Honoured for a life in field hockey

Nick Sandhu at Tamanawis Field Hockey Pitch (Photo By: Gerry Kahrmann)

Forty years ago,  a small, 15-year-old Indian boy emigrated to Canada. The first thing he noticed were the differences in weather and language.

“It was cold, that was first thing we noticed,” Nick Sandhu remembers. “It was snowing at the airport, so the weather was extremely different from what I was originally used to, but it was different as well as with the language. Even though I knew how to read and write English, speaking was a different thing.”

In India, Sandhu had lived with his grandfather, a physical education teacher, and the coach of the school’s field hockey team. His grandfather introduced him to the sport.

“Just because of him, I had no choice,” Sandhu said. “He told me I had to play, and I started playing and it was actually a prestigious thing to be on a hockey team at that time in that school. Even as a kid, you were looked upon as someone special.”

In 1977, during his first year in Canada, he was introduced to four young boys who played field hockey in a Vancouver league and that gave him a chance to continue to play field hockey.

“I had played under-16 with these group of boys under a club called Panthers, and in the same year I played for their top-level team, which was the men’s division,” Sandhu said. “I switched to another club, India Field Hockey Club in 1979. I’ve been there ever since.” 

Playing a sport gives him the opportunity to meet new people, who then become life long friends. “I was introduced to four young guys who played in Canada, who were two years older. I got to know them and they played field hockey, so I was able to join their group and to this day I’m still friends with them,” he said.

Early on in his career in Canada, Sandhu tried out the B.C. Junior under-21 squad.

“I was told I was good enough for the team, however I was not eligible to play for the team, being in Canada for only three months,” he said. “When the second tryout was taking place for the B.C. senior squad, I was told to actually put my name down for the tryout. Some strange thing happened and they selected me out of the 22 players for the senior team. Despite being told from the junior team that I was ineligible to play, I still got the opportunity to play for B.C.”

By 1979, Sandhu had made the Junior B.C. team which went to Toronto, to play in a tournament. While there, he was discovered and selected to try out for the Junior Men’s Canadian National Team. Soon after trying out, Sandhu was selected to play for Team Canada.

Growing in Canada, after being known as the new kid who just moved here from India, was a little hard on Sandhu. He had definitely “felt the racial prejudice there at school and other places,” yet that wasn’t what he had felt when he was with his team.

“I was wearing a turban at the time, and with sports it happens to be such a common denominator, that once you’re on the field you have something in common with everyone, whether you happened to be black white or brown,” he said. “I think that’s what it was. I had something to offer to the team and the team really appreciated that.”

There comes a time when athletes feel that, amid all the travelling and training, they need to start a family. Sandhu had taken the first step when he married his wife, Jinder Sandhu.

“Eleven years have gone by and you’re now thinking it’s taking time for you to finish school,” he said. “Instead of four years, it’s taking seven to finish your degrees. Now you’re thinking, okay I’m getting into my late 20s, what is the next step? You want to settle down, get a job where you can start your career.

“Marriage is a part of that when you want to settle down. It was around the tenth or eleventh year you want to start looking at it, that it’s time.”

Having an understanding and supportive, Sandhu was able to continue to play for Canada. A few years went by and Sandhu is building a larger family. Was it time for him to step back and let go of his passion?

“For any athlete that is a tough decision. The toughest decision is when exactly is the right time to leave,” he said. “It’s also very difficult because you want to enjoy the most you can and play up to the point where you’re on your peak and you’ve done it.”

After all the years of travelling, Sandhu went through a shoulder injury that had given him some time away from the team. By the time he had recovered, his second child was on his way. He asked himself whether it was time to focus on work and purse his life with his family. That decision was made. He decided it was time to let go.

Years later, Sandhu made the decision to get back into the program for one last time. He helped coach the Canadian men’s team during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“When you have reached a certain level, you have acquired a certain knowledge, which takes time to achieve,” he said. “It’s the repetition, how you play, who you play against, your interactions with other teammates, team or other coaches. There comes a time where you think that you have something to give back to sport. It’s something I could share with lots of people. That’s how I felt, I have a lot of knowledge and experience that I felt needed to be shared, which is why I wanted to help coach the team.”

Earlier this year, Sandhu received a phone call and was told that he will be honoured in the Canadian Field Hockey Hall of Fame.

“It came out of the blue,” he said. “You play the game because you liked it, you were passionate about it. After receiving the phone call I was surprised but excited at the same time.”

During the ceremony, the hall of fame plaque was presented to Sandhu by his daughter, who had played for the Canadian women’s team.

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