Blazing a new trail in professional hockey
In a sport that is almost exclusively filled with white people with high-level hockey experience, Chico Dhanjal has blazed a trail.
Photo courtesy Prince George Cougars
By Arpan Parhar
When most people think of the faces associated with a professional sports team, they wouldn’t think of the equipment manager. Chico Dhanjal may change that with the Abbotsford Canucks.
Dhanjal is used to doing things differently than other people. The Saskatchewan native comes to the Canucks after a decade in Prince George, where he was a fan favourite and the face of the Western Hockey League’s Cougars as the team’s equipment manager. He also worked as an equipment manager for the Humboldt Broncos and Hockey Canada.
Professional hockey is a sport that is almost exclusively filled with white people. Dhanjal has blazed a trail as the first turbaned player or team staff member in both the NHL and American Hockey League—the NHL’s feeder league.
Welcome to Abbotsford
Dhanjal is a minority in his workplace and field, but he is less so in Abbotsford, where more than a quarter of the population is South Asian. Abbotsford is the most multiculturally diverse area Dhanjal has ever lived, and he is excited by that.
“There are a lot more Indian people than there were in the previous area,” Dhanjal recalls his daughter saying after school one day. “Yeah, you’re right,” he replied.
The Punjabi community is passionate about the Canucks, and Dhanjal’s employment is symbolically important for all minorities. For those seeking to work in hockey, there are few non-white role models. For instance, there were only 43 non-white players on NHL rosters going into the 2021 season. The only other turbaned person associated with any level of professional hockey is Sportsnet broadcaster Harnarayan Singh.
Ethnic diversity within the game matters. Seeing someone from a shared background involved in hockey encourages others from that community to become involved in the sport.
But Dhanjal also believes that fewer minority individuals take part in hockey because of the cost. “It is too expensive and minority parents don’t have the time to do the training and all the other things,” he said, suggesting kids are often encouraged to play cheaper sports such as soccer or basketball. However, the hockey world is becoming more ethnically diverse and Dhanjal is optimistic that change will continue. The Canucks’ fanbase is the most culturally diverse in hockey and Dhanjal said he is excited to work in such an environment. Dhanjal was in Vancouver during the 2011 playoff run and he fondly remembers seeing people of so many different ethnicities cheering on the Canucks.
A rough start
It’s not just Dhanjal’s race that makes him different from others in the hockey world: his life experiences are also different from those working in professional hockey. Most people involved in the hockey world played the game throughout their lives. Dhanjal had one brief practice as a 5 year old. He didn’t know how to skate and fell on his head. The resulting gash required several stitches, and that was the end of Dhanjal’s hockey playing career.
Equipment managers generally only focus on that role. They don’t have additional responsibilities or positions within the team. However, Dhanjal is different. He has a degree in kinesiology, which he used in Prince George and Humboldt to assist in athletic therapy as well as strength and condition training of players.
He is part of a trend where more people from non-traditional hockey backgrounds are succeeding. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the past two Stanley Cups with a coach and general manager who were both former lawyers with no high-level playing experience.
Getting out of your comfort zone
Dhanjal’s hockey journey is defined by a unique and daring mindset. Prior to accepting the positions in Humboldt and Prince George, Dhanjal had never been to either city. He didn’t know where Humboldt was, and had only heard of Prince George in passing. Dhanjal thinks he may have been the first person to wear a turban in Humboldt. Those factors didn’t deter Dhanjal from taking a chance and furthering his hockey career.
“You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone,” he said. “I never thought I would be working in hockey. I could have been working in a clinic or elsewhere”.
Dhanjal said people need to take risks with their occupation. Money is less important than happiness.
“If you’re not happy with doing your job, money won’t change that.”