HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech freshman forward Jujhar Khaira progressed through the hockey ranks almost as fast as he grew in stature.
At 14 years old his small size prevented him from being drafted in the Western Hockey League bantam draft, but this past summer as a 17-year-old, 6-foot-3, 195-pound forward, the Surrey, British Columbia native was drafted in the third round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
Quite a journey indeed.
Michigan Tech’s Jujhar Khaira carries the puck during the Huskies’ exhibition game Saturday against Brock at MacInnes Student Ice Arena. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
"In the summer of grade 10 I grew 5 inches and that gave me a lot of confidence being one of the bigger guys on the ice," said Khaira, who turned 18 on Aug. 13. "As a 16-year-old I tried out for Prince George and had a really good camp. Being one of the bigger guys there really helped me out."
After playing for the Cloverdale Colts midget team in British Columbia in 2009-10, Khaira then moved up to the British Columbia Hockey League's Prince George Spruce Kings the following two seasons, where he progressed almost exponentially.
In year one, he was the second-leading scorer on the team with 10 goals and 32 assists in 58 games, and the Spruce Kings missed the playoffs. In year two, he played on a line with BCHL leading scorer Paul De Jersey and tallied 29 goals and 50 assists of his own in 54 games, which resulted in a playoff appearance.
To put Khaira's output and Michigan Tech's BCHL recruiting in perspective, he, De Jersey and fellow Tech freshman forward Alex Petan were the only top-10 BCHL scorers who were not members of the 54-4-0-2 championship-winning Penticton Vees.
And Khaira was at least nine months younger than the other nine.
"He took a big step forward last year, even as one of the younger players in the league," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "He was relied upon more and was given bigger responsibility. I thought he did a great job doing that. He really exemplifies everything we're looking for."
Khaira, who was ranked 74th among North American players in Central Scouting's final pre-draft rankings, was also the only BCHL player to be invited to the NHL Draft Combine. About a dozen NHL teams talked to him before Edmonton selected him with the 63rd overall pick on June 22.
"It's been really exciting talking to the NHL teams and getting drafted by Edmonton, a team with that much history having Gretzky playing for them and all these young players coming up," said Khaira, who was admittedly a Vancouver fan growing up. "It's going to be a fun team to be a part of."
Tech assistant coach Damon Whitten primarily talked to Khaira throughout the recruiting process, - in addition to former Prince George coach and Tech alum Ed Dempsey - but Pearson made a special trip to Vancouver to meet with Khaira after the draft as Khaira faced heavy pressure from the WHL's Everett Silvertips, who had his major junior rights.
Fortunately for Tech, Pearson knew Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, who clearly valued the college route after sending his son Jeff to play under Pearson at the University of Michigan. Better yet, Khaira wanted college over major juniors anyways.
"There wasn't much of a debate. School has always been very important to me and my family and just listening to (Whitten and Dempsey) made it a really obvious decision," said Khaira, whose parents Sukhjinder and Kamal moved to Canada from India when they were young and raised Jujhar his whole life in B.C.
"I've been the only South Asian on my team growing up. It doesn't even matter now. It's not really a color thing, it's just everyone is competing for the same spot," he said.
And there is plenty of competition among the forward ranks for Tech, which brought in four other freshmen forwards besides Khaira.
Petan, currently a linemate with Khaira and Ryan Furne, had three goals in Saturday's 6-2 exhibition win over Brock, and "J.J." as he is now known among his teammates, notched a beautiful tally as well.
"That's been a real good line for us in practice. I thought they've had chemistry from day one," Pearson said following Saturday's game.
Khaira is majoring in business management, and when he's not on the ice he enjoys hanging out with his teammates. When he is on the ice, Tech can only hope he progresses at the same rate he did in the BCHL.
"It's still a big jump, and he'll have some adjustment time but he can be a program changer," Pearson said.