Lali Toor: Adding Diversity And Fighting Racism In Hockey Takes A Team Effort

Apna Hockey was created in April 2017 by Dampy Brar and me to ensure hockey players who looked like us do not have to experience the same struggles we did when playing the game

Lali Toor
June 2, 2021 | 3.5 min. read | Opinion

As the second round of the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs begin, Punjabi and South Asian families across Canada and in the United States will be watching their favourite team compete for the Stanley Cup (sorry, Leafs fans). 

Diversity in the game of hockey is definitely seen from a fan perspective in our community, and the love for the game is very evident - but does hockey embrace us with open arms the way we have embraced it?

I started playing hockey when I was four and played at the highest levels in Edmonton, Alberta. Son of an immigrant dad who migrated to Canada from Punjab in the early eighties for a better life, I was fortunate to have the privilege of playing ice hockey growing up. But one thing was very noticeable—my dad and I were very different from everyone else.

Hockey has historically been dominated by white players, executives, and owners. For over 100 years, hockey was and still is a sport with very little diversity. But that is slowly changing. Today, Apna Hockey is leading the charge with a movement that foresees the diversification of the game through its South Asian hockey network. 

Apna Hockey was created in April 2017 by Dampy Brar and me to ensure hockey players who looked like us do not have to experience the same struggles we did when playing the game.

Dampy is from a handful of Punjabi and South Asian hockey players that went on to play professionally after Robin Bawa became the first player of South Asian descent to play in the NHL. Although we have a 16-year age difference, Dampy and I share similarities on how we both needed mentors growing up. 

Naturally, I wanted Dampy to be a part of Apna Hockey because he shared a genuine passion to relentlessly help our community in the game of hockey. Three years later, Dampy won the 2020 NHL Willie O’Ree Community Award, because he always puts the kids and our community first.

Racism is a word that I learned at the age of eight. 

I always say that the most fun I had playing hockey was my first year because it was not serious, it was for fun. Once players, coaches, and parents started seeing me play and excel at higher levels, that is when racism became noticeable. And, the systemic racism did not stop until I quit hockey at the age of nineteen. 

Growing up, I wish I had friends that played hockey that looked like me. I wish I had role models and mentors that looked like me. But, it was just my dad and I navigating through AAA minor hockey in the prairies.

With an NHL award under our belt, Apna Hockey has turned into everything I never had as a kid. 

It supports players from our community via mentors, hockey camps, social media presence, and our activism against racism. I often reimagine myself as a kid again, the very same one who felt isolated, alone, and invisible playing hockey. What if he had Apna Hockey? Would things have been different? Would he still be playing competitively? Would he have been emotionally and mentally hurt by hockey? 

I do not know what could have been—what I do know is that the next generation of South Asian athletes will always have Apna Hockey on their side.   

Today, we have helped over 45 prominent male and female hockey players become visible to our community— there is enough male talent to kick start an Indian National Men’s Olympic ice hockey team. 

We travel to conferences around North America and talk about strategies on how to diversify the game of hockey through the South Asian community. We have introduced Jaskirat (JK) Gill, the first Punjabi and South Asian player in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), to lead hockey development in Toronto, Ontario. We stand up for our community and minorities on media outlets when hockey is plagued by racist incidents. We connect the South Asian hockey community and always uplift this community to new heights on and off the ice.

We are now working on establishing annual scholarships, talent showcases, and partnering with local NHL teams to grow hockey in ethnic minority communities and internationally in India. Currently, we are in talks with the Edmonton Oilers and in the near future other NHL teams in Punjabi and South Asian hot-bed cities to establish grass-root level programs like the ‘Apna Oilers Hockey Camp’. 

With the help of our community and partners in hockey, we hope to establish these initiatives and create a cycle that progresses our community in the hockey world and directs youth in our community towards sport and academics. 

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Lali Toor hails from Edmonton, Canada, and is the co-founder of the NHL award-winning organization, Apna Hockey. You can find more information on Apna Hockey by following them on Instagram; @apnahockey, Twitter; @apnahockey, Facebook; Apna Hockey School, or by visiting their website; apnasportsfoundation.com (launching summer 2021)


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