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Steveston Sharks players listen to team coach, Larry Hurst, between periods during an AA tournament game against the Chilliwack Jr. Bruins at the Richmond Ice Centre in Richmond, B.C., Friday, May 27, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Steveston Sharks players listen to team coach, Larry Hurst, between periods during an AA tournament game against the Chilliwack Jr. Bruins at the Richmond Ice Centre in Richmond, B.C., Friday, May 27, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

New generation of Canucks fans reflects Vancouver's diversity Add to ...

When Arv Khera went to his first Vancouver Canucks game in the late 1980s, the young hockey fan quickly realized the ice wasn't the only part of Pacific Coliseum that was mostly white.

Mr. Khera, whose father had emigrated from India a decade earlier, said he and his brother were among the few visible minorities at the Canucks' home rink.

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But the crowd chanting, "Go Canucks Go!" has grown much different. The period since Vancouver's 1994 run for the Cup has seen a transformation in the team's fan base, a testament to hockey's cultural force of assimilation. Look at a snapshot of the crowd during the march to the finals 17 years ago, compare it to the 2011 run, and you'll see a picture that looks a lot more like the Lower Mainland and the rest of Canada. The metamorphosis has spread not only to those watching the pros play, but also to those picking up a stick themselves, as local minor hockey associations welcome more players of different ethnicities.

The Greater Vancouver area had more than 564,000 people deemed visible minorities in 1996, according to the census. In 2006, that number had climbed to more than 875,000.

"We were the only brown kids there, mostly everybody else was white," Mr. Khera, now 32 and a Canucks season ticket holder, remembers of that first game. "Now you see the highlights and you see a lot of Asians."

Victor de Bonis, the Canucks' chief operating officer, joined the organization in March, 1994, just as it was about to embark on its previous cup run, which ended in a crushing Game 7 loss to Mark Messier's New York Rangers.

The Canucks declined to release demographic details on their season ticket holders and fans, but Mr. de Bonis said "there has definitely been a significant increase in the representation of the various cultures that live in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland."

The organization offers programs that cater to different cultures - its Seventh Generation Club reaches out to First Nations, while the Canucks Family Education Centre helps new Canadians and refugees - but Mr. de Bonis said it doesn't target ethnic groups through advertising. With a product that's in such high demand, it's not necessary.

"Our strategy, it's a broad campaign that's focused on all of the consumers in the province," he said. "We talk about how we are all Canucks in our campaign. It's not specific to different cultures, it's everybody."

But Mr. de Bonis said the team has studied its demographics and found the South Asian community to be a real base of support. That won't surprise anyone who's been to the Surrey/North Delta intersection of Scott Road and 72nd Avenue on a game night. Street parties drawing hundreds, if not thousands, of South Asians have become a regular occurrence, along with the sound of dhols, traditional Indian drums.

But if the Canucks aren't targeting ethnic communities, why is the minority fan base so much more visible than the last time the team went to the finals?

Mr. Khera suggests one major reason is that second-generation Canadians like him have grown up with the sport and made it part of their East-meets-West culture. His father worked in Prince George, B.C., after leaving India, and his co-workers introduced him to hockey. He enrolled his sons in hockey when they were young, but was the only one of his generation in the family to embrace the sport. The second generation, Mr. Khera said, is much more uniform in its love of the game.

Harb Bains, a Surrey minor hockey coach, echoed Mr. Khera's sentiments on why the minority presence in the game has grown.

"Over the last 10, 15 years a lot of minority groups have obviously come to the country and their youth are participating in Canadian activities, one being hockey," he said. "Many of the kids have grown up with the sport."

Jamie Allen, president of the Surrey Minor Hockey Association, said when his son started playing about a dozen years ago, the league was heavily Caucasian. Now, more than half the players are South Asian.

"A lot of it has to do with [Canadians']passion," he said, describing hockey as a unifying force. "It's almost contagious."

In Richmond, the numbers are even higher - 60 per cent of minor hockey players are visible minorities, the local minor hockey association said. (The number of female hockey players in B.C. has also steadily increased throughout the past decade.)

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the team has been consistently successful on the ice for several years. Sports psychologists aren't breaking new ground when they suggest everybody loves a winner.

Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University, said the Canucks' fan base transcends culture. He identified the core group of fans as males, aged 15 to 45.

During the Vancouver Grizzlies' six-year run in the city, the professional basketball team tried to target the Chinese community in its advertising without much success. Prof. Meredith said a similar gambit wouldn't necessarily be to the Canucks' benefit.

"Traditionally, I don't think you see the hockey advertisers try to play an ethnic card. They tend to go to the much safer, ubiquitous Canadian population in total," he said.

"We've got a rule - if you take off after a new market niche, are you going to alienate an existing market niche, who thinks that product no longer belongs to them. Much safer to go for broad-based consumer-type products, where everybody has their hands on it."

Such a rapid transformation of a team's fan base - and the sport itself - doesn't come without some growing pains. Mr. Allen said when South Asian players first started showing up in large numbers, communication was an issue, because some spoke little English. Punjabi-speaking coaches have since helped smooth out that wrinkle.

Lily Williams, president of the Vancouver Minor Hockey Association, said that, like teams in Surrey and Richmond, more than half of her league's players are visible minorities. With that has come an increase in on-ice racial slurs.

Nonetheless, Ms. Williams hailed the growth in the game since 1994. She said Asian parents who for so long encouraged their kids to devote all their free time to their studies have started to allow them to be kids and embrace the country they live in.

"Hockey is definitely changing."

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