The voice behind Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi says his love of the game is what moulded him into a patriotic Sikh Canadian while he was growing up in small-town Alberta.
Harnarayan Singh became a household name in the Canadian hockey world with his energetic, over-the-top commentary of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Nick Bonino’s playoff goal against the Washington Capitals in 2016.
And his show has been groundbreaking. Singh was the first person to call the play-by-play of NHL games in Punjabi, and also became the first Sikh to take part in an English-language NHL broadcast.
He chronicles his journey from childhood hockey diehard to real-life NHL commentator in his new memoir, One Game at a Time: My Journey from Small-Town Alberta to Hockey’s Biggest Stage.
Singh spoke with The Current’s Matt Galloway about his new book and the challenges he’s faced in his career. Here is part of their conversation.
These are things that one could not have possibly imagined growing up as a kid in the 1980s in Alberta. What was it like in Alberta in the ’80s for you?
I was the centre of curiosity because, as a Sikh, I wear a steel bracelet, I have a turban.
And, you know, we listened to different music, we spoke a different language at home.
I would actually say that my entire experience growing up as such a patriotic Canadian would have been totally and completely different had it not been for the game of hockey.– Harnarayan Singh
So when I was growing up there, for me to find commonality between my classmates and I, it would have taken something pretty drastic.
My passion and obsession for hockey, when I reflect back, that’s what really helped me create a rapport and friendship with classmates and teachers. And I would actually say that my entire experience growing up as such a patriotic Canadian would have been totally and completely different had it not been for the game of hockey.
A lot of this book in some ways is a bit like kind of the history of the Sikh community in Canada. Why did you want to do that?
I have so much respect for my parents, their generation and past generations who went through so much for a person like me to be even sitting here today. They had to go through the rough time. They had to go through the major racism and try to fight for opportunities.
When I learned that my great grandfather came to Canada in 1907, for me that was revolutionary as a young Canadian, because … when I was hearing racist comments … I had something that I could say back to them.
I could say that I’m just as Canadian as you, and that was literal proof … just the fact that my parents came here and they were able to maintain their heritage and their faith, despite all the challenges.
What were the barriers that were placed in front of you in getting to the place that you’re in right now?
Kids get asked all the time: What do you want to be when you grow up? And if you say a hockey commentator and you have a turban and it’s the 80s, it’s the ’90s, you might get a laughing response instead of encouragement right away. And I did receive that from other professionals, from some teachers and even people within the CBC.
It was a cautionary tale from their end, because they didn’t want me to be disappointed, and they wanted me to go for something they felt that I would actually have a shot at. And that would be encouraging me to go behind the scenes for [the] production side or … in news and not sports.
Watch Harnarayan Singh’s famous 2016 goal call
Somewhere between tongue twister & legendary. You gotta hear this.<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BalleTereBonino?src=hash”>#BalleTereBonino</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/PITvsWSH?src=hash”>#PITvsWSH</a> <a href=”https://t.co/gOIT9K978o”>pic.twitter.com/gOIT9K978o</a>
I don’t blame them, but I realize now, just even learning more about what being a person of colour and a visible minority does to your psyche in North America … it does plant the seed of doubt in your mind.
A lot has changed and I’m excited to see the change that we’re having.
If you don’t see yourself, it can be difficult to believe that you’re supposed to be there, to your point. But if others don’t see people like you there, they don’t think that that’s a place for you to be in as well. So what changed to get you in a position where you could be not behind the scenes?
There are a number of reasons. But the one that’s closest to my heart and very near and dear to me is Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi has a big role in changing the mindset of the sports world, especially in Canada.
You start off as almost a novelty and people are kind of curious. But then we start realizing that this is growing the game at the grassroots level, and instead of it being a want for the community, it’s a need.
And then you start seeing the impact in the community, where I go speak to students and they come and tell me that, “We never thought that there would be a role for us on TV. But seeing you on there, it’s helping give us inspiration.”
That’s exactly the message I want to provide.
You were on air, so you didn’t see it at the time, when Don Cherry went on his rant about “these people.” And this was around who was wearing poppies and who wasn’t wearing poppies.
He goes on this rant, which people said was racist, which people said targeted immigrants. What did it mean for you to see something like that?
It was a difficult situation, to be honest with you, because Don Cherry was such an icon in the hockey world. But when your own community feels offended, you have to kind of stand up and explain why.
When you do create that us versus them mentality, what happens is it creates divisions in society. And all of a sudden, instead of us being united as Canadians, we start looking at ourselves differently just based on how we look.
We’re seeing the ramifications of the divisiveness … south of the border and this type of stuff creeping up here is really worrisome to me.
Well, the question ends up being whether hockey has changed as much as we want it to have changed.
After the [shooting] of Jacob Blake, leagues [stopped] around the world. So the NBA stops its games and players go on strike against play. Happens in the WNBA, happens in Major League Soccer, and the NHL continues to play on. The NHL has a moment of reflection and then the games continue. Eventually, those games were put on hold, but it didn’t happen immediately. Does hockey need to catch up in some ways?
Hockey’s in a very unique situation in comparison to the NBA, WNBA, even Major League Baseball. The difference is that hockey at a professional level is much, much less diverse.
Up until now, it’s taken players like Evander Kane and Matt Dumba from the Hockey Diversity Alliance. It’s been kind of their battle to fight. But I think what we’re seeing change is that while this conversation is happening, more and more hockey players are understanding and realizing that this is not just a fight for people of colour. This is a human rights issue.
I think the NHL is taking this seriously and sometimes it’s better late than never.
I know you do a lot of speaking. What do kids ask you when they meet you?
First of all, it’s this curiosity of like, how is it to be at the arena? How is it to be with the players? Or a lot of times if they’re Punjabi kids, they will ask me specifically about something I’ve said on the air.
But my message to them is always encouraging in this sense that if I can do it, you can do it. So make sure whatever your goal and dream is, you go for it. Because we’re so lucky to be in a country that we have those opportunities in front of us.
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Idella Sturnio.