Jujhar Khaira's size and skill means he's a project a NHL team with patience will be willing to tackle.
The Surrey, B.C., native, who's bound for Michigan Tech this fall, was the lone player from the British Columbia Hockey League to attend last week's NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto. Khaira produced in one of North America's best Junior A circuits, totalling 29 goals and 79 points in 54 games for the Prince George Spruce Kings, while also representing Canada at the World Junior A Challenge. The 17-year-old centre, who was not selected in the WHL bantam draft three years ago, has sprouted to a power forward-ish 6-foot-2 1/2 and 182 pounds. As a result of all that, he's ranked 74th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
Khaira seems well-aware that coming out of Junior A underlines that he's a work in progress. He's hoping playing at Michigan Tech yields significant minutes as a freshman.
"I obviously want to mature as much as I can," says Khaira, who is still two months shy of his 18th birthday. "This summer I want to train as much as I can and be ready for next season. Maturity-wise, personality-wise, I want to show that mentally I'm strong enough to play the game at the next level.
"My foot speed really needs to increase and I do need to get stronger because there's some big guys at the next level who are 24, 25 years old and have matured," he adds. "I do really need to work on that."
It might not be surprising in hindsight that Khaira would sprout into a big centre. His parents, mother Komal and father Sukhjinder, each thrived in a taller person's game as provincial-level volleyball players in British Columbia.
Now their son is hopeful of making a name for himself in high-level hockey. Jujhar Khaira notes that although he's in select company as a junior hockey star of South Asian descent, he has a long way to go before he becomes an idol to Asian-Canadian fans. He long ago got used to being the only player in the dressing room who is brown.
"It's always been that way growing up," he says. "Everybody around me has never really judged me. It's not even in my mind anymore. Everybody's equal out there so it doesn't matter what skin colour you are.
"There's some older players who are South Asian as well, [Buffalo Sabres prospect] Kevin Sundher and [Vancouver Canucks farmhand] Prab Rai," he said. "They've made it a little higher, signing with NHL clubs. There's recognition for me, but you want to catch those guys."
1. What drew you to Michigan Tech?
"Our former coach is an alumni there and he had a lot of great things to say about the team there. Then just talking to the coaching staff they said I'd be a centre building block to the program there, get used in key situations. I'd rather play at a smaller school where I'd get a lot of playing time rather than go to a bigger school where I'd have to sit out the first couple years."
2. What specific components of your game need the most work before you're ready to play pro hockey?
"I think I can brush up on my skating, [point] A to B. And my shot release could be a lot faster."
3. Prince George is almost as far as you can get from Surrey without leaving B.C.; what did moving there do for you?
"My maturity level really increased with moving that far away from home as a 16-year-old, The opportunity I got there, I don't think I would have got anywhere else. I'm really thankful to them for keeping me. I think I grew as a player and a person."
4. What do you like to do when you need to withdraw from hockey for a spell?
"I like to watch movies, lay low, just hang out with friends, hang out with my brother and family ... I like any kind of movies, comedies." (Got a favourite?) "Yeah, Step Brothers and Superbad."
5. Hockey players have to be strict with nutrition. So what is your guilty pleasure, food or drink?
"I don't have too much junk food. Maybe a piece of chocolate."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).