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Life After Viral Fame: Punjabi Hockey Announcer Is Changing The Face Of Canada’s Favorite Sport

August 27, 2019

– (Harnarayan) (commentating in Punjabi) Hey, Spence. – [Spence] Hey, how’s it going? – Good, how are you? Hey, morning. – Want me to give you a tour as we’re going? (laughing) My first gifts as a kid that I remember were mini hockey sticks. It was during the ’80s when the Oilers and the Flames were both really good teams. You had Wayne Gretzky playing. Everybody was kind of surrounded by hockey, it was all over the place. Here’s a picture from when the Flames won the Stanley Cup. Their one and only Stanley Cup here, 1989. Growing up living in the small town of Brooks, population was 10,000 people and there was very few visible minorities, like you could count them on one hand. My faith is, we literally wear it on our sleeve, as they say. I was always answering questions about my experience. But when I talked about hockey, someone who had any apprehensions about me, all of a sudden that went by the wayside. (laughter) (upbeat guitar music) So we are still not at the highest level, ’cause we’re gonna have to do a bunch of stairs. The Saddledome being one of the older buildings, the press box is quite unique. For most people who come for the first time, it’s like whoa, ’cause you’re literally gonna be right over top of the ice. You’re not gonna miss anything from up here. I guess everybody knew I was huge hockey fan. And we had some family friends in Brooks who decided to take me to my very first NHL game. And I remember coming here as a 6, 7-year-old and just being in awe of the Saddledome. So this is the jumbotron, eh? We are inside the jumbotron. We are right at the roof. This is as close as you get, the iconic roof of this building. You can touch it! (guitar music) I was very talkative as a kid. When we were watching hockey in our household, I was calling the games myself in the living room while I was running around. It wasn’t just the calling of the games, it would be intermission questions and the media scrums, where the coaches, having to answer questions from the media, and that kinda stuff. Like I was doing all of that. Even to the extent where I had my own NHL awards show. It came to me easy in terms of being a hockey media member. – [Harnarayan] (commentating in Punjabi) – (Harnarayan) 2008 it was the Stanley Cup Final between Detroit and Pittsburgh. The CBC at the time had a multicultural, diversity initiative. I was working with CBC as a reporter and so that was the opportunity we were given, doing Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi. They tried a couple of different languages and when they tried Punjabi it was a hit. Because it did so well, it resonated so much within the community, Hockey Night in Canada decided that they wanted to do every Saturday night double header. So two games a week. At the time it was being broadcast from the Toronto studios of Hockey Night in Canada, and I lived in Calgary. I was told that, you know, there is really no budget for them to pay for me to come from Calgary to Toronto every week. For me, it didn’t make sense to move out there either. I didn’t want to loose the opportunity to fulfill this dream that had come to reality. So I just told them that I’ll be there don’t worry. – (crowd noise) (Harnarayan and another person speaking ) – [Kelly Hrudey] I was always very encouraging because I knew his passion for the game and his love for it. It just shines through whenever your talk to Harnarayan about the game of hockey. I remember early on though when he was traveling to Toronto and how difficult that would have been. I used to think, boy, that’s some sort of commitment, because he didn’t get any hotel rooms, and so he had to pay for his own hotel or stay in the airport after a game. Which blew my mind and so, I have to admit I did take it upon myself to let some of the superiors at CBC know that it’s almost a little unfair, in a sense how he’s being treated. So, happy to say that, went to bat for you and it’s working out. – [Harnarayan] And it’s crazy because I was scared of anybody finding out that I was paying for my own flights, but the moment I found out that they were gonna pay for my travel, I knew right away that it was you. I remember sitting at Tim Horton’s with you over a cup of coffee, to put it all out there that, OK, this is what’s going on. But you were always there for guidance. Thanks Kelly. – [Kelly] Thanks pal. – (guitar music) – [Harnarayan] (commentating in Punjabi) – The adrenaline was just pumping and when he scored that goal, that’s what was going through my head and boom, there you go. Bonino, Bonino, Bonino. I don’t think any of us had any idea how huge it would become. When we actually got to Pittsburg, we found out there was like, we had a cult following there. At the end I had my signature goal call which is the “Punjabi Hekh”, we call it, and it’s where the last syllable you kind of let it go for as long as you can. And I try to usually beat out the arena goal buzzer. – [Harnarayan] Boninooooo! (Sikh Devotional Music) – For Punjabi and Sikh musicians, it’s considered a skill set to hold a note for as long as possible. I’ve incorporated that music style into the hockey goal call. – When I read and sing the Sikh scriptures, the hymns, you know a big part of that is abandoning your ego and being a humble person. When you look at the industry that we are in right now, you know, being on social media is such a big aspect of it. When you are forced to post on social media, it’s like “Here I am! Oh, look at me doing this,” or “Look at me doing that,” and it’s almost like it clashes with those ideals. But you still want to maintain a sense of humility. I’m realizing more and more that I’m representing not only myself, my family, my community, the show, but when I talk to kids who are growing up in the world, then I really realize that it’s important for me to get out there, because it shows other kids that they can achieve whatever their desire is and you know, nothing is impossible. – (Sikh Devotional Music) – [Sukhjeet Kaur] I was born into a hockey family, you’d have to have one girl on a hockey team, I was always that girl. – [Harnarayan] She was OK with my obsession of hockey, but I think once we got married and began living together then it was a little bit of a unique– – [Sukhjeet] I was, like oh it’s on all the time. It’s like there’s nothing else, it’s news or hockey! – [Harnarayan] So we were trying to figure out how to have a fun reception, and the idea kinda came out about, what about having a hockey-themed reception. – [Sukhjeet] Yeah, I was like well if we’re going to do it a hockey arena, we have to have a Stanley Cup, like a life-size Stanley Cup cake. And from that, everything kind of fell into place. – [Harnarayan] We walked into the Hockey Night in Canada theme music, and then right off the bat, Kelly Hrudey from Hockey Night in Canada did the ceremonial puck drop. And I remember he kicked me, he body checked me– – [Sukhjeet] He body checked him out of the way so I could win. Not that I needed the help. (Laughter) (Guitar music) – [Harnarayan] My wife wanted to give me an anniversary present. They say it’s hard to make me speechless ’cause I talk too much. Oh my god, how did you do that! This meant so much because you can tell how much time and effort went into this. So this is the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. I was recently given the Brian Williams Media Award. “The National Hockey League congratulates the other inductees into the Hall of Fame,” names like Scott Stevens and then myself for the award and they mention the Hockey Is For Everyone Ambassador. I also love this because it’s as close as my name will ever get to being on the Stanley Cup. (Guitar Music) The be all end all goal for me is full-time English play-by-play. It hasn’t been just, you know, a smooth sailing ride. Hockey Night Punjabi was canceled a couple of times in the initial years. You’re always looking for a way to make this a living for the rest of your career. Since my journey began in this industry, one of my goals was to get an agent, and it was very difficult to do that at the very beginning. There could be several reasons for that but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. I mean, I approached several different agencies and it just so happened that no one was really willing to take the chance on me until the Bonino call actually happened. That helped the foray into the mainstream hockey world. – [Sports Presenter] One of the crew of Punjabi Hockey Night in Canada became the first Sikh to broadcast in English. Alberta native Harnarayan Singh joining the crew tonight covering the game at the Saddledome. – [Harnarayan] I remember growing up, there was one Punjabi player, the first ever who made it to the NHL, his name was Robin Bawa, and after him it took so long for the next player. From a managerial standpoint in the hockey world there isn’t as much diversity, so given that, you could argue that some of these kids who are from different communities are behind the eight ball. Following the sport, that’s not the case at all. So we are going to a local community hockey rink in Calgary, where the Calgary chapter of the HEROS Hockey charity is having one of their weekly after school sessions. The HEROS Hockey family asked me to come on their board of directors. Right away I was blown away by the impact. These are kids who wouldn’t be playing hockey had it not been for this charity. The equipment is provided to the kids free of cost. You know, there are a lot of new Canadians too, but there are a lot of kids who are from difficult backgrounds whose families have been in Canada for a long time. So it’s an opportunity for them to play an organized sport. Hockey is just the excuse, it’s the mentorship that’s the beautiful part of it. (Upbeat Music) Hockey and Canada, you can’t separate them. They’re one and together. And I think it is the glue that holds this country together. Today is a great example, there’s kids from all sorts of different ethnicities, communities and they have all come together because of this great game. You know Hockey Night Punjabi is such as beautiful story and its helping grow the game, and it’s something so unique. But I want to also further myself and my career. Achieving the goal of full-time English play-by-play, would break down even more barriers because it can show that you know, it doesn’t matter who you are, anyone can participate and be a part of this great game. I love hockey, it’s my passion, and I want to figure out a way to be able to do this for the rest of my life.

1 Comment

  • Reply David Molina July 2, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Inspiring story!

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