When you’ve had your car torched because someone doesn’t like the color of your skin, you can deal with the occasional “Who the %$@# is Sudarshan Maharaj and what qualifies him to coach Rick DiPietro and Joey MacDonald”?
The Islanders goaltending consultant, Maharaj has heard it all but never complains, not even when a trio of racists in Sweden set his car on fire 20 years ago during his pro playing career. Born in Trinidad and raised there for the first six years of his life, Maharaj has refused to let anything distract his focus on making a name in the game of hockey.
And that’s what Maharaj (pronounced “mirage”) has done, to major acclaim from his students. “Sudsie’s played a huge part in turning my game around over the last year,” said MacDonald on Saturday night after his second straight win over Ottawa. “We talk after just about every game and go over every detail. I’ve had a few goalie coaches, but it’s fair to say he’s one of the best in the game.”
There are plenty of NHLers who moved to Canada for hockey reasons. Sharma Maharaj, Sudsie’s father, left his family behind for a year in Couva, Trinidad for life reasons – and entirely on a hunch. Sharma’s wife’s great uncle (true story) said he “heard some nice things” about Canada being a land of opportunity, so Mr. Maharaj left on an advance scouting mission. While Sudsie spent most of 1969 living with his grandmother and great-grandmother in a Trinidadian village called California, his dad cleaned cars for a Toronto auto dealership. A year later, he sent for his wife Dhanni and their three boys: Sudarshan and his older brothers Deen and Dave.
“In Trinidad,” says Sudsie, “the word ‘hockey’ was never uttered. Everything was cricket and soccer. Once we got to Toronto, you couldn’t escape hockey.”
Not even his Hindu parents, who were immediately smitten with “Hockey Night in Canada” and a dashing defenseman named Bobby Orr. When Orr scored his iconic flying goal in 1970 against the St. Louis Blues, seven-year old Sudsie was asleep in his mother’s arms.
In 1972 Sharma Maharaj was promoted from cleaning cars to selling them, so the family moved into their first house and Sudsie became immersed in the national pastime. A door was opened when one of the boys on the block knocked on it and invited the different-looking kid into their daily game of ball hockey. Despite only having been on ice skates a few times, Maharaj soon joined a house league. Deen had become a major Bernie Parent fan, so he told his little brother he should become a goaltender. He did, a pretty good one. More than that – and even more than having a place where he fit in – “I loved the game and the position right away,” Maharaj says 35 years later.
Success in the house leagues led to low-level junior hockey. “I spent most of my days as a teenager on a bus to Etobicoke,” says Maharaj, “because it was the highest level of hockey I could aspire to without parental involvement.”
Despite not playing junior A, Maharaj caught his first potential big break with an opening for a backup goalie at the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers’ No. 1 goaltender, Terry Kleisinger, was named to the Canadian Olympic team. Wisconsin hosted a cattle-call audition and gave the kid from Toronto via Trinidad a long look, but he wasn’t ready. Living on what he calls “the Kraft Mac and Cheese diet” and losing weight daily didn’t help.
Maharaj became the backup goalie for York, which won a Canadian university championship. He knew playing in the NHL was a dream he would never realize, but a career in Europe was not out of the question. He aced a tryout for a team in Gislaved and played in the Swedish League for six years.
Sweden from 1985-1991 changed his life. “Before then, I had a pretty conservative upbringing,” he says. “Sweden opened my eyes to a different way of looking at things – politically, culturally, philosophically. I’ve been there to work with (Islanders goalie prospect) Stefan Ridderwall and it brings back incredible memories.”
He can even look back with a sense of humor at having his car torched by three Swedes in their 20s who were not typical of the many wonderful people he met while playing in Hallefors. “At least they had the good grace to light up the thing when they knew I wasn’t in it,” Maharaj says. “They had their eye on me, didn’t like the color of my skin and that I was hanging out with people of their color. They saw me go in to a friend’s apartment and then they set my car on fire.” He laughs. “I still remember trying to throw snow on it – as if the car had a chance.”
Maharaj handled it the same way he approached any racism he encountered on the ice – by ignoring it. “Goalie helmets changed from masks to cages,” he says, “so once everyone saw my face, the comments started from the other team. Big deal. It almost always was from the bench, where I couldn’t get to them anyway. I couldn’t do anything about it and I couldn’t let that stuff get in the way of winning.
“My parents instilled in me that if I wanted something badly, I was going to have to work twice as hard. Nothing was going to get handed to me.”
Especially not work as an NHL goalie coach.
In part 2: Maharaj’s road from teaching at an inner-city Toronto school to coaching in the NHL