Surrey-raised Jujhar Khaira has become a roster-regular with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers since breaking into the league during the 2015-16 season.
The six-foot-four forward, 26, was drafted by the team in the third round, 63rd overall, back in 2012. Today, he wears number 16 for the Oilers, and has scored 21 big-league goals for them, so far.
The Now-Leader caught up with “J.J.” Khaira after a midday practice in the Alberta capital, a few hours prior to a home-ice loss to Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18.
Jujhar, I was kind of shocked to see that you’ve been there six years already. It seems like yesterday that you played your first game. Has it gone by quickly for you?
“Yeah, it’s been awhile now.”
Did you grow up in Cloverdale?
“I actually grew up in Port Kells, that area, but played hockey in Cloverdale for the association there. I started playing hockey when I was seven. My parents, they were really into sports, volleyball and basketball, mostly, and hockey was a sport they never really got to play. Growing up, they were able to watch it, and as I got older, of age, they asked if I wanted to try it and from there, I loved it. I have to give credit to my parents for giving me that opportunity.”
Did you excel at the game right away, or did that come slowly for you?
“It was a slow path for me, I’d say. Every first year, I played double-A growing up and then the second year, I would play Triple-A. That’s kind of how it went until Bantam and then that Midget first year, I ended up playing Triple-A that year. I didn’t get drafted (in the WHL Bantam Draft). Even that Midget first year, I think I was the 10th forward on that Cloverdale team. The year after, when I got the opportunity with Prince George, that’s when I realized that I could make steps in the game.”
Making the jump to the BCHL at that age must have been a real thrill for you, but also kinda scary. Was it?
“Yeah, I was 16 (and) I was trying out for a bunch of Junior B teams back home and Major Midget too, and most of the commitments were going to other players, guys who were drafted by WHL clubs. But a teammate, his dad was a scout for them (Prince George Spruce Kings), and he mentioned it. I begged my parents for them to let me go up there. I had a really good camp, and it’s all about opportunity. The coach really liked me and took care of me, and from there it was about having the confidence and having someone believe in you, and it just took off from there. The excitement took over any fear I had about being away from home. I just wanted to play hockey.”
After that, you moved around quite a bit, from Michigan Tech to Everett Silvertips of the WHL, then to the Oilers farm team in Oklahoma City. That’s a lot of travelling around.
“It was a ton of travel. And even in Prince George, our closest road trip was Merritt, after Quesnel, so it was a lot of time on the bus.”
When the Oilers drafted you, were you expecting it that year?
“I was, because you hear what your agent says and all that, but as we got closer to the draft and after the combine, my place got higher than where I started that season. So I ended up going to Pittsburgh, to the actual draft, and it was all kind of a whirlwind. So we went, and it’s still one of my favourite moments – the whole thing, something you dream about. You know, talking to some of the NHL teams, putting on that jersey, getting your name called and all that, it was a really special moment for me and my family – my parents and cousins. My younger brother (Sahvan) had a tournament or something, and my older sister (Aneel) stayed home to be with him.”
You made your NHL debut against Pittsburgh back in 2015. Was that game played in Pittsburgh, where the draft was held?
“Yes, it was. I remember all of that game, the feeling beforehand and even walking through the hotel lobby to the bus with a coffee, it was all so surreal. Getting to the rink and on the ice, you look across and see Sidney Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, and it’s a cool building to play in, too. It was a great experience in my life, for sure.”
Do you remember your first NHL goal?
“Oh yeah, I was on a line with (Mark) Letestu and (Zack) Kassian, and we had a good forecheck going, and the puck got turned over. I was in front of the net and I ended up going to the back post, and Letestu gave me a nice feed across, and I ended up sliding it through the goalie’s five-hole. It was exciting.”
Do you have the puck on a mantle somewhere?
“It’s at home, yeah. Edmonton was great, because they had the puck and game sheet framed for me.”
It’s a different season this year, of course. You were put on waivers last week. What did the team tell you about that?
“It was definitely a new experience for myself, and from what I was told, it was more about a move for the (salary) cap, and there were a lot of puzzle pieces that the brass had to figure out.”
You seem to have carved a position on the team as a penalty-killer. Is that something you enjoy?
“Yeah, you want to make yourself valuable however you can. I get to play with Nuge (Burnaby-raised Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) on the kill, and I think we read off each other pretty well.”
Playing to empty buildings must still seem pretty weird. Have you adjusted to that?
“It’s definitely different, especially in a town like Edmonton where the fans are so passionate. The season-opener, you usually get a huge reaction, so that was really different without the fans this time. But they’re trying to make it as much of a real-game experience as possible, you know. And you get used to it, and growing up that’s what you’re kind of used to anyway – no fans, or not many of them. We’re still playing hockey, but we definitely miss the fans in the building.”
Were you able to get back home here during the off-season in the fall?
“Oh yeah, that’s where I was during the off-season, with my family and friends there. It’s a place where I feel comfortable, and I don’t think there’s another place where I’d want to spend my off-season.”
Were you skating a lot during that time?
“Yeah, I was able to get on at Excellent Ice, so that was great, and we had a group (of fellow pros) that skated in Coquitlam, too. We were fortunate that the rink stayed open through all the madness, and we able to skate for most of the off-season.”
You talked about your parents. What do they do for work?
“My Mom works in the school system as a speech-language pathologist, in Surrey, and my dad is a truck driver, those gravel trucks. They are very hard-working people.”
Anything else you want to add about growing up in Surrey?
“You know, just that I want to thank my parents for giving me this opportunity. It wasn’t easy on them to run three kids around to different activities, but they made it work. We never realized how tough it was, but now chatting with them about it, you’re in shock that they were able to do what they did all those years, without complaining. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am, so I appreciate them and what they did for me, and what they continue to do for me to this day.”