Obsession, Courage and Inspiration: Harnarayan Singh on Breaking Racial Barriers in Broadcasting

'Had I not given it a shot, I would've regretted it.' He grew up being told someone who looked like him could never do NHL play-by-play. His passion drove him to prove everyone wrong – and he did.
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Fan? No. Diehard? Still not good enough. Maniac. Yes, maniac. And in the best possible way.

That’s about the only word to adequately describe Harnarayan Singh’s hockey obsession as a kid. It wasn’t just wearing jerseys and collecting hockey cards and knowing every player’s name. He did all those things growing up in 1980s Alberta, sure, learning the game from his three sisters, who were huge Edmonton Oilers fans during their dynastic years. Singh had the pajamas and table hockey, too. But he took his devotion to the sport so much further. He created an entire hockey universe…in his house.

The living room was the arena. Singh covered the dining-room table with toy cars to simulate a jam-packed parking lot. He invented players like ‘Charlie Douglas,’ an amalgamation of Charlie Conway from The Mighty Ducks and Wayne Gretzky’s middle name. Singh played the role of Charlie, and the team’s coach, and the GM. Singh also implemented the media as a form of imaginary character. That’s where the world really expanded.

The young Singh performed play-by-play for his made-up games. He produced a pretend radio show to talk hockey and played organ music for the intro. He conducted mock interviews. He used different sections of the house for addressing the team as the “coach” and doing pressers with the “media.” It took a truly unique level of passion to immerse himself the way he did.

“The obsession was pretty unrivalled,” Singh said. “And I was trying to make everything at school about hockey too. I became known as this hockey-obsessed nut. It really helped me create a rapport and relationship with my classmates and help me make friends, which I wouldn't have been able to had it not been for hockey.”

The obsession also started Singh on the path to where he ended up Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021: calling the Edmonton Oilers’ game vs. the Vancouver Canucks, in English, as a Canadian of South Asian heritage, after more than a decade becoming a star with his joyous turn of phrase on Hockey Night in Punjabi broadcasts. Singh became the first Sikh person to do play by play for an NHL game in English. The seeds of the accomplishment were sown with that world he built so many years ago in his house, but the journey from A to B was incredibly challenging. Singh has overcome skepticism, hate and discrimination. They wounded him but didn’t stop him.

Even at a relatively young age, Singh understood he didn’t fit the profile of a typical hockey fan in the small town of Brooks, Alta. When he reached his adolescent years and expressed to people his dream of working as a hockey commentator, the reactions were extreme.

“It was met sometimes with laughter, sarcasm, “ he said. “Eventually I started getting some blunt answers about how, ‘This is pretty impossible for someone like you. There isn't much diversity in sports, TV and radio, and for someone who looks like yourself, making it onto Hockey Night in Canada, pretty much the chances are slim to none.’ ”

Yet Singh loved the game too much to abandon it even if people told him he had no shot to realize his dream of becoming a broadcaster. He would never forgive himself if he didn’t take his shot, and he got the push he needed when he was in high school. A friend who also had journalistic aspirations helped score them both some work doing high-school news and sports a couple times a week for the local radio station. All Singh needed was that chance. He knew he could do a lot with it.

“I was skeptical, even then, because this seed of doubt had already been planted in my mind, but when I got to the radio station, the people there were so welcoming,” Singh said. “It was such a great experience that it was the light bulb in my mind. And it was the kind of encouragement that I needed at the right moment to be like, ‘These guys in a small town, where we don't have much diversity, they were willing to give it a shot. Maybe someone else will down the road. And that's what actually gave me enough courage to give it a shot and go to broadcast school.”

The broadcast-school route famously led Singh to his groundbreaking work on Hockey Night in Punjabi starting in 2008, through which he became the first Sikh person to call NHL games and the first to do so in Punjabi. The program’s popularity grew rapidly, guided by his thrilling, high-energy style, and exploded into mainstream hockey consciousness during the 2016 playoffs. Most fans remember the “Bonino, Bonino, Bonino” call from Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final after Nick Bonino scored the overtime winner for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was Singh who spoke it. He was already an institution among Punjabi-speaking hockey fans, but the Bonino call awakened many English speakers to his ability, and he quickly found himself receiving opportunities in that language, too. Later in 2016, working as a reporter during a Maple Leafs/Flames tilt, he became the first Sikh person to take part in an English-language NHL broadcast.

So Singh was kicking down one door after another. But it was never easy. With all the praise he received, all the people he inspired to believe hockey was a game for people of all skin colors, the hate and discrimination piled in, too. It started long before his broadcasting career began – in his days as a fan sitting in his seat at games or walking on the concourse. The overt slurs toward his South Asian heritage hurt. But sometimes the indirect racism cut even deeper.

“I've been told, ‘Welcome to Canada,’ and I remember the first time I heard that I was mortified,” said Singh, a Canadian-born man whose parents immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. “It was so disheartening, because it was like, how can you just assume I'm not Canadian?

“Then, after becoming a broadcaster, it's a totally different ballgame.”

The reactions to Hockey Night in Punjabi over the years have ranged from celebrating its achievements, to expressing preference for it over the English broadcasts, to nervous humor from white people unsure what to make of something new, to outright racial slurs, as profiled in detail by Courtney Szto, now a Queen’s University Associate professor, during her studies on the hockey experience for South Asian Canadians.

“With the expansion of social media, anyone and everyone feels that they have the right to say whatever they want,” Singh said. “It fuels the passion to try to prove those people wrong, to try to flip the perspective of some of those ignorant minds out there. And it's come in different forms. When Hockey Night in Punjabi first started, we had to explain why this is a good thing for the sport. We had to explain that this can help grow the game, that people of different communities are participating in our sport. Isn't that what we want? And that's exactly what was happening. It took a few initial years for us to do that. And eventually, it became something that was pretty much celebrated by the entire hockey world.”

And while there will always be haters out there, most of the hockey world celebrated last week when Singh became the first Sikh person to do play-by-play for the English broadcast of an NHL game. The experience fulfilled a childhood dream, and it was also downright fascinating for Singh because of the stylistic differences when calling hockey in two different languages.

“The Hockey Night in Punjabi style is very energetic, and that can translate on both sides,” Singh said. “You're not really leaving too many gaps where nothing is being said, and you're pumping out a lot of words and filling all that empty space. Whereas on the English side, it's a little different. They let it breathe more. (In Punjabi) we play off the drama quite a bit, we have dramatic ways of describing things, and you’re able to use a lot more pizzazz. There’s also just the fact that I've called 700-plus hockey games in Punjabi, so your brain gets used to that, too. The first English game, I was a bit tentative, and my own mind was curious to see how I would do it. But I think by Game 2 I started becoming more comfortable. That probably comes with time, too.”

So what comes next for Singh? Will he continue calling games in both languages? Does he plan to transition to the English side permanently? He doesn’t know yet. He loves calling games in Punjabi, but crossing over to the English side would open the door for others in the Sikh community to break through and call games for HNIC. He has no decision in mind for now. He’ll leave it in Sportsnet’s hands.

What Singh does intend to do, no matter what language he’s calling games in, is continue being a role model for minorities working in the sport. It’s something he relishes. It’s why he speaks to high schools and universities. It’s why he led a December summit on racial discrimination in the sport. It’s why he’s sharing the ups and downs of his lifelong hockey story in his book, One Game At A Time: My Journey From Small-town Alberta To Hockey's Biggest Stage, which was released in fall 2020.

“My great grandfather came to Canada in the early 1900s,” Singh said. “A lot of people in the history of Canada went through a lot worse situations than someone like myself has. They had to withstand and couldn't speak up, as they didn't want to lose opportunities. They didn't feel like they had a voice. And I think we're in a different timeframe now where the more we communicate about what our experiences have been, the more we're able to offer that perspective to others.”

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