NAIT student brings sports and culture together at Apna Hockey

Human Resources student Tanroop Mahal helps make NHL community more inclusive

Tanroop Mahal’s career in hockey media has been a whirlwind. And it all began with a well-timed flyer pinned under the windshield wiper of his family’s car.

It was summer 2017, and Mahal, a JR Shaw School of Business Human Resources student, was a passionate Oilers fan who had just watched Connor McDavid lead the team to its first playoff-series win in more than a decade. Mahal is also Sikh, which made him especially intrigued by the name of the company on the flyer: Apna Hockey, apna being the Punjabi word for our.

Mahal started following on social media, and now, seven years later, he’s Apna Hockey’s social-media lead, a volunteer job that has allowed him to connect with South Asian fans across Canada and help make the game more inclusive. In the process, it’s also brought him face-to-face with some of the biggest names in the NHL.

“I’m really passionate about sports,” Mahal says. “I just needed an entry point.”

A gathering place for South Asian players and fans

Apna Hockey was founded in 2017 by Lali Toor and Dampy Brar, two former players who were routinely the only South Asians in their locker rooms. They created their company to be a gathering place for players and fans alike, and to showcase up-and-coming and established players.

“There are so many of us, female and male,” says Toor, who played AAA in Edmonton alongside future NHLers like Colton Parayko and Brendan Gallagher. “It’s good for the community to know about them, and for these athletes to be recognized.”

Apna Hockey started hosting in-person events and curating content on its social-media channels. It wasn’t long before it started drawing interest from the NHL, which recognized the huge potential for bringing new fans onboard – a mission already underway thanks to specialized broadcasts like Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi.

The company started collaborating with the league directly, and in 2020, Brar was awarded the NHL’s prestigious Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which recognizes individuals who use hockey to make a positive impact on their community.

With more and more eyes on Apna Hockey, the founders started looking for a “young gun” to take over their popular Instagram account and keep their content fresh.

In summer 2023, they decided to hire Mahal, who was already familiar with social media through his other job as promotions coordinator for NAITSA, where he runs the Ooks Life account.

“That’s where I learned I have that creative touch,” Mahal says. “The resources provided to me at NAITSA really helped me develop my skills.”

Rubbing shoulders with legends

tanroop mahal and others, including George Laraque, at willie o'ree canada post stamp unveilingDespite only being on the job for a few months – and despite being just 20 years old – Mahal has already made several years’ worth of memories.

His very first public event was in October 2023, at a star-studded affair unveiling Canada Post’s new stamp celebrating O’Ree as the NHL’s first Black player.

Mahal walked into the room and was shocked to find himself rubbing shoulders with everyone from Grant Fuhr to Ron MacLean to Nazem Kadri.

“I was 100% the youngest person in that room,” he says.

Later that month, Mahal and Apna Hockey worked with the NHL at the Winter Classic, bringing ten South Asian families to Commonwealth Stadium to see the game between the Oilers and Calgary Flames and get a private tour of the league’s “United by Hockey” travelling museum.

Mahal and Apna Hockey have also helped develop South Asian theme nights for the Los Angeles Kings, the Flames, and Mahal’s hometown Oilers. As a collaboration with Rogers, the Oilers night included a tour of Rogers Place for a dozen South Asian kids, as well as signed copies of the memoir of Harnarayan Singh, the Sikh play-by-play broadcaster for Hockey Night in Canada.

Mahal’s most surreal experience to date, however, was when he and the Apna Hockey team were flown out to Toronto to attend the annual All-Star Game in February. He got to attend all of the events, and met league commissioner Gary Bettman, as well as iconic former players like Wayne Gretzky.

“That whole event opened my eyes,” Mahal says. “We were representing our community, and it was really cool to see how far the organization has grown.”

An immense amount of talent

tanroop mahal and friends at 2023 NHL all star game

From here, Mahal is excited to continue his part in growing the company and promoting – and hopefully inspiring – South Asian athletes.

“Sports is often overlooked in our community,” he says.

“No one really looks at it as a career. It’s just a passion on the side. But we see an immense amount of talent out there.

“It’s a huge motivator to have a site like Apna backing you.”

Toor has been impressed by what Mahal has brought to to Apna in such a short time.

“He comes from a fan perspective,” Toor says.

“He’s full of energy, and he talks to everybody. When he came onboard, I told him, ‘There’s a lot of jobs in hockey that are not on the ice. Use that to your advantage.’

“I’m very excited to see where he’s going to go.”

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