When Harnarayan Singh was a four-year-old living in Brooks, Alberta, he told his parents he wanted to be a hockey broadcaster, like Ron MacLean on Hockey Night in Canada.
“I would be running around the living room with my mini hockey sticks trying to emulate the players but at the same time emulate the announcers and the commentators,” Singh told Awful Announcing. “So I would be doing my own commentary, and my family would have to tell me to turn my volume down so they could actually hear what was going on with the television.”
Singh, of course, imagined calling games in English, like all the announcers on his television dial. He couldn’t have possibly predicted the future: that he’d one day become the ground-breaking voice of Canadian Sikhs, sharing hockey with a far-reaching community of Punjabi-speaking fans across the country.
In 2008, CBC offered Singh a chance to call a Penguins-Red Wings Stanley Cup game in Punjabi, Canada’s third most-spoken language, after English and French. The concept was well-received, and the network eventually evolved into a weekly broadcast.
Singh, now 31, calls games every Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi as well as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, alongside a rotating cast of analysts. Last week, he went viral with his exuberant call of Penguins center Nick Bonino’s game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Finals.
— Hockey Night Punjabi (@HkyNightPunjabi) May 31, 2016
Singh spoke with Awful Announcing about his Sikh background, the social impact of Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi and the story behind his now-famous “Bonino-Bonino-Bonino” call.
AA: How much was Sikh culture part of your upbringing in Canada?
HS: It was a very big part of my life. My parents, they taught me the language. Sikh music, the instruments I used, is something that I learned from an early age. My two major interests in my life are hockey and Sikh music. It was a big part growing up, and I think had I not had that heritage perspective in my life I wouldn’t have learned to speak Punjabi so well.
AA: So as you were growing up, was hockey popular in the Sikh community, or was that something you did on your own?
HS: I didn’t grow up with the Sikh community. That was just something with my family, my parents. It was more inside my home. I grew up in a small Southern Alberta town called Brooks. It was just a small town of 10,000 people, and there wasn’t any other Sikh family. So my upbringing, in terms of hockey, I grew up during the ’80s when the Oilers and the Flames were very, very good teams, and because of that you’re surrounded by hockey. Just even growing up Canadian, it’s so big here, and it’s such a big part of the fabric of Canadian culture that you’re surrounded by it. So I think my interest was piqued that way. I had three older siblings who were already Oilers fans, and through that I became a fan as well.
AA: Obviously immigrants and people who don’t speak the same language as the people around them can feel alienated from the local culture. Do you think you’re making Canadian culture, through hockey, more accessible for Sikhs?
HS: Definitely. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen how much of an impact the show was going to make within the community. Definitely it has made the community feel more Canadian, feel more a part of Canadian culture. My own great grandfather, he arrived in 1908, he was one of the first hundred Sikhs to arrive to Canada. And from the stories he passed down of how difficult of times it was, it’s a total contrast with where we are today, where we have individuals like myself who are on mainstream television and are able to do this type of thing. It’s made the community feel more Canadian, it’s made the community be able to connect more with their fellow Canadians.
I’ll give you a few examples. We have a number of people who have told us that at their work, everybody was always talking about last night’s game, whether it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, whether it’s the Vancouver Canucks. And they were saying, “We were not familiar with the game, so we weren’t able to participate in all those conversations.” The predominant ice-break conversation in Canada is about hockey. And now so many of our viewers are now able to understand the game and are able to actively participate in those conversations with their colleagues, so there’s more of a camaraderie in that respect.
We also have people who are telling us that within their families — with a lot of families you see that they live with their extended families. The grandparents are living in the house where the grandkids are. The grandparents tell us that with the grandkids being born in Canada there’s a major cultural divide, there’s a technological divide because the grandparents aren’t familiar with all the new technology, and there was no common bond. So what we’re hearing is that the kids who were born in Canada automatically fall in love with the sport of hockey, but now that the grandparents can understand it, they’ve become fans, so it’s become a Saturday night tradition in many households, where three generations in one family are sitting down and watching hockey together. I’ve had grandparents tell me that before the show they didn’t have a way to connect with their grandkids, their grandkids wouldn’t talk to them, but now this show has helped them create such a special bond.
Another cool, very rewarding experience for me personally with the show is whenever I have an opportunity to go speak at shows in Canada and talk to junior-high, high-school-aged kids who are trying to figure out what they want after they’re done with schooling. I go there and tell them, you’re living in a country where whatever your dreams and hopes are, they’re achievable, and it doesn’t matter how you look, and it doesn’t matter what your background is. To see kids come up to me and say, “We had no idea that a person who looks like yourself could be on mainstream television or could be in the sports broadcasting industry,” it’s very rewarding and humbling for me to hear that. I’ve been told that we’re opening doors for future generations.
All of this stuff is icing on the cake. I just wanted to be a hockey commentator.
AA: Do you still have aspirations to cross over and call games in English?
HS: I definitely still have aspirations to also work on the English side. The reason being that I speak English just as well as I speak Punjabi, and the whole aspect of breaking down barriers can happen even more when we have more ethnically diverse people on the English side. It would bring things to another level.
AA: So what’s it like for you being around the NHL, where there aren’t many, if any Sikh or Indian or South Asian players, or coaches or executives or broadcasters?
HS: It is unique, but thankfully I’ve been very much welcomed within the industry. There have been times when I’ve had to explain why our show needs to exist. In Canada, Punjabi is the third most-spoken language, and a lot of times people don’t realize that.
The majority of people are very welcoming, and the majority of people actually love what we do because we’re growing the sport in a way I didn’t even realize would happen. Because when you go to the minor hockey arenas in some of the bigger cities in Canada, we often meet parents who say they wouldn’t have put their kids in minor hockey had it not been for the show. And I think when people within the industry hear that and see that, they’re very appreciative.
But there are times when you have to explain to people that I’m just as Canadian as you are. I think when people hear that my great-grandfather came here over 100 years ago — and he did eventually go back, my parents came in the ’60s — people find that startling. But when you kind of let them know these things, people realize this guy is just as Canadian as we are, despite him wearing a turban and looking a little different from us.
AA: So what has the reaction been like in the last couple of days to that Bonino call?
HS: I had no idea that it would go viral, at the time. It’s just been fabulous. I’m just so appreciative of the reaction from the hockey world. Have you heard the backstory behind it?
AA: No, I haven’t.
HS: In the Washington Capitals vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins series, in one of the games, in my pregame prep I had made an error and had written down Bonino for left wing, center and right wing, and I only noticed just seconds before going live on TV. But when I noticed, the analyst and myself, we pointed it out to each other, and we were kind of chuckling to each other, Bonino, Bonino, Bonino. And lo and behold in that game he scored the game-tying goal late in the third. And that was the first time I went “Bonino, Bonino, Bonino.” That was what was in my head, and I just went with it. I was so pumped, and our call is very enthusiastic as it is.
And after that in that series he scored an overtime game-winner, and that was a little bit different. I said “Bonino dha goal Bonino dha goal, Bonino dha goal,” which means “Bonino scored, Bonino scored, Bonino scored.” And then after that we had so many requests from all over North America to repeat that call in the Stanley Cup Final, and I was like OK, I have to wait for a big moment, it can’t just be any time he scores. And I was thinking to myself, maybe an overtime winner or another situation like that late in the game. And lo and behold he goes and does it in Game 1. He’s been scoring such big goals for the Penguins. It’s just so fascinating how it’s worked out, and how everybody is really enjoying the calls. I’m very thankful and thrilled.
AA: Do you worry at all that with all of the English-speaking media outlets that have picked this up (including this site), that you get treated like a novelty instead of a serious broadcaster?
HS: I think for people who are finding about it for the first time, they might have that sort of or mindset in thinking about us. This is really the first season that we’ve really penetrated the United States. I think for people Canada, most hockey fans, if not all of them, know that we exist because we have been around quite a long time, and there’s been a bunch of media coverage every so often about our show. I think in Canada people know for sure that it’s not a novelty. Certainly for some people who were like, “What, I didn’t even know this existed,” and they’re hearing it for the first time, they might think of it that way, but when you find out the history of the show, you find out it’s not just a novelty.