When Sukanya Roy of South Ablington Township in Pennsylvania won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington on June 2, her achievement was scarcely surprising to the Indian-American community. After all, capturing the Bee has become a habit for young Indian-Americans. After successfully spelling her winning word cymotrichous, Roy succeeded Anamika Veeramani who captured the title in 2010 and Kavya Shivshankar who won in 2009.
While that hattrick of titles is nothing to be sneezed at, it may have also somewhat underscored the reputation that the Indian diaspora in North America may have unfairly secured - that of being nerdy. When they aren't buzzing through the Bees, whether in spelling, mathematics or geography, they are likely to be celebrated code gurus, devising the Intel chip or the Google search algorithm. That stereotype may well be endangered, by what's happening in hockey. No, not that hockey, played on turf, but ice hockey played on rinks.
The National Hockey League or NHL season has reached its zenith, with its championship, the Stanley Cup, being contested by the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins franchises. And probably the most celebrated player in this year's finals, a best-of-seven series, is 31-year-old Emmanuel Noveen Malhotra, a center for the Canadian team, and better known as Manny.
A superstar reception
Malhotra's return to the Canucks squad for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup was emotional simply because he was not expected to play any part in the playoffs after suffering a serious injury to his left eye on March 16. That day a deflected puck struck that eye and he had to undergo two surgeries.
A capacity crowd at the Rogers Arena, the home stadium for the Canucks, greeted his return with shouts of "Manny, Manny". The Boston Globe, in its report that day, said that Malhotra was 'given a superstar's welcome back'. It also quoted him as saying: "It was obviously a great feeling, the ovation I got, but that kind of put a little more nerves on me, wanting to do something out there and execute."
It was perhaps fitting that Malhotra was given such an ovation, since he played a significant role in the Canucks regular season success, which propelled the team to the playoffs and ultimately, to the Stanley Cup finals.
This is possibly the highest profile that any sportsperson of Indian origin has yet attained in any sport in North America or its four major professional leagues in American football, basketball, baseball and, of course, ice hockey.
Among Malhotra's fans is Ujjal Dosanjh, a former premier of the Canadian province of British Columbia, where Vancouver is located. Dosanjh, who is of Indian origin, is happy reeling off statistics about Malhotra's season. A former MP for the Liberal Party from Vancouver, where he also resides, Dosanjh is delighted that Malhotra has become "such a prominent player" in what is Canada's national sport.
Another person who has been observing Malhotra's progress is Melvin Durai, a Winnipeg-based humorist and author of Bala Takes The Plunge. Durai says, "He's without a doubt the greatest South Asian to ever hit the ice, with or without vodka."
But Malhotra had a fairly typical upbringing for an Indian in North America, in a family of highly-trained professionals. His father Shadi Malhotra, an immigrant from Lahore in pre-Partition India, is a polymer chemistry expert who holds several patents, while his mother, French-Canadian Lise, also has a doctorate in chemistry. And as with many such families, they reside in a suburb of a major city, in this case, Mississauga, close to Toronto. In an earlier interview to this writer while with the Dallas Stars franchise, Malhotra had said, "My parents always stressed that school came first. I missed practice a few times because of homework."
This is possibly the year that Malhotra has finally arrived on ice, living up to a prediction made by ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who once said, "Manny is the kind of guy, in eight, nine, 10 years, you can build a team around."
Malhotra began his career in 1998, after being drafted by the New York Rangers.
Of course, Malhotra is not the first person of Indian origin to have reached the major leagues of American sports. Brandon Chillar has played in the National Football League (in American football) and was invited to the state dinner that then US President George W Bush held for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And Mohini Bhardwaj won a team silver as part of the American gymnastics squad in the 2004 Athens Olympics. But none has attained Malhotra's current level of prominence.
Consequently, Malhotra has also become an important role model. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Malhotra addressed this issue: "When kids and families come up to you and say, you know, 'we're excited you're here, we watch hockey because of your background,' it's a cool feeling to have that."
Cool is right, given the popularity of the winter sport. As Durai points out: "It's great to see a brown guy having success on the ice, especially since most of us can't walk to our cars without slipping on it."
Dosanjh reflects on the impact of Malhotra's emergence. "He's a prominent hockey player. This is an indication that we are making our mark in all different walks of life."
So, while your average Indian in North America may well be typecast as a dork, the community could well point to the likes of Malhotra and the coming of the jock.