Go north, young man.
That turned out to be sage advice for Cloverdale's Jujhar Khaira, who has parlayed a late-summer tryout in 2010 into a massive boost to his hockey career.
The 17-year-old Clayton Heights student who was overlooked by major midget and major junior programs is going to be in Pittsburgh this weekend, waiting to hear his name called in the National Hockey League's annual amateur draft.
Disappointed at his prospects heading into his second season of midget hockey two years ago, Khaira accepted an offer to attend the training camp of the Prince George Spruce Kings where his career took a rapid turn for the better.
"I don't know if I would have done as well if I stayed down here," the soft-spoken teen said. "There's a lot of politics down here and most of the teams know who they're going to take before the tryout. No other team was willing to give me the opportunity that Prince George did that year so I doubt I would have progressed as well as I did up there. The coach and the general manager were great to me and gave me the opportunity to play at that level. I played a lot in my first year and then in my second year it carried over. It was great for me."
Of course it helped that Khaira underwent a growth spurt that summer that saw his body stretch out to a full six feet. He has kept growing and now checks in at a robust 6-foot 3, 200 pounds - great numbers for an aspiring power forward with a scoring touch and the willingness to get his nose dirty in the gritty areas of the rink.
"I do take a lot of pride in being able to play in tough places like the corners because it's a big part of my game," he said. "Obviously having a big body makes it easier to win the battles in the corners. My upper body is pretty strong so I can fight guys off and create some space."
As a B.C. Hockey League rookie, Khaira scored a respectable 10 goals and 42 points. Last season he almost doubled those numbers, finishing 10th in league scoring with 29 goals and 50 assists. Not bad for a guy who still has three years of junior eligibility remaining.
"After my first year in Prince George I knew I could do some damage in the league," Khaira said. "I trained really hard in the summer and, in the first game last year, I could see how much I had improved. I realized how much time I actually had to make a play and I had a lot more confidence out there."
As his numbers went up, so did the attention he received from hockey's scouting community. At first the scouts who came to watch were from U.S. colleges, attracted by his skills on the ice as well as his honour roll status in the classroom. Before long, however, another kind of scout was turning up to birddog the blossoming Spruce Kings, the kind of scout with notebooks featuring NHL letterheads.
Khaira was ranked 80th among North American skaters in the NHL Central Scouting's midseason ratings. He rose another six spots to top out at 74th in the final rankings.
"That was a great accomplishment, but at the same time, it doesn't mean anything because the draft hasn't happened yet," Khaira said. "You never know what is going to happen there but just to be ranked by Central Scouting and being invited to the combine was exciting. It was a good accomplishment and I'm glad I got to do all those things. It's a once in a lifetime experience so I can't complain."
Khaira was one of 105 players invited by the NHL to attend a predraft combine in Toronto earlier this month. He was one of only a handful of guys at the combine who played junior A hockey last year; the rest were all from the major junior ranks or international leagues.
In addition to conditioning and fitness testing, Khaira sat through a dozen interviews with separate NHL teams.
"It was crazy," he said of the whole pre-draft process."The combine was amazing with the way we were treated and all the attention we got - the whole thing was just unreal."
No matter what happens this weekend in Pittsburgh, Khaira knows where he will be playing next season. He has accepted a scholarship to play college hockey at Michigan Tech where he will study either engineering or business management.
While school is in his immediate future, Khaira admits the upcoming draft has dominated his thoughts in recent weeks.
"They're both big accomplishments but right now I'm thinking more about the combine and the draft," he said. "No matter what happens there though, I am going to college next year. Ever since I've been a kid, school has come first and I've always had good grades and been on the honour roll. I'm going to go to school and work hard to keep improving."
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