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Photo credit: Liz Wolter
Story by Matt Lawson
Ajeet Gundarah, goaltender for the Coastal Conference-leading Surrey Eagles, has enjoyed quite the final year of junior hockey so far. The 20-year-old netminder currently leads the league with 14 wins, while also holding the top save percentage with a mark of .931 for a team that entered the holiday break with a .800 winning percentage.
The product of Richmond, B.C. started his junior hockey career in the Pacific Junior Hockey League (PJHL) with the Junior B Langley Trappers, but quickly earned the call up to the BCHL after just one season. Prior to his time with the Trappers, Gundarah spent a season with the Vancouver North West Hawks U16 AAA team – a season that he says was integral for his development as a person and a player.
“Going to the Hawks was one of the biggest development years for me,” he recalled. “I had my goalie coach with me, who just passed away – Sean Murray. He helped me with so much on and off the ice. Being able to train with him every week was so big for me. Our team wasn’t great so it was a year that I got a lot of opportunity to work on my game. That was a big year for me and from there, Sean helped me get to the Trappers, which I’m forever thankful for.”
Gundarah put up impressive numbers during his time with the Trappers and the BCHL’s Langley Rivermen quickly took notice. Getting picked up by the Rivermen was a full-circle experience for Gundarah.
“I remember being younger and playing for the Rivermen spring team when I was 10 years old,” he said. “If someone told me then that I’d end up playing for the big team, I wouldn’t even believe it. I was so excited.”
Gundarah helped lead the Rivermen to back-to-back playoff appearances, including a run to the Coastal Conference Finals in 2022, before being traded in the offseason to their Mainland rival, the Surrey Eagles. Gundarah says that he loved his time in Langley, but was excited to seek opportunity in Surrey.
“I had three years of junior hockey in Langley and I loved every minute of it,” he said. “I ended up getting moved to Surrey and I knew that they were such a good organization and have a long history of moving people on to the next level, so to be able to go there, I couldn’t say no to that.”
The city of Surrey is home to a large and continuously growing South Asian population. Gundarah says that this city really embodies the ‘hockey is for everyone’ mantra.
“More and more Indian kids are starting to play hockey which is really cool,” he said. “I think hockey is something that is for everybody. It shouldn’t matter the colour of your skin, or anything else – especially in Canada. If you have the chance to go and play, I think everyone should try it.”
“To see more and more brown kids trying to just play is awesome. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad – just seeing more kids get the same opportunities that I was lucky enough to have growing up is awesome.”
The Surrey Eagles proudly represent their South Asian fans, especially when it comes to their annual Punjabi Night game. Gundarah says his first Punjabi Night experience was really special, not only for him, but for his fellow South Asian teammates too.
“I think it’s the coolest thing,” he said. “Our owner Ron [Brar] puts a lot of effort into all of our event nights, but the Punjabi Night is just huge. We have a bunch of South Asian players on our team which is pretty cool. To be able to have my grandparents come out and everyone else in the building, I thought it was really special.”
Gundarah has been rock solid for his entire junior career, at both the PJHL and BCHL levels. He has never finished a season with a save percentage below .921 and has seen the playoffs in all three of his campaigns. He says the key to his impressive numbers is to just ignore them.
“The numbers are cool, but the biggest thing is not thinking about the numbers,” he said. “Especially for goalies, because the position is so up and down. If you have a bad night, it’s so easy to get down on yourself, and if you have a good night, it’s easy to think you’re the best. Staying even keeled and working hard is the key. In Surrey, we always say to worry about the process and not the results. You’re going to have good and bad games, so I just try to work hard and let the rest work itself out.”
As a goaltender, managing the mental aspect of the game is vital for success. Gundarah says that a clear mind is a strong mind.
“I do tons of breathing exercises,” he said. “On my game days, I have a routine. I go for a long walk and do other things to just clear my mind so that when I get to the rink, my mind is empty and free, so I can stay in the moment.”
Gundarah also explained how he’s transitioned from following superstitions to following routines.
“I’ve tried to cut down on the superstitions,” he said. “There was one point at the beginning of my junior hockey career when I was really superstitious – just the craziest things – sitting on the same chair when I eat breakfast, sleeping on the same side of the bed, putting this shoe on first. It was getting out of hand and I had to cut it down. This year, I’d say that I have more routine than superstition.”
It’s been a long road for Gundarah, but following a remarkable start to the 2023-24 season, he accomplished his long-time goal and committed to NCAA Division I Sacred Heart University.
“Going Division I, I think it’s everybody’s main goal,” he said. “This is my third year in the league, so it’s been a long time trying to get there. Coming to Surrey, obviously our team has had a really good start, which helps. I have to give all the credit to [Eagles head coach and general manager] Cam Keith. Without his work and his connections, I don’t know if I would have been able to get to Sacred Heart.”
“In terms of reaction, my mom just couldn’t believe it. Being in this league so long with some good seasons, you do get hopeful at times, but to finally be able to get it, it still doesn’t feel real. I still don’t even know if she believes it. For me, it’s almost like an ‘I’ll believe it when I get there’ kind of thing. I just can’t wait.”
With around half of the regular season yet to be played and the Eagles firmly in first place in their conference, Gundarah says he is not looking too far ahead. When asked about his aspirations this season, his answer was to the point.
“Win. Win the whole thing,” Gundarah said confidently. “Every year, you go in with the same mentality and say the same things, but this year it feels different and it feels like we have a team that really can win it all. Top to bottom, we’re just solid and we keep getting better, so I think that the sky’s the limit. I’m really excited to see what we can do going forward.”
As he exits the winter break, Gundarah sits on a 14-3-1 record, the aforementioned .931 save percentage and an impressive 2.17 goals-against average, which is third best in the league. He will look to finish 2023 strong and enter 2024 with a full head of steam as he looks to accomplish yet another goal – winning a championship in his final year of junior hockey.