There have been moments in Sudarshan Maharaj's hockey career when he's had to deal with racial intolerance – including a time when he was playing in Sweden and had a Molotov cocktail thrown at his car.
The fiery message had nothing to do with his ability and everything to do with the colour of his skin. It's been an issue Maharaj – Trinidad-born, Toronto-raised and of Indian descent – has had to face, but not one he dwells on, preferring to focus on his work in an industry that is increasingly valuing his contributions.
"Back in the old days, we wore the full face masks, so until I popped the mask off, there was no marginalization," said Maharaj, the Anaheim Ducks goaltending coach and someone who is generally recognized as among the best in his field. "Within the dressing room, the kids were all from the neighbourhood so we all knew each other. There really wasn't much of a problem until you moved up the levels – and then you heard some things."
These days, Maharaj, 53, goes by the nickname Sudsie, which is the universal way of the hockey world. Just as in the sitcom Cheers, where everyone knows your name, in hockey, everyone knows your nickname. So when Kevin Weekes, the former NHLer who was one of Maharaj's first goaltending pupils, calls on the phone, his first question is: "How's my man Sudsie doing?"
Doing pretty well, as it happens. Maharaj is in his first full season as the Ducks' goaltending coach, having replaced Dwayne Roloson this past summer. In Anaheim, he works with the duo of John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier, who together represent the key to the Ducks' Stanley Cup aspirations. Gibson had six games of NHL playoff experience under his belt at the start of the Ducks' first-round series against the Calgary Flames; Bernier just one.
Now, the Ducks goalies are in a tough spot, facing Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Ducks lost Game 1 on Wednesday night, 5-3. Game 2 is Friday night in Anaheim.
Gibson, guarded and wary, can be a tough nut to crack. He started working with Maharaj when he was the Ducks' minor-league goaltending consultant, but Maharaj has earned his trust and forged a strong working relationship with the 23-year-old. And Bernier's game needed some rebuilding after two challenging seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Bernier's history with Maharaj dates to his junior days, so when he landed in Anaheim last summer, the 28-year-old was happy to see a familiar face who could help him get his career back on track.
Breaking down barriers and communicating with people is one of Maharaj's strengths, according to Weekes, who first crossed paths with him two decades ago, when he was still on the cusp of his professional playing career.
"We're both from the Caribbean – he's from Trinidad, my parents are from the Barbados – so culturally, there was an immediate understanding and hockey-wise, there was even a greater understanding," Weekes said.
"I knew right from then he was an NHL goalie coach and that he was better, at that point, than anybody else I've ever worked with. But I also knew it would be a long road for him. You've got an Indian from Trinidad – it's not exactly conventional. Just getting the trust of people took time because his background was so out there."
Even in the NHL, with its melting pot of nationalities, Maharaj's backstory is unusual. The youngest of three boys, his family immigrated to Canada when he was 6. He fell in love with the game playing street hockey in Toronto's west end. Typically of any hockey-playing family, his older siblings put him in goal because that's where kid brothers are asked to play. Maharaj found he had both a liking and an aptitude for the position, and because there were no formal goalie coaches back then, he was mostly self-taught.
"My oldest brother was a massive Bernie Parent fan, so we'd watch Philadelphia Flyer games on TV and he'd say to me, 'This is how you're going to play,'" Maharaj said. "I also bought an old Jacques Plante book – he'd put out a goalie manual – and it was dog-eared by the time I was finished with it."
Maharaj learned the craft well enough to play briefly for the University of Wisconsin before transferring to York, where he won a national title as the Yeomen's backup goalie in 1985. From there, he went to Sweden and played six years professionally before returning to Toronto to teach.
Many of the principles Maharaj learned as an educator also helped him become a better goalie coach. The greatest lesson he ever learned as a teacher came when he was working with at-risk youths in Toronto.
"There was one young girl in Grade 5 who would come to school every day without her homework done," Maharaj said. "They did all the assessments and found no major learning disabilities. I thought, 'There's something just not right here,'" he said. After Maharaj asked around the neighbourhood, he discovered her mother was a prostitute who would bring johns home. "So [the student] would hide in the closet and fall asleep there. Well, there was no light in there, and so, no homework would get done. So that moment really helped me put into perspective that people do what they do for a reason.
"With goaltenders, once you understand how they see themselves and see their worlds, it will tell you their trigger points – and how you can address their issues. Coaching them is very much an individual thing. The thought of doing mass-market goalie drills and expecting them to respond really makes no sense."
Maharaj's work with Weekes, Steve Valiquette and others put him on the radar as a consultant and eventually he started hearing from other prospective NHLers. His first NHL coaching opportunity came with the New York Islanders, after Rick DiPietro, a former No. 1 overall draft choice, recommended him to the club. Maharaj spent nine years working in various capacities for the Islanders – and in between, also helped Hockey Canada launch its summer goaltending instructional camps. When his Islanders contract was not renewed in 2012, he found a home in the Ducks organization. The Leafs' Frederik Andersen was among his protégés there.
Maharaj learned to speak Swedish during his playing days overseas and it comes in handy in Anaheim now, where the Ducks have Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rakell among their emerging young stars.
Rakell speaks in Swedish with Maharaj all the time and says: "I just think it's impressive – how many different languages he can speak. I know Swedish is so much different from any other language, so it's pretty cool how well he picked it up."
As for how he came to be known by his nickname, Maharaj says he's been Sudsie forever – and its evolution is a predictable tale.
"The first three letters of my name are S-U-D, so it became Suds and because this was hockey, the mandatory I-E was added," he says, with a laugh. "No one could say Sudarshan."
If it happens that the Ducks win the Stanley Cup this year, not only may people learn to finally say Sudarshan, someone will also be obliged to spell it out on a shiny silver trophy, what would be a fitting climax to a long and varied hockey journey.