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Power Play

by lindsay macadam

photography by mike ford

It was May 10, 1970, and the Maharaj family was gathered around the television in their west-end Toronto home watching what would turn out to be one of the most memorable scenes in the history of Canada’s sport – the Stanley Cup final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, won in overtime with Bobby Orr’s famous “flying goal.” Brand-new immigrants from Trinidad, of Indian descent, that moment made lifelong hockey fans of them all. For Sudarshan “Sudsie” Maharaj (BA ’93), the youngest of the family’s three boys, this was his earliest hockey memory, as a dozing six-year-old nestled atop his mother’s lap.

Two years later, after a move to a nearby suburb, Maharaj would gaze longingly out the window as the neighbourhood kids played ball hockey on the street. In typical Canuck ­fashion, it wasn’t long before there was a knock on the door and an invitation to come out and join the fun. He took to the game instantly and soon registered in the local ice hockey league, adopting the role of goaltender after some not-so-subtle sibling coaxing. “My oldest brother loved a goaltender playing for the Philadelphia Flyers by the name of Bernie Parent,” says Maharaj. “When I first started house league, he grabbed me and he said, ‘OK, you’re going to be a goalie and you’re going to play like Bernie Parent.’ ”

Little did they know that some 40 years later, Maharaj would be rubbing elbows with his brother’s idol and working one-on-one with some of the world’s most promising players, as a National Hockey League (NHL) goalie coach and one of the leading experts in his field. He credits his time at York University for helping him get there.

After mastering his shot-blocking technique throughout elementary and high school, and a brief stint playing for the University of Wisconsin, Maharaj transferred to York for his postsecondary studies. There, he double majored in physical education and English while goaltending for the York ­Yeomen. Financial constraints, however, meant he couldn’t live on campus, something he regrets to this day. “My dad sold cars for a living and my mom worked in a factory,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so the idea of living on campus when I had a perfectly good room at home wasn’t something my parents saw as money well spent.”

With no clear-cut career path in mind, but still a burning love of the game, when the opportunity to play professional hockey in Europe presented itself, Maharaj didn’t hesitate. He left academia behind to follow his passion in Sweden. Six years later, he retired from pro hockey and headed back to Toronto.

After completing his undergraduate degree, teachers’ college at the University of Toronto was his next stop. But instead of transitioning directly into the classroom, Maharaj took yet another detour and went back to his athletic roots – first, as the goalie coach for the York U hockey team he had once played for. “It gave me an opportunity to work with higher-skilled players, really sharpen my skill set and learn from my mistakes,” he says, not to mention “flat-out learn the art of coaching.” He followed that up with several other coaching gigs at the junior hockey level.

It gave me an opportunity to work with higher-skilled players, really sharpen my skill set and learn from my mistakes – and flat-out learn the art of coaching

But soon, reality set it. Realizing there wasn’t much money to be made in hockey outside of the NHL, he decided to finally put his degree to good use. He took a teaching job in Etobicoke, Ont., where he taught for 12 years while continuing to consult up-and-coming goaltenders on the side – a move that would eventually pay off in a big way.

One of the players Maharaj worked with during that time, Stephen Valiquette, moved up the ranks to the NHL and introduced him to Rick DiPietro, a first overall draft pick for the New York Islanders who wasn’t progressing as he should. A few years later, the management team asked the still-underperforming player what he would need to move forward in his career. “There’s this guy in Toronto I would like to work with,” DiPietro replied. From there, the elementary school teacher scored an interview with the Islanders, landed the job as goaltending coach and stayed with the team for eight years before moving on to a similar role with the Anaheim Ducks.

Being an NHL coach might sound like every sports fanatic’s dream come true, but Maharaj’s jam-packed schedule is more gruelling than you’d think. On game days, he’s in the office by 7:30am and doesn’t clock out until 11pm. Practice days aren’t much shorter: “You’re in by 7:30 in the morning. You’re doing your practice plan for that day, taking the goalies out for extra work, doing practice. And then after, because I do so much scouting, I’m looking at video, I’m watching American league goalies, I’m watching our prospects or I’m watching video of this year’s crop of goalies – and eventually wandering out of there with my eyes crossed.”

In addition to the long days, the job requires him to be away from his family for nine months of the year. “I learned very early on when I joined the Islanders that they were firing coaches every other week,” says Maharaj. “At the time, our oldest daughter, Alexandra, was quite young, and my wife was pregnant with our second daughter, Catherine. I didn’t want to shuffle them along and then find out two months later that we’re out of work, so I worked out a deal where they stayed [in Toronto] and I flew back and forth.”

His current head coach, Randy Carlyle, requires him to be in Anaheim at least 20 days a month. “But 20 days turns into 24 very quickly,” says Maharaj. “This year, fortunately, we had a very long run in the playoffs. So, unfortunately, it meant I was only home for two days of the last three months of the season. It’s tough on everyone.”

Although it’s certainly an atypical lifestyle, Maharaj feels blessed to have found his way back to the sport he loves: “I say it all the time – it’s the perfect job for somebody like myself because I’m nomadic by nature. To torture me, they could put me in a cubicle for eight hours. That would pretty much do me in.”

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