Some pros were scouted from the day they hit puberty, their ascendancies breathlessly catalogued by bird-dogs, GMs and the media. But the path of the late-bloomer is also well-worn and when a kid starts putting up numbers, you wonder how all the experts fell asleep at the switch.
Size is often a factor and the now 6-foot-1, 180-pound Jujhar Khaira (pronounced Judge-ar Care-ah) is raising eyebrows in Jr. A.
Just 16 years old, the center for the Prince George Spruce Kings of the British Columbia League is having a breakout season, posting 16 points through 14 games in a league generally dominated by older players. As an example, the team’s leading scorer, RJay Berra, is a full four years older than Khaira, who went undrafted in his Western League bantam year, but wasn’t too shocked by the omission.
“I don’t think there was any expectation, to tell you the truth,” Khaira said. “But it has been a great motivator for me.”
The Surrey, B.C. native plans to go to an NCAA program once he’s finished high school, anyway, but the Spruce Kings are glad they found him when they did.
“Jujhar’s off to a real good start,” said coach Ed Dempsey. “He came to one of our prospect camps and we identified him there, then he came to training camp and did very well.”
Coming from the Vancouver suburbs, small-town Prince George is a definite geographic shift for the youngster, but he’s having a ball.
“I love it,” Khaira said. “There are so many people that actually love hockey and everyone knows what’s going on.”
And what Spruce Kings fans have seen so far is a big kid who can move and score.
“He’s a very gifted two-way player and a big man who’s very mobile,” Dempsey said. “He’s got a great shot with a great release and he gets from Point A to Point B quicker than you think.”
But Khaira’s play isn’t the only reason he gets noticed. Coming from the multicultural haven of Surrey, he’s one of the few South Asian faces in hockey. Along with teammate Faiz Khan, Khaira is part of a growing group of players that includes Canucks pick Prab Rai, Buffalo prospect Kevin Sundher, Boston University’s Sahir Gill and of course Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra.
“I was probably the only brown kid on my team every year of minor hockey,” said Khaira, who was glad to see Malhotra sign with the Canucks, but also lists Ryan Kesler and Sidney Crosby as his favorite players.
And while Khaira, NHL draft eligible in 2012, enjoys showing off hockey’s growing diversity, he also acknowledges it’s pretty early in the game to consider himself a role model. After all, he’s still 16. But the presence he has brought to the ice so far in Prince George puts him in a different class.
“It’s not often a 16-year-old comes in and has such a major impact,” Dempsey said. “It’s definitely a unique situation. He’s a player that slipped through the cracks. He’s a 1994 (birthday), so it’s hard to call him a late-bloomer.”
But the BCHL is glad to have him. One of the most consistent Jr. A leagues when it comes to churning out top talent, the BCHL has also been a springboard for players such as New Jersey’s Travis Zajac, Colorado’s David Jones and Phoenix’s Kyle Turris.
Khaira will likely play another full season with the Spruce Kings before heading off to college and given what he’s done as a freshman, that’s a pretty scary notion for the rest of the league.
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