Harnarayan Singh is a play-by-play commentator on Hockey Night in Canada. He is also the author of the national bestselling book One Game at a Time, which has received praise from countless iconic figures in the hockey world. In this episode, Harnarayan discusses his journey from a childhood dream, to facing direct (and hidden) racism, to standing on stage in front of thousands of fans at the Stanley Cup Parade in Pittsburgh.
Connect with Harnarayan: instagram.com/icesingh
Listen to the podcast here
Perseverance, Racism, And Faith With Harnarayan Singh
This is a very special episode for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it is the 50th episode of the show. I’m super excited. I’ve managed to get to the big 50. To commemorate and celebrate this episode, I have a super special guest. Somebody I’ve wanted to track down for a while. It was fate that we ended up having to wait until the 50th episode. I don’t think I could have written it any better.
Please welcome my guest, Mr. Harnarayan Singh AKA Ice Singh. If you’re not fully familiar with Harnarayan, he is a play-by-play commentator for NHL hockey games on Hockey Night in Canada. He has broadcast over 700 hockey games. He’s received the Meritorious Service Medal by the Governor-General of Canada. His goal call in 2016 of Bonino Bonino Bonino went viral and landed him on stage in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the Stanley Cup Parade in Pittsburgh.
He also happens to be the author of the national best-selling book, One Game at a Time, which has received incredible amounts of praise from iconic people like Ron McClain, Bob Mckenzie, Kelly Hrudey, Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell and a bunch of other people. It is an amazing book. I could go on with a bunch more things but I’ll stop there. Thank you so much Harnarayan for joining me on the show. I’m truly so excited to have you.
Thanks for the kind intro. You’re right. This is a long time coming. I owe you one. It’s been a crazy year for me but I’m excited to be on.
I had no issue waiting. I knew you were super busy and I was excited. Every time we connected, you’d be like, “I have this whole other thing that came up and I got all these people to meet.” I was like, “That’s amazing. That’s so cool.” Before we jump in, I’m going to say this a few times through the show. Harnarayan generously offered to give away three signed copies of the book. What we are doing to create a little bit of a contest is to leave a review on Apple Podcasts for this show. Say you read this episode with Harnarayan so I know that you’d be entered.
Send me a screenshot of that review because a lot of times when you put your little nickname on there, I don’t know who it is. Either put your full name or send me a screenshot with your email address so I know who to connect with if you win the book. There are not a lot of people who get to say that they are doing and living their dream job. This is something you dreamt of as a child. I wanted to be a professional soccer player as a kid. Unfortunately, I’m not doing that. What does that feel like for you to be able to say that’s what you do?
It’s special. As life goes on, the more people you meet, talk to and life experience, you realize how rare it is. My family tells me I was four years old when I was saying I wanted to be on Hockey Night in Canada so I knew from a very young age. I’ve got a grade six project where I had an autobiography and I wrote, “I want to be a hockey commentator.” The seeds were planted when I was young. Eventually, I was told I was such a long shot and that it was probably impossible for a number of reasons partly being from where I was in a small town in Southern Alberta.
Secondly, being a visible minority, wearing a turban, having a beard and all those things. There wasn’t diversity on TV and radio back when I was growing up. Also especially in the world of sports, it wasn’t right. When you don’t have representation then it seems impossible. With the fact that I had to defy the odds to have this happen, it means a lot to me. I’m grateful and I know it’s special. It doesn’t feel like you’re going to work. It’s a thrill to be doing it.
What inspires me will inspire a lot of other people too to hopefully pursue their dreams and their passions in that sense. It wasn’t obviously smooth sailing. There were a lot of naysayers. The purpose of this show is to inspire others, share stories from people who have excelled or succeeded at certain tasks or their professions so people in other professions can take away insights and inspiration to hopefully excel at theirs.
One of the important things is to talk about the struggles, twists, turns and everything that come along the way. There was one little story that you mentioned here somebody at CBC Radio, a producer that you looked up to who specifically said, “Don’t do sports because people like you don’t get into sports. Do the news instead.” That’s the same thing your family doctor said to you. You hear that stuff at a young and impressionable age. How do you internalize and deal with that? I know there are many others who are hearing things that are discouraging them along their path.
We’re so fortunate to be living in the best country in the world where it doesn’t matter who you are but those opportunities to have your dreams come true are available to us. A person like myself, how I look, who I am and what my faith is, I wear it on my sleeve as it is saying, I’m not sure I would have been able to have this dream come to fruition in the United States. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to in India. We see everything that’s going on, persecution and oppression of minorities. There’s everything going on in the Middle East.
You look at the entire world. Canada is a very unique society in the world. We have long ways to go and I can give example after example of why we have long ways to go. In saying that, we still are an example to the world of how it can work. The fact that Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi even exists shows the power of sports, how it can bring a country and people together. It shows the beauty of multiculturalism that we can celebrate each other’s differences.
I would say to naysayers out there, people who are feeling that they want to go for something and someone might be cautioning them. If you feel you have it in you to go above and beyond to work hard, don’t let anybody tell you that you have to change and it’s not possible. It is possible. I’m living proof of that because of the fact that after paying for my own flights and done a lot of crazy things, here I am. I’m getting to do my dream job.
If you feel you have it in you to go above and beyond to work hard, don’t let anybody tell you that you have to change and it’s not possible. It is possible.
Those people in my workplace at CBC were saying, “There’s probably not a chance for you on sports. If there’s a chance for you on air, it would be news. Otherwise, you’d make a great producer behind the scenes.” No disrespect to producers. They are the ones that make everything work. They’re the boss of the people who are on the air. I wanted to give myself a shot on the air. That was my passion.
I remember a veteran broadcaster who I was sitting with. Even when Hockey Night Punjabi had begun, he looked at me and nobody else was around. He’s like, “The only reason you’re part of Hockey Night in Canada is because of this Punjabi thing. Otherwise, there’d be no way somebody like you would be on Hockey Night in Canada.” When I was younger back then, you’re always nervous about things. You’re not as confident and comfortable in your own skin in the industry yet. I didn’t even know how to react to him.
After reflection, life experience and everything we’ve gone through in the world in the last while, I would know to stand up, defend myself and say, “I’ve gone to school for this. I’ve studied radio, television and hockey. I know a whole bunch about it. I have experience as a broadcaster so I’m very qualified to be on it. I’m not just a token.” Those moments point to the ignorance that is still out there. Sometimes it surprises you from the type of person who will say it and who you think is very intelligent. They’ll come across and say something too that’s quite hurtful in that way.
That’s the kind of thing that can easily discourage somebody. That would hurt to hear from somebody that you look up to, you consider to be a peer or even beyond that and say something like that to you. That would be difficult. The fact that you’re able to deal with that is amazing to continue to persevere and get to where you are.
Do you ever feel like there’s a dark energy within you where you take that and you say, “I’ll show you?” You’re not that type of guy. You’re a super nice guy and you don’t say anything like that in the book. I was wondering if that motivates you. I personally feel like successful people need to have a little bit of that to get them through the tough times. Do you feel you have a bit?
It’s specific to each situation. The people who have blunt racism and racial slurs, it’s ridiculous. I get things on social medial media like, “He better shave that terrorist beard off his face. I don’t want my hockey coming to me from a guy in a turban.” To those people, I feel that where it’s like, “I’m going to do a good job to prove you wrong. I’m here and my employer wants me to be one of the faces of their company so screw it. If you have a problem with it, it doesn’t matter. The fact that I’m in this position proves you wrong.”
There’s a bit of that in there but when it comes to well-intentioned comments like if I’ve gotten welcome to Canada, I’ve told some of these stories in the book too, those ones are harder to take in that sense because it’s almost like, “I’m just as Canadian and patriotic. How can you assume I’m new here and all things about my community?” I have struggled with confidence in the last while, especially in the foray onto the English side in the last few years and things like that. Sometimes you have to be comfortable. Being comfortable in your skin takes time.
My message to other people out there is that be proud of who you are and don’t change who you are for anybody else. Those things are important. My faith and family, those things have kept me going. I always look at it that if I’m going through something that’s a tough time, my ancestors, our history and our community went through extremely tough and hard times that are what I’m going through doesn’t even compare. That also keeps me going too.
Be comfortable in your skin. Be proud of who you are and don’t change for anybody else.
I can even look at my parents’ generation who came in the ‘60s. My great-grandfather came in the early 1900s. The stuff they went through is a lot more tough and challenging than what I’ve gone through. If you look way back in our history, it’s unbelievable. Those things make me realize and put into perspective that I have a lot to be grateful for.
Let’s move a little further on in your career then. You had those naysayers earlier on. You were doing the internship at TSN and eventually this opportunity to do Hockey Night in Punjabi comes up. Maybe I should give a little bit of background story here for our friends who are in the US or who don’t follow hockey. The big show in Canada is Hockey Night in Canada. It’s the one that most Canadians are sitting down to watch hockey every Saturday evening. There are a couple of games on and it’s nationally broadcast. All was done in English but also in French. Those are the two national languages. How long has it been?
2008 was the very first year we did this.
In 2008 somebody had the idea to do Hockey Night in Punjabi, the same broadcast but with Punjabi-speaking commentators. That’s where you came in. I want to share the story and the struggle behind it. There was no budget for this production. You’re doing this on your own dime on a shoestring budget. Tell us a little bit about what that looked like because you lived in Alberta and the show was produced in Toronto.
It’s a four-hour flight from where I lived. Initially, CBC Sports was operating and managing Hockey Night in Canada at the time, which as you described as an institution here. It’s Monday night football in the states for NFL but it’s even bigger. It’s be all end all cream of the crop hockey and sports show in Canada. David Massey at CBC sports at the time had this idea like, “Let’s do something multicultural diverse.”
At the time, that wasn’t even as much of a buzzword as it is with diversity and inclusion so give CBC Sports credit for picking up this idea and going forward with it. They tried a bunch of different languages and none of them stuck except for Punjabi. When they started it, they were looking for commentators and at the time, I was already a reporter with CBC Radio living in Calgary. It was what you would equate to as a pilot project or even a one-off.
That was the first game I ever called was a Stanley Cup Final 2008. It was a riot. You could not have expected the media attention, publicity and positivity in Canada. It was unbelievable. It was a success that CBC Sports and Hockey Night in Canada came back at the beginning of the next regular season and said, “Let’s make this a Saturday night doubleheader for the whole entire regular season.” I had flown in from Calgary to Toronto, a four-hour flight across a good part of Canada to get there.
When they decided to do this as the entire regular season, they said, “There’s no budget for this show at all. We’re doing it because it was great. We’re doing it out of our own existing budgets. We don’t have anything to pay for your travel.” I also knew that Toronto is a big city. That is the epicenter of the hockey world and also the broadcasting world whether it’s news or sports in Canada. That’s the place to be if you want to be in this industry.
I knew that it would be so easy for them to find somebody else to do this if I didn’t agree so I made these decisions split second with my family’s support. We said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be there. We’ll figure out how to get you there.” For the first few seasons of the show, I paid for my own flights. I slept at the airport because if I’m already paying for my flights, I’m not going to play for a hotel as well.
I would call the games, come straight to the airport, try to find a bench and then take the earliest flight out. I did that for a good few seasons of the show. Luckily, things have changed for me and for the better. That’s how it started off. I was willing to do whatever it was going to take to make the show successful and for me to be a part of it. Those were the things.
My mom kept saying, “This is Seva for the community,” which is selfless service. It’s one of the teachings in the Sikh faith. She’s like, “Think of this as Seva for the community.” We felt that the Punjabi community and all those validated their existence in Canada. Everybody felt more Canadian. It was like, “We’ve made it. The Hockey Night in Canada is being broadcast in Punjabi. Is there anything cooler than that?”
That’s why we felt this was something that was so positive for the community, for future generations and for the sport of hockey. We kept at it and that’s how it began in 2008. I’d started the social media on my own, the accounts sending out messages to the community, emails and texts to say like, “This is where to watch.” Its grassroots levels have started off.
You said a few seasons. You did that every Saturday. For how long is a regular season plus the playoffs?
That’s 25, 26 regular season weekends and then the playoffs because, at that time, we were covering full series. For a couple of months, I was in Toronto. During the playoffs, I had to find family and friends, room there and had a rental car. During the regular season, it’s about 25, 26 weekends of flying back and forth.
Every Saturday morning you fly into Toronto, do the show and then you end late, go to the airport, find a bench, wake up first thing whenever the first flight is and leave. You did that for six months every weekend for three seasons. That’s incredible. The lesson there is sticking with it and doing whatever it takes to get to that goal that you have for yourself. There was a funny but sad story. On one of these airports you were staying in, you saw an icon, Bob Cole. Who’s an American announcer that we can compare him to?
There’s Madden and Bob Costas. A legendary broadcaster that everybody in the country knows in a face and a voice. Each of those seasons in Toronto that I was flying myself something started to get a little better, whereas like, “I found a family friend’s place to start spending the nights on the weekend.” Eventually, when I proved my commitment to the show and I had a couple of people come to stand up to bat for me then the flights started getting paid. By year four, I started getting flights and a hotel too. It was in succession, little by little, things started to get better. In this specific situation, I don’t have hotel room paid for yet.
What I did is because I had mapped out the whole Toronto Pearson International Airport to which is the best bathrooms, what are the best benches, I figured out that there was a Sheraton Gateway Hotel attached to the airport. In the lobby there, they had some nice couches and furniture. I walked in casually and gingerly. I got a spot on a couch. I would hook my luggage to and try to hide my luggage so no one working at the hotel would be like, “Who’s this guy?”
One day, from the corner of my eye from far away, I noticed there’s Bob Cole. Bob Cole is from Newfoundland and he’s been calling Hockey Night in Canada for decades already. He’s the guy calling the Stanley Cup Final at that time. It’s a big deal. I want to go up and talk to him. It’s 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM. I don’t know if he was grabbing a drink or chatting with somebody else in the hotel lobby or one of those hotel lobby restaurants.
I couldn’t get up to talk to him and the reason was like, “How would I answer to him?” I had my luggage and laptop bag all with me. It’s 2:30 AM and we’d be like, “Hello.” Eventually, the question would come up like, “Are are you staying here?” What I said to him was, “I’m sleeping at the airport, waiting for four hours to pass until my flight.” If I’ll be blunt, I was embarrassed about that so I didn’t go up to talk to him because I felt like I didn’t have an answer. I regret that because it would have been a great way to start a rapport with a guy who has a great reputation. Maybe I could have learned a lot from him.
It was so rare to run into him because of the fact that he’s calling games on Saturday night. I’m calling games on Saturday. Our paths aren’t necessarily crossing because of wherever you’re calling the games from, if I’m in a studio or if he’s at a different arena. It was a rare opportunity but missed because I didn’t have enough courage to the reality of my situation I didn’t want to come across.
From my perspective, it’s pretty understandable where you were and what you’re doing. At the time, you were also trying not to let the producers know that you are doing all of this because they didn’t want to say, “We’ll find someone local.”
I didn’t want them to worry about like, “Are you going to get here in time? What happens if you miss a flight?” I had always planned that in advance to make sure that there are still other flights after mine if it got canceled or if it was bad weather, I would figure out I’m going to go earlier. I didn’t want them to also think I was a lunatic that does that, like paying for their own flights to fly across for a one-day-a-week show. At the time, I was not being paid much at all because there was no future plan for it at that time. It was like, “We had to plant the seed to make it grow.”
It would have been easy at that point to say, “This is not going anywhere. It’s way too much hassle.” You probably were a little bit crazy, to be honest, but it was for a good reason. I agree with your mom as far as doing civil for the community because from my perspective, my family’s perspective, my friends and people that I know, everybody was amazed by this whole process. I can’t believe how far everything’s coming to that in the past decade. If we fast forward a little bit to 2016, I don’t know if you would like or don’t like talking about this because you probably talked about it one million times. This goal call for Nick Bonino took off and went viral in every sense of the word.
In fact, there are a couple of sports shows that I watch or listen to every single day. One of them is Around the Horn in the US and even Around the Horn played it. It’s a big show. There are well-known people on that show. That was when I was like, “Something’s happening here.” I would love for you to tell me what happened with the goal call and then we’ll go from all the craziness that came after that.
It’s a blessing in disguise. I am so grateful I made the mistake of writing down a third-line center. I wrote down Nick Bonino’s name accidentally in my notes that I had printed out for left-wing center and right-wing. There it was, “Bonino, Bonino, Bonino.” I had even printed it out. I do this thing where I have my notes in my peripheral vision. It’s all ready to go. I still was oblivious to it. Everybody pointed it out laughing.
A minute before going to it, I don’t have time to reprint or rejig my notes. It’s funny. Lo and behold, during those playoffs, there are multiple Bonino, Bonino, Bonino goal calls because he scored a whole bunch of goals that were big. They were series and game-winners late in the game to tie it. He was doing everything. It was wild. The first Bonino, Bonino, Bonino goal call happened because of that mistake.
Then Pittsburgh Penguins fans ate it up. They love it. We had this cult following. They loved Hockey Night Punjabi. You go onto the next round and it kept skyrocketing. They were asking for it. They were like, “If he scores a goal, you got to do it.” In the Stanley Cup Final game one, it was served on a platter for me. The game’s tied. There are two and a half minutes to go. He’s standing in front of the net. It’s the game-winner. It then came out and that’s the one that took off and went viral all over the hockey world.
It brought Hockey Night Punjabi and myself to the mainstream stage. By that time in Canada, everybody knew what we were about and why our show was needed. For the rest of the hockey world especially the United States and everywhere else like Europe, the Bonino call brought us to the forefront and broader and greater hockey family.
Sometimes little accidents are the things that lead you to these amazing findings. Tell me what happened. What did that lead to ultimately the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup? What did you guys end up doing?
During the Stanley Cup Final, as it was getting closer and closer to those elimination games, I was getting messages from the Pittsburgh Penguins. I had been interviewed countless times. I can’t even fathom how many media outlets had interviewed me. Part of it was the Pittsburgh Penguins themselves. They were playing it on the jumbotron. Apparently in Pittsburgh, every radio and TV station, I was being told by some of the Pittsburgh Penguins employees, one being Celina Pompeani to talk about her in the book who was the host for the Pittsburgh Penguins TV.
They’re online and in-arena broadcast hosts. She was also saying, “You have no idea how big it is here. It’s crazy. If they win the cup, can you come down for the Stanley Cup Championship Parade?” I remember talking to our producers about it and stuff. They were like, “What do they have planned for you?” I remember saying, “It doesn’t necessarily matter what they have planned because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
We’re not even a home broadcaster for the Penguins. We are a show based in Canada for a niche community and we’re being asked to come to be a part of their Stanley Cup celebration. My colleagues and I were like, “We got to go.” We booked our flights. We show up there and the Penguins rolled out the red carpet for us. It was an amazing tour we got. We eventually surprise the Pittsburgh Penguins in the dressing room with the Bonino call. This is after they’ve won the Stanley Cup.
The Stanley Cup’s in the dressing room. They were getting ready to take their Stanley Cup picture. The team’s cheering and celebrating with us. We’re invited on the ice to celebrate with them with the Stanley Cup when they’re getting their picture taken. From there, the Stanley Cup dinner for the players, ownership, management and their families were a part of that. Meeting Mario Lemieux and the coach of the Penguins and having them say.
I remember Mario Lemieux first putting out his hand. He pulls me in for hug and goes, “You’re a part of Pittsburgh Penguins history.” Then the coach said, “We played your guys’ goal calls to amp up our team in our video sessions.” It was beyond anything you could ever imagine. It’s beyond your wildest dreams. It is the closest you can get as a broadcaster to winning a cup or being a player on a championship team. That’s the wild stuff that we’ll never ever forget.
Every time I read or hear the story, it’s amazing to me.
The chapter of the book is called They’re Here because right when we landed in Pittsburgh, there were tweets of people taking pictures of the box of us saying, “They’re here.” I’ve had some people from the Penguins Organization telling me that when they got their copy of the book, they skipped over, started with that chapter and then read the other ones after because they were so excited to read about it.
People were taking a photo of you and tweeting, “They are here.” That’s something you would say to Mario Lemieux arriving like, “He’s here.” They’re doing that for you. It’s unbelievable. With all of these things that you’ve done like sleeping in the airport and making amazing goal calls, you’re broadcasting on the English side of Hockey Night in Canada. The Hockey Night Punjabi is the offshoot separate brand but it’s under the Hockey Night in Canada umbrella. You’re on that real, full-on institution that Monday night football. How does that feel for you?
It’s so incredible. I’ve wanted this for so long and I didn’t know if this day was going to come. After the Bonino call, I was asked to be on the English side in terms of a host capacity. I would be doing a ringside reporter role. When the game’s about to start, you set the scene and then you do player intermission interviews. From 2016 until 2020, I got to do that. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, the NHL had to go on a pause.
When they had their return to play and their playoffs, I ended up being geographically in the right spot in Alberta in one of the hockey bubbles they had where the players were all in and they were in Edmonton. I was close by and I was one of the hosts. I got to do three rounds of the playoffs in that role too, which was pretty amazing. I’ve always known and I’ve communicated this as well a lot to my employers.
While I appreciate that role, I feel like the play-by-play aspect is something that I’ve done so much in on the Hockey Night Punjabi side. That’s my forte and what I’m most passionate about. You never know if that day’s going to come. When I got the phone call, it happened so quickly. “Are you ready? Now is the time.” It was crazy because the season started and in my first game I probably found out 4 or 5 days before. The game I’m calling isn’t in my city and I’m figuring out the travel and all that but you’re also figuring out your prep here.
I’m going to be working with a new producer, new colleagues and all sorts of stuff. It’s a little bit different workflow, different expectations and a higher stage. There are nerves. I fight some issues confidence-wise. That first game was good to get that under my belt. I was a nervous wreck. Since then, it’s been a thankfully an upward trajectory for me because I’ve put in a lot of time, effort, hard work and trying to learn and improve as much as possible.
I was comfortable doing this in one language for 13 seasons and 700 plus games. You get comfortable there. Your brain’s wired to call a hockey game and with using specific vocabulary. It’s a little bit of a battle. There are all these kinds of things at play behind the scenes but the goal calls are some of the things that I have the most fun with. Eventually, as the season went on, I started getting more and more comfortable.
By the end of it, I was assigned playoffs which are beyond me. It’s a thrill. It’s crazy to think that the playoffs are where I felt the most comfortable or being myself. I felt as close as I’ve ever felt to calling the comfort level that I have on the Punjabi side to the English side. It’s been a process but it’s been fun as well. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
We’re giving away a few and signed copies of the book, One Game at a Time, which we’ve touched on a few of the stories in the episode. There are so many other cool stories as well and stuff that we won’t have time to get into where Harnarayan talks a lot about his upbringing, the Sikh faith and the fact that you’re a rock star musician also. I’d love you to tell me more about that. The best way how you can enter to win a book is to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. If you read this episode at some point along the way, make sure you leave a review, send me a screenshot whether it’s on Instagram, email me or whatever it is. We’ll enter you and Harnarayan will send you a signed copy.
You already did a little bit earlier and alluded to we’ve come a long way but there’s a long way for us to go still. There’s a story in the book that I thought was so poignant. You’ve been wearing a turban since you were very small. Back in those days, the perception of that in a small town in Alberta, a predominantly White area, wearing a turban might not have been the same. It’s not the same as what it is. You tell a story about being bullied and that’s one thing we’ll touch on. The specific thing I’d love for you to tell me a little bit about is there was a kid who stood up for you at that time. I felt proud of that kid. I was like, “This guy is helping him out.” Fast forward, a very significant time for everybody, maybe it’s not as well known how significant it was for the Sikh community. 9/11 happened in 2001. You know what I’m alluding to. If you can tell me a little bit about what happened there and what your experience was.
In a small town, you end up going to school with the same crop of students from kindergarten all the way to high school. You get to know these kids and their families pretty well. That’s the beauty of a small town. When I was younger in school showing up with a turban and we spoke Punjabi at home, we’re vegetarian. We listened to different music. You’re an outsider. My name is 10 letters long with 4 vowels. I knew I was an outsider. No one needed to point that out to me but there are kids who do point that out to you.
Elementary was a lot of curiosity. It was always answering questions about my appearance and the differences. Some of the boys who bigger and stronger who played ice hockey more than I did, one of them went out of his way. I would never have been friends with this guy had it not been for my passion for hockey. He thought it was cool that I knew so much about hockey.
I’m always wearing hockey sweaters and shirts and talking about it because of that, he used to say, “If someone gives you a problem, let them know they have to come through me.” That made me feel good too. I had that in my earlier years of elementary school but things change as you grow up. At junior high, I started having some blunter bullying and had some pretty crazy moments that stand out where I was tackled or singled out, bullied kept continually finding different ways to give me traumatic experiences. That’s part of it.
You mentioned 9/11. I’m in high school at the time. On that morning, New York City had a tragic event there. You think what is it relate to the town of Brooks, Alberta. You have the images of Bin Laden. Small parts of the Muslim faith wear turbans. It’s not everybody. There are different styles. The world is not educated about this type of thing. You see any religious headgear, headwear, a symbol and you make these assumptions.
What happened to me is I’m walking alone in my high school in the hallway concrete walls. This guy taller and stronger than me grabs me from my throat out of nowhere and is choking me. He’s holding me and slams me against the concrete wall. This is the same kid that I knew in elementary school who was willing to protect me. This is the same kid saying tons of racist, hateful words, swearing and spewing vicious hatred words at me and saying like, “I can’t believe you guys did this. Go back to where you’re from. How can you do this to us?” I’m trying to get him off me, get his hands off my throat and trying to push him away.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to croak out words saying like, “I have nothing to do with this. What are you talking about?” I’m like, “We’ve known each other for over a decade. Our families have known each other and we’ve been to each other’s houses. What are you talking about?” It was an eye-opener for me. I instantly realized at that moment that things had not only changed for me but they had changed for the entire community. Within days, we heard about Arizona, the Sikh gentleman who had a gas station. He’s outside his gas station sweeping the floor. He’s shot point-blank.
We started hearing all these stories about hate crimes, murders and crazy stuff. I knew at that moment that this has completely changed everything. Airport security for me changed so much. It was not right. We’re the only family in Brooks with turbans and who look the way we do. If someone in my high school who I have known for over a decade is going to have that type of reaction, I can’t trust anybody anymore. You don’t know what’s going to flip a switch for somebody and all of a sudden they’re going to turn on you. It taught me a lesson about humanity.
That was a hard lesson to learn. It hurts to this day. A number of years ago before the book, I was asked to write for The Player’s Tribune. I was asked by the co-writer who worked with me on it. We talked at length about all sorts of experiences. When it was decided that this was a strong one to include, my parents pleaded with me that I shouldn’t put the kid’s name in there. People change, you never know.
They made me promise to them that I’ll never say this kid’s name out in public. We don’t want to cause any family or somebody issues. I’ve respected that but I know who he was but it’s still shocking. Even when I talk about it, that someone could turn on you like that. I’m learning that it speaks to what some of the upbringing is, what some of their friends’ circle or what those viewpoints are gets downloaded into kids.
If a high school kid can react like that then they’ve downloaded some misinformation or they have people they know who have viewpoints that are full of hatred and ignorance amongst others. There are so many people out there who say, “This doesn’t happen anymore. I thought the world had changed.” It happens. Ethan Bear and Edmonton Oilers player in the playoffs when he made one mistake in the game, there’s amount of racism he received. I received racism calling the playoffs. It happens. I’ve heard so many people say that, “I didn’t think this happened anymore.” I’m sorry but it’s a wakeup call. It does happen.
That’s an incredible story and upsetting story but there are lessons to be learned from that. One thing we were saying is there are clear indications that we’ve come a long way. We’ve made a lot of progress. Look at you on national television and broadcast. That is a symbol of progression. You are a symbol of progression but there’s a lot of other stuff that tells us we’re not there yet.
We don’t need to get into details of the different racist things. From your perspective, what kind of things would you like to see that would show you that we’re continuing to grow or making more of a change in this direction of inclusion? DEI is a catchphrase and a popular term. What do we need to see?
It’s going to take leadership from corporations and big companies. It’s going to have to take leadership from the majority. You got to have allies from other communities like people who are Caucasian, people who are in positions of power to make these decisions to help create more diversity and inclusion and to help create more representation within their companies and workforce.
That’s going to be big because, without that, we can’t fight this fight ourselves. We can’t change perspectives just ourselves as our community alone. We need some help. For example, you’re talking about me in my position and credit to Sportsnet for making these decisions, there are so many more women this season who have been on the hockey broadcast. It’s amazing to see. I’m seeing that from my five-year-old daughter’s eyes. I see the power of representation.
When she was started watching hockey, when she was between the ages of 3 and 4, she wasn’t seeing as many examples. It was weird because I was seeing when we’re playing hockey at home, mini sticks or on the driveway, she was choosing to be, “I’ll be the coach or I’ll be the referee.” I didn’t realize why she was doing that until I saw her reaction when she saw girls participating in the NHL All-Star Game with that look on her face. I’ll never forget that moment. I realized like, “This is so important.”
She’s seeing more women commentators and her face lights up when she sees that or she hears a woman voice talking about hockey and then seeing women hockey players. All of a sudden, she feels that she can be a player too when we’re playing. It’s a small thing but it gives you the indication that the barrier has finally been broken. She doesn’t have to grow up worrying that she doesn’t have a place in the game. It’s the same way for people who are wearing turbines from the Sikh faith.
I’ve had other young kids in high school come up to me. They’re huge hockey fans but they never thought they’d have a spot in hockey media but because of what we’re doing with Hockey Night Punjabi and the success with me being on the main stage too, they feel like they have a shot. They’ve started social media accounts following their favorite teams. They’ve started hockey podcasts. They’ve had me on as guests and they’ve made me emotional because they’re telling me how much it means to them to see me on there.
You need to have people in place of power ready to take a stand and to make these decisions to put diverse people in place. That’s going to make a big difference going forward. It’s not easy for them too because they receive backlash. A lot of times some companies are worried about, “We’re going to be labeled as doing the token thing.” It has to be done. The face of Canada has changed and so let’s have our companies, workplace and everything else represent what Canada looks like.
You need to have people in place of power ready to take a stand and to make these decisions to put diverse people in place. That’s going to make a big difference going forward.
Over time, as we start to see more representation that will inspire, it will help educate the masses a little bit more on what our country looks like and then inspire other younger people too to work for those positions as well. To wrap up the show, there are always two questions that I like to ask every guest. The first of those two questions is if we could hop in a time machine and go back to a point in your life where you were having a difficult time, you could share that moment if you like. More importantly, what advice would you give to yourself at that time?
I’ll go back to a moment I talked about when veteran reporters said that to me that the only reason I was a part of Hockey Night in Canada was because of Punjabi and otherwise, there’d be no way for somebody like me to be part of Hockey Night in Canada. If I were to go back in time, I would have stood up to that person and I would have said that, “What you’re saying hurts. It’s not right and you’re making these comments because of how I look and because I’m different from you.” I didn’t know what this was at the time but now I know what microaggressions are.
Those types of things are microaggression racism because you shouldn’t be saying that. Anybody can be qualified or capable of doing any job. It doesn’t matter how they look, where they’re from or what their heritage is. I would have gone back and handled that very differently and put that person in their place. I didn’t realize I would carry that with me for the rest of my life too, that being a moment that sticks out. I would have handled it differently.
The constellation of you being able to pass that forward to somebody and giving them the ability to stand up for themselves, hopefully that will be enough for you to feel better about that. The last question that I like to ask every guest is everything that you’ve accomplished to this point, how much of it would you say is due to luck? How much is due to hard work?
I’m going to give all the credit to my faith, a lot of prayers and time doing Seva and being focused on that. This whole thing has been a gift. It’s all the time that I put into that and was fortunate to put into that. This was this dream and this real big hope that I had. I was praying for it. I got to give credit to my faith and Waheguru, the Creator and my family for being there to help me. That’s how it all happened.
I don’t think anybody would have ever been able to predict that Hockey Night in Punjabi would even be something that someday would exist before it happened. This was not on the horizon or in anybody’s predictions. This was something that is a gift. I’m so grateful for it. Not only for what it’s done for me but for the entire community, my colleagues and Canada. That’s what I got to give credit to.
Thank you so much for reading.