When Robin Bawa made his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals on October 6th, 1989, few recognized the significance of a truly historic moment. Most saw a hungry and eager 23-year-old rookie from Duncan, BC about to live out his NHL dream. It was that and so much more.

When the puck was dropped that night, Robin became the first athlete of South Asian descent to play in the NHL. He made an immediate impact on his first shift crunching a Philadelphia defenseman with a jarring open-ice check. In his second game, he became the first South Asian player to score a goal. On top of that, Robin is also believed to be the first athlete of South Asian heritage to suit up in one of North America’s four major professional sports leagues—the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL.

Robin faced countless instances of racial discrimination on his path to the Big League, but with courage and determination he overcame the abuse.

As a boy his first introduction to hockey was sadly typical of the time. Asking some friends if he could play with them, they told him ‘your kind doesn’t play hockey.’ Ignoring that, Robin’s father bought him some skates that same week and he took his first strides on a frozen pond.

“So I got my new skates on, went out there, couldn’t stand up, fell down, couldn’t stand up, fell down,” remembered Robin. “My cousins were out there too. By the end of the day, we were moving not bad. Going around pretty good. Yeah, it was fun. That was the first time. So then I liked it.”

He progressed from the local Fuller Lake Flyers to a leading role by his last year of Junior with Ken Hitchcock’s explosive Kamloops Blazers scoring 57 goals in 62 games. By then Robin had helped Kamloops to two WHL titles and two 3rd-place finishes at the Memorial Cup.

Playing for Fort Wayne and Baltimore in Washington’s farm system, Robin again found himself a target of racial abuse as the only South Asian anywhere in the minor leagues. He learned to fight as well as score, piling up 23 goals and over 200 penalty minutes in his second season. It was enough to earn a shot at the NHL.

After a brief spell with Washington, he was traded home to Vancouver in 1991 where he played seven games with the Canucks. In his Canucks debut, he ignited the Pacific Coliseum crowd by shattering a pane of arena glass while attempting to hit an opponent.

He played a solid, tough, two-way game, chipping in on offense and playing heavy when needed. In this way too, he was probably ahead of his time, tailor-made for the NHL of today that emphasizes speed and skill, but still values grit and toughness.

“I was probably better suited to today’s game than the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” he mused.

Robin later played for the expansion San Jose Sharks and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, totaling six goals, seven points, and 60 penalty minutes in 61 career NHL games. He continued playing in the International Hockey League with several teams until a series of concussions forced his retirement in 1999. In total, Robin accumulated 180 goals, 221 assists, 401 points, and 2,321 penalty minutes in 724 minor league games over 12 professional seasons.

His legacy is a generation of South Asian Canadians inspired by his example to pursue their own hockey dreams, some all the way to the NHL.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

To read more on the career of Robin Bawa, please see the February 2020 Curator’s Corner article here: https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/robin-bawa-from-the-pond-to-the-big-league-2020-inductee-spotlight/