Since arriving in Vancouver for the 2010-11 season, Canucks centre Manny Malhotra has been a crowd favourite.
Articulate, often selfless, and invariably gracious, the King of Face-offs immediately dispels any lingering stereotypes that NHL players are just a bunch of dumb, rich jocks.
Here's a little-known fact: Malhotra's parents both have doctorates and his father, Shadi, holds more than 100 patents. No wonder Malhotra has emerged as a team leader, notwithstanding his job as a role player on the third or fourth line.
So when news broke today that the Canucks had placed Malhotra on the injured-reserve list for the rest of 2012–13, there was speculation in the Twitterverse that he is destined to stay with the club in another capacity.
His career took a brutal turn on March 16, 2011 when he was hit in the eye by a puck, necessitating emergency eye surgery. Many thought his career was over, but like a true warrior, he returned for the Stanley Cup final.
If his vision is still impaired—or even deteriorating—he may have played his final game in the NHL.
I saw Malhotra and Jason Garrison march in last summer's Vancouver Pride parade. Virtually everyone along Denman Street was thrilled to be photographed with Malhotra, whereas most of them didn't even know who Garrison was.
Malhotra was entirely comfortable being mobbed by some fans, some of whom leaped in front of him for photos.
This went on for a long time, and never did he indicate any desire to get moving without first making the fans feel respected.
Malhotra's brother-in-law is basketball star Steve Nash—another pro athlete who has repeatedly shattered stereotypes about sports stars not being interested in the world around them.
Here's another asset for the Canucks: they have a huge number of fans of South Asian descent, many whose roots go back to Punjab, just like Malhotra's.
We all know it's easy to fill Rogers Arena when the team is winning. But there will come a day when the Sedins will hang up their skates, Alex Edler will lose some grit, and the goaltending won't be what it is today.
That's when management and community relations can help an NHL franchise get through the tough times. This is especially so when the economy turns sour.
Malhotra's already proven his willingness to lead by example. The Canucks would be insane not to keep him around for his intellect and as a goodwill ambassador.
He's probably already knowledgeable enough to become the coach—and Alain Vigneault won't be in the job forever.