out from the rest of his teammates.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the six seasons he spent playing in Sweden in the 1980s and '90s, where another wave of immigration was taking place, mostly from central Europe. A Canadian who was a Trinidadian native with Indian ancestry really stood out among the crowd.
Once, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his car.
Despite the harrowing incident, Maharaj looks back fondly on his time in Sweden. He learned the language and did his best to adapt to another new culture in another new country. The experience didn't harden him, or make him bitter, but rather it served him well, as he would come to learn.
“We have so many Swedes in Anaheim,” Maharaj said, referring to Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg, among others. “Instead of speaking English with me, they like to speak to me in Swedish. It's fun to practice the language. I wouldn't say I'm fluent, but…”
After returning to Toronto, Maharaj became a teacher, working with at-risk teenagers. He coached goalies as a side hustle and eventually hooked on with the Islanders, after Rick DiPietro asked the club to hire Maharaj to aid in his development. The rest, as they say, is history.
Except it's not. Maharaj became an advocate, an ally. “Hockey Is For Everyone” is more than a slogan for him. “Full credit to the (NHL) teams that drop off used equipment, but then what?” he said. “It costs a lot more than running shoes or soccer cleats and shorts. There are the expectations. Private coaches. Summer camps. Travel tournaments. You can't just buy a stick for $29.95 anymore.”
These factors limit who can play, and that could hurt hockey in the long run, Maharaj said. “Who knows where the next (Wayne) Gretzky could come from?” he said. “If you want hockey to continue to grow and bloom, you have to be as inclusive as possible. If you look at the demographics of North America, it's changing. You can rail against it or you can embrace it. But it's happening.”