I will always remember Manny Malhotra two ways.
The first is as a raw rookie. A star with the Guelph Storm, the 18 year old was a first round draft pick of the New York Rangers. He makes the Rangers, and takes to his locker stall, trying to blend in and find his comfort zone.
One of the Rangers veteran players is walking towards him and takes to the stall right beside him. He begins talking with the rookie, welcoming him to the team and inviting him out to dinner.
"You're meeting a living legend and you've seen him on TV all the time," said Malhotra. "Just to meet him is something kind of weird. You get kind of a weird feeling."
The two go out to a sports bar and watch Monday Night Football. They talk about hockey and life as if they are the best of friends. It must be one of the most memorable nights of Malhotra's life.
The only thing is Malhotra has to end the night early. He has homework to do. He is taking correspondence courses to complete academic credits necessary to attend university, should he ever want to go.
Malhotra, a rare player of Punjabi ancestry, would not need to those courses. He would go to a 14 year NHL career consisting of 864 regular season games.
That being said, he would never fulfill his early promise. He struggled in New York and later in Dallas. He found his game in Columbus where he was instrumental for 4 seasons.
It was there where he developed into a key center and rejuvenated his career. He annually set new offensive career highs, however modest it was. But he became coach Ken Hitchcock's most trusted forward and was utilized in all the tough situations - especially on the penalty kill and defensive zone assignments.
That is the other way I will always remember Manny Malhotra. He may have become a role player, but he may have been the MVP of role players.
Despite his strong play in Columbus, the rest of the NHL must not have been paying attention. An unrestricted free agent in 2009, he went to San Jose's training camp on a try-out basis only. He signed for a small $700,000 contract and became the bargain of the year. He excelled in San Jose as the Sharks emerged as a Stanley Cup contender. Malhotra's play was a big part of that.
Malhotra opted to test the unrestricted free agency market again in 2010, and this time he cashed in. The Vancouver Canucks outbid several suitors with a 3 year, $7.5 million contract. It was eye popping at the time, but as the 2010-11 season went on it was apparent his was worth every penny. He was the perfect fit in Vancouver. He was the perfect third line center, perhaps the best #3 pivot in the league. I felt Malhotra - not teammate Ryan Kesler - was the league's top defensive centre and deserved strong consideration for the Selke Trophy. He truly made the Canucks a Stanley Cup contender if not the odds on favourite.
Then disaster struck.
On March 16th, 2011 an errant puck struck Malhotra in the eye. Several surgeries were needed to save some of the vision in the eye. His season should have been done, but with the help of a corrective contact lens he was able to return in the Stanley Cup final against Boston. But he was out of physical shape and unable to help the team much. The Canucks would lose to the Bruins in the 7 game series.
I truly believe that had Manny Malhotra remained healthy that season the Vancouver Canucks would have won the Stanley Cup. When it was originally announced he was done for the season, I feared the Canucks Stanley Cup chances were greatly diminished as well. Had he played perhaps they could have closed out the Blackhawks earlier than they did, thus allowing for better rest for the remainder of the playoffs. That Canucks team became decimated by injuries, costing them the Stanley Cup.
Malhotra, who is NBA star Steve Nash's brother-in-law, returned to the Canucks in 2011-12 and played in 78 games. He played 9 games into the 2012-13 season. He clearly was no longer the same player. He became a 4th line faceoff specialist who was unable to play at a high level outside of the faceoff circle. Curiously, the Canucks returned Malhotra to the Long Term Injury Reserve despite his ability to play, even if the play was ineffective. But by placing him on LITR at the same time as Ryan Kesler's return from his own injury as the Canucks faced salary cap decisions.
Perhaps Malhotra needed to be saved from himself. Perhaps his eye sight really was endangering his well being. But there is some question about whether the Canucks ultimately ended Malhotra's career based on concern about his well being or based on the fact that he simply could not play at the NHL level any longer.
Malhotra deserved a better ending. He is such a classy individual who embraced the communities he lived in. Few players are more respected than Manny Malhotra. We wish him nothing but the best as he leaves the ice.