On a cold Friday afternoon in October 1962, as Canada hosted its first ever field hockey interprovincial game at Caledonia Park in Toronto, one player stood out on the ground: Harinder Jit Singh Rai.

Rai was a 31-year-old Indian immigrant who played as a forward. A handsome man with a strong jawline, he had been a part of the University of British Columbia team well before he played for Western Canada against Eastern Canada at Caledonia Park. The zenith of his career came two days after that interprovincial game when the Canada national team went up against the United States in its first international match.

Rai scored Canada’s first ever international goal, taking it over the victory line with a scoreline of 1-0 and enabling the ice hockey-obsessed nation to take its first big stride in the version of the game played on grass.

Over the next year, Rai contributed continually as Canada’s able performances – including in a five-nation tournament featuring Ireland, Morocco and Bermuda – qualified it for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. However, when the time came for Canada to choose the squad for Tokyo, Rai was left off the list.

Websites documenting the history of Indian immigration to Canada say Rai was left out because his adopted country wanted to field an “all white-team” at the Olympics. If that was the case, the country paid the price for the racism. Without its Indian-origin scorer, the Canadian team lost six of the seven matches it played in Tokyo, with its only victory coming over Hong Kong.

The Olympic omission marked the end of Rai’s brief but stellar sporting career that had started with a stint in a Vancouver club that was founded by Punjabi immigrants – the India Field Hockey Club.

Immigrant club

In the early 20th century, Canada generally held a hostile attitude towards Indian immigrants. To hinder their entry, at least two policies were put in place. Every immigrant was required to carry at least 200 Canadian dollars, a large sum then, and arrive through a continuous journey from their home country.

By the late 1920s, there was a slight shift. The Canadian press toned down its racist rhetoric against immigration of Sikhs. Partly this was because there were enough policies to restrict the arrival of Indians and partly because the idea of accepting Indians began to gain ground.

An article in the Ottawa Citizen in 1929 called Sikhs “a race of the Aryan strain, just like ourselves, but a little more sun tanned”. The newspaper spoke of the success of a businessman named Kartar Singh who, it said, “carved out a career for himself and made himself familiar with our ways and habits, and incidentally gained the respect and affection of those with whom he had to”.

Comparing Sikhs with Canadians of European descent, the newspaper said, “There is no difference between them in anything but early training. Of the same race and the same Empire, there is only between them the imported sentiment of the United States which shuns people who do not in all respects tally with European or American appearances.”

In a society that did not completely accept them, one way for immigrants to integrate was through sports.

By the 1930s, North America had Indian wrestlers whose relative success was not always welcomed. “Matmen have eye ailment,” said the Winnipeg Tribune in the headline of a 1932 article, claiming below that it is an “affliction common to wrestlers attributed to Hindu”.

The report, with a Vancouver dateline, quoted American wrestling champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis as saying that a wrestler named Jatindra Gobar, “who invaded” Canada five or six years earlier, had brought a germ with him from India and spread a bacterial eye infection among the wrestling community.

“The disease is known to medical science as trachoma or granulation of the eyelids,” the newspaper said. “It was unknown, Lewis insists, until Gobar, who was troubled that way, spread the infection here.”

To gain wider acceptance in Canada, Punjabi immigrants turned to another sport they were passionate about: hockey. Back home, in Punjab, the sport had been popular since its introduction in the Indian Army in the 1850s.

To the immigrants’ advantage, Vancouver had a professional league since the end of the 19th century, with a few teams vying for various trophies. “The predecessor of the Vancouver Men’s Field Hockey League (formerly known as the Vancouver Field Hockey League) was founded in 1895,” says the league’s website. “Teams arranged their own schedule of home and away games including some on Vancouver Island. Various club teams were declared to be the Provincial Champion in these early years.” The main annual competition called the Challenge Cup was started in 1911.

As the Punjabi community in Vancouver began to grow, it took an increasing interest in the league.

In 1932, two Sikh immigrants – Lushman Gill and Sardara Singh Gill – established the India Field Hockey Club, or IFHC in short, to compete in the league. Both the funds for the team and its members, some of whom had played in India before immigrating, were drawn from the local Indian community.

Within two years of its formation, the India Field Hockey Club lifted the Challenge Cup, and then followed it up with consecutive wins in the 1935-’36 and 1936-’37 seasons. “The champions, in addition to winning the league crown, also won the O. B. Allan Cup” in 1936, the Vancouver Sun reported.

Given this successful run, the local papers began to write about the skills of players such as Laschman Singh, Phangam Singh, Sardara Singh Gill and Mangar Singh Gill. The latter three were selected to represent Vancouver during this period, says Diljit Singh Bahra, who runs the Sikhs in Hockey website.

During the Second World War, hockey competitions were suspended. It would take a few years after the league restarted in 1945 for the India Field Hockey Club to once again build a champion side.

In 1950, the team began an impressive run of form. “With four championships in the fifties (1950-1954) IFHC became one of the only teams to win four consecutive titles,” the club says on its website. It was in this golden period that Harinder Jit Singh Rai played for the club. Rai’s stellar play at the India Field Hockey Club and briefly with the University of British Columbia team brought him on the radar of those selecting the first Canadian national team.

Record dominance

The India Field Hockey Club became an unstoppable force starting in 1980-’81, winning the Challenge Cup 16 consecutive times. The good run lasted till 2001, by which time, it had won 18 out of 22 championships.

The club also started a girl’s junior programme in 2000. “As a result, Poonam Sandhu became the first South Asian woman to play for the Canadian National team in 2009, and has set the stepping stone for other young girls to follow,” the club’s website says.

In a country, where the concept of a local community, built around sport and recreation, is highly valued, the India Field Hockey Club has been a force in integrating Indians into the mainstream.

Although more enamoured of ice hockey, Canada has not done too badly in field hockey. Its team, known affectionately as the Red Caribou, has made it to eight Olympic Games and six World Cups. In the 1998 World Cup in the Netherlands, it finished third in a tough pool, ahead of South Korea, New Zealand and India (which it defeated 4-1).

While Harinder Jit Singh Rai was denied a chance to compete for an Olympic medal in 1964, his daughter Pamela Leila Rai won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as a member of the 4x100-metre medley relay swimming team.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.