You’d be hard-pressed to find a player that, in just two years with a hockey club, made the kind of impact that Manny Malhotra did with the Vancouver Canucks.
When Manny joined the Canucks in the 2010 off-season, he did so as a 30-year-old coming off of a strong, statistically-modest season with the San Jose Sharks. He had 33 points in 71 games, but was key in the face-off circle and on the penalty kill, and was a factor in getting the Sharks get to the Western Conference Final.
Then-Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis touted him as the ideal third-line complement for his team, slotting in behind then-defending Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin, and the emerging Ryan Kesler at center. And Malhotra quickly endeared himself to Canucks fans as the lynchpin of a reliable, gritty line with Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen.
Malhotra was beloved for his tenacious defensive abilities, faceoff prowess, and innate and obvious leadership credentials. He was given an assistant captaincy at the onset of that training camp, and took on a visible and appreciated role in the Canucks community efforts. And, as the team thundered its way to the best season in franchise history, Malhotra even began garnering not-so-subtle mentions in the Selke Trophy conversation.
It appeared that, in what was shaping up to be their year-of-years, the Canucks had found that veteran third-line checking center that you win championships with.
Then, of course, the fluke eye injury happened — a serious and horrifying trauma that was to put the center out for the remainder of the season, and likely beyond. An eye injury whose severity may still not be fully appreciated by those who weren’t close to the club and the player at the time.
The club and the fanbase were quick to rally behind Manny, not just because of the frightening nature of the injury, but because Malhotra had so strongly endeared himself to the club in those first five months. At the club’s end-of-regular season award ceremony, there was Manny — sunglasses and all — looking every bit the returning hero, standing and sharing in the glory of the Presidents’ Trophy with Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. And there were the fans, on their feet, heartily chanting his (very chantable) name.
But surely that was to be the last we’d see of him that year, no?
Oh, no. Not for a player like Manny.
Rogers Arena, Stanley Cup Final, Game Two. Just three months removed from an injury that left him on the verge of left-eye blindness, there he was, taking pregame spins around the ice — cage and all. He was still without full vision and use of his left eye, skating to the roars and the love of that same crowd who had been beside him through it all.
And while the end result of that fateful summer series wasn’t what anyone in the organization had hoped for, Malhotra’s courageous comeback made him teflon with the fanbase. It was hoped that he could pick up where he’d left off in March of 2011.
But, as history shows, that was not only naive thinking, it was an expectation that Malhotra simply wasn’t capable of fulfilling.
Manny struggled through a difficult 2011-12, working at adjusting to the new reality of his damaged eyesight. And after struggling out of the gate in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the axe fell hard.
Nine games into the year, Mike Gillis announced that he’d be placing Malhotra on the Injured Reserve for the rest of the season. In the last year of his three year-deal with the club, his career as a Canuck appeared to be over.
A player whose meteoric rise and heroic return presaged an awkward and uncomfortable downfall, Canucks fans still held a deep appreciation for Malhotra well after the death-knell of the Gillis regime. And when Manny retired after the 2016 season, being the effusive, irresistible leader and locker-room presence he was, there was talk that the club, now under a new regime, would invite him back into the fold.
And, last week, that’s exactly what they did, as General Manager Jim Benning announced that the club would bring Malhotra on as a Development Coach, whose focus will be on specialized skills, including some of his trademarks in faceoffs and specialty teams.
“A lot of my role has to do with the development of the young centermen,” said Malhotra after signing on with the club last week.
And for a club who struggled as mightily in the faceoff dot as the Canucks did this past year, his tutelage will be welcome relief. Of the club’s full-time centers in 2015-16, only Bo Horvat finished above 50 percent in the face-off circle (50.9 percent). Former Malhotra teammate Henrik Sedin saw a precipitous dip in his draw numbers (46 percent), while Brandon Sutter and Markus Granlund — players who figure to fill in the other two center spots — are relatively new commodities for the club.
Still, perhaps Malhotra’s greatest benefit to the club will be in what he brings to the dressing room. Ex-teammates are effusive in their praise of his leadership and communication abilities, and he was sorely missed by the club’s energetic core in the tumultuous years that followed their Cup run.
And what’s more, Manny Malhotra is exactly the kind of player that the younger generation of Canucks — from Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen, to future stars like Brock Boeser and beyond — can learn the fundamentals and intangible elements of success from. Because it takes something special for a player to register with a city in just two scant years to the level that Manny did. It takes someone special.
Manny Malhotra will be a head coach in the NHL one day. Mark those words. For the time being, though, the Vancouver Canucks organization and players will benefit from having his specialized skill direction, and his presence in the locker room and on the road.
And for Canucks fans looking for the light in an oncoming tunnel that looms deeper and darker every day, it gives them a welcome and happy glimpse of better times, and the chance to embrace a guy who so quickly and so memorably became one of theirs.