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Canucks prospect embraces role-model status

At its best, professional sports unites communities under a common banner, bringing citizens from all segments of society together as they root for the home team.

But one quick glance at an NHL roster, and you'd be hard-pressed to say that Canada's national game reflects the country's cultural diversity - at least not at the professional level. That is certainly the case when it comes to players from Asian communities, and that is why Vancouver Canucks prospect Prab Rai is so culturally significant.

"When you go to Canucks games, you see people in turbans and from all different cultures," said Harry Bains, an Indo-Canadian community leader and the MLA for Surrey Newton. "When the Canucks do well, we're all clapping. It's one language we all understand."

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But what might be less understood is just how important Rai is for the Indo-Canadian community in B.C., which counts roughly 230,000 members, according to the 2006 census. He was born in Surrey, raised by an athletic family, and if he makes it to the NHL, he will likely become just the third player of Indian heritage to play in the world's best hockey loop.

"When that happens, you'll see a celebration that you've never seen before, and you'll see more and more south Asians attending Canucks games," Bains said. "It will be a memorable day when he puts on a Canucks jersey. ... We'll all be able to say: 'This is us.' "

For his part, Rai has fully embraced his role-model status, and recognizes that he is an important symbol for his community.

"It's a big role to be in, but the way I look at it, it's an opportunity that no one has had," Rai said.

He began playing ice hockey at 6, and was a weak skater -ironically, that's now the strength of the 20-year-old's game.

The former Seattle Thunderbird was selected by the Canucks in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, and scored 41 goals last season in his final major junior campaign. Most likely, he will spend this season with Vancouver's AHL farm team, working on his game.

"It's exciting for me to be in that position," he said. "But there's obviously a lot of pressure, and a lot of eyes on your career."

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Robin Bawa, of Duncan, B.C., was the first Indo-Canadian to play in the NHL, and even suited up for two games with the Canucks. But his career, which began in 1989-90, only counted 61 NHL games and he never established himself as an NHL regular.

Manny Malhotra, whose father is Punjabi, became the first to do that. The Canucks signed Malhotra in free agency this summer, but in his public comments to date, the Toronto native hasn't seemed to grasp the social significance of an Indo-Canadian playing in Vancouver.

Surrey counts more than 100,000 Indo-Canadians, and is often called "new India," or "little India," according to Bains. Rai said that he and his friends grew up playing ball hockey, and were rabid Canucks fans, even if few matriculated into organized ice hockey.

"When I was growing up, I was the only brown kid on the team most of the time," said Rai, whose father and uncle were Olympians in field hockey. "I grew up as a hockey player, so I didn't grow up as a normal East Indian."

Bains said that when he immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, he began following hockey to connect with broader society, and to express his newfound citizenry. In Rai, he said the community has a role model who could boost grassroots participation and prove to parents that hockey careers are achievable for their children.

"The community stand behind him," Bains said. "Parents will give an extra effort when they see the glass ceiling is broken."

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