Indian Immigrants Are Saving Canadian Hockey

How the Punjabi diaspora rescued Canada's national sport


Love sometimes shows up in the strangest places. For Canadian hockey, that place is the Punjabi Indian diaspora, which hails from my own ancestral province of Punjab in Northern India. Thanks to Harnarayan Singh, the turbaned-and-bearded Sikh host of the weekly TV show Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition, the community has overcome a fear of rejection and embraced its adopted country's national sport with a hot passion.

The standard English version of Hockey Night in Canada has been a must-watch for fans of the sport since its TV debut in 1953. But lately, it has been languishing. Singh's spicy new Punjabi version, on the other hand, has been catching on—and not only among South Asians. (Punjabi is the language spoken in the northern Indian province of Punjab, where Sikhism was born.)

President Donald Trump and his fellow immigration restrictionists warn that "mass immigration" from "shitholes"—and Punjab would certainly qualify—poses a threat to Western culture. On a trip to England in 2018, Trump said it was a "shame" that excessively loose immigration policies were changing the "fabric" of Europe's culture. In fact, the E.U. admits about as many immigrants per capita as the United States does—fewer than five per 1,000 people in the host country.

Canada admits eight per 1,000. The foreign-born make up over 20 percent of that country's population, compared to less than 14 percent of America's. And Canadians with South Asian ancestry are projected to hit 9 percent of Canada's population by 2036. If Trump were right, ice hockey would be on its way out, and cricket, a far more popular sport in India, would be ascendant in the Great White North. In fact, the opposite is the case. Instead of threatening this quintessential Canadian institution, immigrants are strengthening it at a time when it needs the help.

To say that hockey is an institution in Canada is an understatement. It is more like a national religion. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper once called it the great "common denominator" that glues the country together. Fully half of players in the National Hockey League (NHL), which despite the name has teams from both the U.S. and Canada, are Canadian—down from 75 percent in 1980. The United States, a nation of 330 million people, had about 562,000 registered players in 2017–18, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. Canada, a country with one-tenth the U.S. population, had 637,000.

That represents a decline of about 80,000 from Canada's 2014–15 peak, a development that has generated a great deal of angst up north. The main reason for the drop is that blue-blooded—or, per local parlance, "old stock"—Canadians are developing qualms about the cost and safety of the sport.

At first blush, immigrants who hail from the Indian subcontinent—many of whom had never seen snow, let alone skated on ice, until they arrived in Canada—seem like unlikely saviors of the game. An additional challenge is that this group has tended to see hockey as a white man's sport, where minorities (and women) are not welcome.

Their perception is not altogether mistaken.

Hockey has been more resistant to diversifying than some other sports. A decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, the NHL was still hanging on to an informal no-color policy. It finally relented in 1958, allowing the injury-ridden Boston Bruins to recruit Willie O'Ree, a black Canadian player.

It's hard to conclusively say whether racism is worse in ice hockey than in football or basketball, where racial and ethnic minorities have a larger presence. But in the NHL, only about 25 out of some 700 total players are black, and only four are of Asian descent. The league is 93 percent white. Lack of diversity doesn't necessarily stem from racism, but it can offer fertile soil for it.

Hockey teams are like warring tribes, and a subset of fans has shown itself willing to reach for whatever intimidation tactic it can to obtain a psychological advantage over the other side. That can include screaming, and sometimes hurling racial epithets, at the opposing players. Fans have been known to throw bananas or make monkey calls at black members of the opposing team. Players, too, lob racial insults to get under the skin of their opponents. P.K. Subban, one of the NHL's highest-profile black players, was subjected to a deluge of racist tweets after he scored two goals, including the overtime game winner, against the Boston Bruins in 2014.

In March, an opposing player confronted Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, a semiprofessional Canadian defenseman, in the penalty box and showed him a picture of a baboon on his cellphone. Meanwhile, fans began harassing Diaby's girlfriend and telling his father, a former professional soccer player from the Ivory Coast, to "go back home." Diaby was so outraged that he walked out midgame. That same month, an amateur league playoff in Western New York was canceled following a similar incident.

But racism is arguably an even bigger problem at the lower levels. Earlier this year, after two 13-year-old black American players in two different states were separately subjected to highly publicized taunting, Subban sprang into action. He made a video telling one of the kids, Ty Cornett, whose parents had told they were thinking about pulling him out of the sport, to "stay strong" and hang in there. Meanwhile, Subban's dad reached out to the other kid, Divyne Apollon II, and encouraged him to not give up. "You are not  defined by the color of your skin," he said, according to The Washington Post. "You are defined by your potential."

In his exhaustive 2003 study of racism in the NHL, veteran sports reporter Cecil Harris wrote that every black player "has had to wage a personal battle for acceptance and respect….Facing abuse that is verbal, physical or psychological because of their color has been an unfortunate reality for almost all of them."

A more recent study by Courtney Szto, an assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health at Queen's University in Ontario, found that South Asian players in Canadian hockey are consistently subjected to racist treatment. Yet members of this group are drawn to the sport, says Szto, a former player, because it makes them feel more Canadian.

This is unusual. As City University of New York sociologist Richard Alba has pointed out, assimilation is not generally thought of as a matter of volition—something that immigrants affirmatively choose to do. Instead, it's what happens to newcomers when they're "making other plans." Indian kids form a taste for Big Macs rather than seekh kebabs because their moms can find a McDonald's far more easily than a dhaba (Indian roadside restaurant).

But hockey is not a matter of convenience or an afterthought for Indo-Canadians, especially Punjabis. They are avid followers of the sport, and not because they can't keep up with cricket. In our wired world, they can—and do. But nothing says "Canadian" to them more than watching a game at Scotiabank Arena wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.

Because of Canada's immigration policies, South Asians tend to come from skilled professions and are among the country's better earners. Hence, even though they're new to the country, they often have the means to enroll their kids in what can be a pricey sport. "They want to give their kids opportunities to fully participate in Canadian life that they didn't have," Szto notes.

Until recently, however, South Asian parents didn't necessarily support trying to make a career out of the game. As new immigrants, they sought financial security first and foremost and therefore tended to push their children into fields where the odds of success were not quite so minuscule. In the 2011 Rob Lowe movie Breakaway—the ice-hockey equivalent of Bend It Like Beckham—a stern Sikh-Canadian dad orders his talented son to give up the sport and take over the family trucking business.

But these attitudes are changing among first- and second-generation South Asian immigrants. And that's fortuitous, because otherwise the sport may well have a dim future in a country whose "visible minority" population—which already makes up about a fifth of the country—is growing by 25 percent annually, while the general population is growing at only 4 percent.

The NHL understands this, which is why it launched "Hockey Is for Everyone," an outreach effort aimed at recruiting minorities all over North America. Singh is the campaign's official ambassador. But his show has likely done more to knock down cultural barriers and make the sport accessible to South Asians than any public campaign.

The first present the 34-year-old Singh got from a cousin after birth was a set of Edmonton Oilers mini hockey sticks.

His parents had emigrated from India in 1966 and became teachers in Brooks, Alberta, a predominantly white town with a population of 3,000 two hours southeast of Calgary. They are devout Sikhs and devout hockey fans, two passions they imparted to him. His sisters were already crazy for the game when he was born. Wayne Gretzky, the world's greatest hockey player, wasn't just a hero in the Singh household. He was a veritable god. As a kid, Harnarayan insisted his family celebrate their hero's birthday—January 26—by making prasad, a traditional Indian sweet used for religious ceremonies.

Observant Sikhs, who believe in the natural perfection of God's creation, don't allow scissors to touch their hair. The men let their beards flow and wrap the long locks on their heads in tightly pleated turbans. Confused with Muslims, they have sometimes faced bigoted attacks, especially after 9/11.

But if Singh's family's Sikh heritage put him at odds with his peers growing up, his hockey-loving heritage created a bond. He says he realized at a young age that one way to get his school friends to overlook his outward weirdness was by talking hockey. And boy, could he talk hockey!

Much to the dismay of his father, a math Ph.D., Singh's calculus skills were subpar. But his hockey knowledge was encyclopedic. By the time he was in fourth grade, he was taping mock shows on a cassette recorder in his bedroom. He experienced his share of harassment and bullying. But soon, "I became known around school as this hockey-obsessed individual," he recalled in an interview with The Players' Tribune. "That allowed me to make friends within different cliques that may not have otherwise accepted me."

Given his gift of gab and love for hockey, it made sense that he dreamed of a career in sports broadcasting. But for a brown-skinned, hirsute kid with a man-bun knotted on the top of his head, this seemed more than a little far-fetched.

Still, in 2004, Singh enrolled in broadcasting school in Calgary's Mount Royal University. He later became a full-time scriptwriter on The Sports Network (TSN)But he wanted to be on air, and that was going to be a hard sell on TSN in the early 2000s. So he quit and returned to Calgary, becoming a local general assignment reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)which had a commitment to diversity. There, he made it a point to talk hockey with Kelly Hrudey, an analyst on the regular English edition of Hockey Night in Canada, every time he ran into him.

This proved a savvy move.

In 2008, CBC decided to roll out versions of Hockey Night in Canada in Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, and Inuktitut (an Inuit language) in an effort to boost its flagging viewership. The Punjabi version was the only one that panned out. And that's at least partly because of Singh.

Hrudey's colleague on the show, Marc Crawford, a former coach of the Vancouver Canucks, was particularly interested in launching a Punjabi edition. He had found that Punjabis in the greater Vancouver area frequently recognized him, and greeted him enthusiastically, at gas stations and grocery stores. He had also seen Punjabi kids playing ball hockey in the streets of Surrey, a Vancouver suburb dominated by South Asians. He concluded that the community had a passion for the sport.

When the Canucks made it to the Stanley Cup championship in 2011, Punjabis held mass prayer vigils for their victory and posted bhangra dance tributes on YouTube. "Their enthusiasm was unmatched," Crawford told The New York Times in 2013"It was as though the one thing they really latched on to in the new country was the Canucks."

When the idea for a show to serve the community was born, Hrudey recommended Singh for the job of anchor. Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition made its debut in 2008 with a play-by-play of the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup finals.

Singh faced a problem during the regular season, however: The show, which aired every Saturday, was filmed in Toronto. He was in no position to give up his full-time gig in Calgary and move there for a part-time one. Yet he did not want to pass up an opportunity to talk hockey on air. So every Friday after work for four years, Singh flew into Toronto from Calgary. He taped two shows on Saturday evening, stumbled back to Toronto's Pearson airport, slept for a few hours on chairs joined into a cot, hopped a redeye home, and arrived just in time for Sunday services at the local gurudawara (Sikh place of worship) that he had attended since he was little.

He didn't breathe a word of this to his bosses on the show, he now says. He didn't want them to worry he wouldn't show up and give the job to some other Sikh dreamer—of whom, of course, there were plenty. He sprang for all his own travel costs.

Singh could have eased the pressure a bit by skipping Sunday services, but his faith was too important to him. Plus, he had a superstitious fear that if he let his career take precedence, his good luck would run out.

The show was an instant hit with South Asians despite its mediocre production values and shoestring budget. Punjabi is the third most widely spoken language in Canada after English and French. (Half a million people in the country name Punjabi as their first language, with plenty of South Asians speaking it as their second language and plenty more who can understand it.) But the genius of the show—something that those not from North India can't fully appreciate—is the particular kind of Punjabi that Singh and his fellow hosts chose to speak. It isn't the mongrelized, part English, part Hindi or Urdu patois of urbanized Punjabis. It's the authentic and evocative vernacular of the Punjabi heartland. Singh's show deploys it in a way that is irreverent but not disrespectful, plain-speaking but not hurtful, freewheeling but not coarse.

Punjabis are like the Italians of India. The show conveys the exuberant, hard-living, hard-loving spirit that appeals to Punjabis of all stripes, the rustic as well as the more sophisticated professional variety—the latter even more than the former, perhaps, because they have a deep nostalgia for the "real" Punjabi they remember hearing their grandparents speak. But even many South Asians who don't fully understand the language find the sight of a turbaned Sikh announcer on air in Canada thrilling and inspiring.

The problem with using only pure Punjabi was that the language does not have a vocabulary for hockey terms. So the crew had to invent one. A hockey puck became a tikki—a fried potato pancake. A slapshot was dubbed a chappede shot, hilarious Punjabi slang for smacking someone across the face. All of this tickles Indian viewers, which is precisely the intention. But the more important consequences of such linguistic creativity were unintended.

The new lingo demystified the game for older Punjabis who didn't speak English. Suddenly, grandmas in oily braids and salwars (traditional Indian outfits) were chatting about favored teams and favorite players with their grandkids. Seven decades ago, when Hockey Night went on TV, Canadian families structured their Saturdays around watching the show together. Now, many Indo-Canadian families are doing the same. Singh says he's had countless old Punjabis tearfully thank him for providing a bonding experience with their grandchildren that they never imagined they could have.

The show really hit its stride when Rogers Media, owner of Canada's Sportsnet One channel, bought the rights for Hockey Night from the NHL in 2013 and put the Punjabi version on Omni Television, a basic cable channel. The CBC is a nonprofit that aims to serve "everyone." In reality, that means treating niche programs without broad appeal like tokens whose main purpose is virtue signaling a commitment to diversity. Despite the Punjabi show's popularity, CBC had canceled it more than once, only to bring it back after a massive outcry from South Asian viewers.

But as a private, for-profit enterprise, Rogers Media invested resources in Hockey Night Punjabi because it could get customers and advertisers to pay for it. The company has expanded the show's crew to seven and housed them in a snazzy studio, allowing them to shoot in high definition and to produce full-spectrum programming that includes pre- and postgame analysis in addition to the usual Saturday night double-header play-by-plays. Singh is now able to make a full-time job out of hosting the program.

The show is constantly innovating, creating segments such as "Meri Gal Sun" ("listen to me")—a refrain Punjabi parents use before unloading on recalcitrant kids—that gives underperforming players and teams advice in a no-holds-barred Punjabi style. One episode last year advised star Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard to have his bags packed to bolt at the end of the season because his team just wasn't good enough for him. Howard didn't listen (maybe because he doesn't understand Punjabi!).

Operating in a privately funded niche market, observes Szto, has allowed the show to challenge traditional Canadian broadcasting norms that very much reflect the high-WASP taste of the original public-station audience. Where Canadians tend to be reserved, urbane, stoic, Punjabis are earthy, blingy, raucous. Because many of Hockey Night Punjabi's viewers didn't grow up watching hockey, they have to be enticed by "adding masala"—spice mix—as Singh puts it. And the ingredients of this masala? As the Vancouver Sun's Gordon McIntyre once wrote, the program is part international soccer, part Bollywood, with "a pinch of [World Wrestling Entertainment] and a generous dose of infectious enthusiasm."

The closest thing to it in mainstream hockey is Don Cherry, the legendary hockey broadcaster who co-hosts the "Coach's Corner" segment on the original Hockey Night. He's a conservative who has made a name for himself as the funny and lovable Archie Bunker of hockey—irreverent, politically incorrect, and a tad pompous. But that shtick, which never quite worked with South Asians, had begun to lose its charm with regular Canadians even before Cherry got himself fired for questioning the patriotism of immigrants on air last fall. Hockey Night Punjabi's down-to-earth approach, where sportscasters talk to rather than at viewers, is much more attuned to the new cultural sensibilities, Szto notes. Sometimes non-Punjabi speakers tune in to the Punjabi show, either because certain games are only airing there or because they don't care for the personalities on the regular network.

As of December 2017, the program averaged 209,000 viewers, according to Szto. Compared to the 1.46 million viewers that the regular English edition of Hockey Night commands, this may seem low. But that 1.46 million figure represents a massive fall from the 5 million viewers the show enjoyed at its peak in the 1960s. A higher percentage of Punjabi speakers watch their version than English-speaking Canadians watch the original. Although Omni does not offer official ratings, Szto says the viewership is growing rapidly.

The moment that catapulted Hockey Night Punjabi out of its ethnic enclave came in the first game of the 2016 Stanley Cup finals, after the Pittsburgh Penguins' Nick Bonino scored the winning goal. Singh went wild, shouting the player's name 11 times in rapid succession and ending with a long drawn out "Nick Boninoooooooooooo" that outlasted the buzzer. The call went viral and has come to be regarded as one of the all-time great hockey moments. Corporate sponsorships started pouring in after that.

When the Penguins won the Cup that year, Singh and his colleagues were treated like rock stars, just like the players themselves. During the victory parade in Pittsburgh, he was warmly invited onstage to repeat the Bonino call in front of adoring fans. So overwhelmed were they by the love and attention, the Hockey Night Punjabi crew later wrote an emotional thank-you letter to the team. "The truth is, the members of our community living in the United States have faced very difficult challenges due to their identity," it said. "Our visit was the polar opposite of the experience many have had and this has filled our community with hope and optimism."

Life hasn't been the same for the show since. The following year, during the festivities surrounding the NHL All-Star Game, Singh and his crew were sitting in their booth at a J.W. Marriott in Los Angeles, munching a mushroom pizza. A man came over to introduce himself. He and his sons were huge fans of their work, he said. The man was Wayne Gretzky.

"Right now," Singh says, "it is tough to find any hockey fan in Canada who doesn't know of our show." But Hockey Night Punjabi hasn't only grown the audience for the game in its community. It has grown the game too.

David Sax, a Canadian journalist, wrote in The New York Times in 2013 that in the four years since its inception, the program had paid major dividends in terms of recruitment. In big cities dominated by South Asians and other "visible minorities," it was prompting parents to sign up their kids to learn the sport. Brampton Hockey, a junior league in a town north of Toronto, had seen about a 20 percent increase in participation among South Asians over two years, Sax reported.

That trend has only accelerated. Some 60 to 80 percent of the players in the Surrey Minor Hockey Association, a British Columbian kids league, are Punjabis, notes Dampy Brar, a co-founder of the 2-year-old APNA Hockey, a hockey school with branches in Calgary and Edmonton. The organization's explicit aim is to nurture talent in the South Asian community. Although the school welcomes everyone, says Brar—a clean-shaven Sikh who played professionally for the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League—its main purpose is to offer a comfortable space to Indo-Canadians who don't feel their kids would fit in at the overpriced hockey academies that upper-crust "old stock" Canadians patronize and that have traditionally served as a pipeline to the professional leagues.

APNA Hockey makes it a point to have South Asian pros with a shared cultural background mentor the kids, in order to give them the sense that the highest levels of the sport are not beyond their reach. Some folks are concerned that separate schools smack of incipient segregation. The better way to think about it, though, is that the community is finding its own way to overcome systemic barriers and access a mainstream institution (professional hockey) without the need for legal interventions or special pleading.

Incidentally, although it is not impossible for practicing Sikh hockey players to stuff their long hair under a helmet, many in fact do end up shearing it to save themselves the hassle—another example of how immigrants, over time, trade old attachments for new ways in order to fully seize the opportunities in their adopted land.

To date, three Punjabi players have made it to the NHL: Jujhar Khaira, who currently plays for the Edmonton Oilers, and Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra, both now retired. But given the growing South Asian presence at the grassroots, Singh and Brar agree it's only a matter of time before South Asians break into the NHL in a big way, injecting new blood into the sport. There are already a fair number of players in the junior leagues. For example, in 2014 there were three Punjabi players on the Everett Silvertips, a Western Hockey League team, all hoping to get drafted by the NHL. Among them was Khaira, who succeeded.

It's also totally within the realm of possibility that Singh—not despite his Punjabi sensibility but because of it—will one day make it to the television big leagues and co-host the English edition of Hockey Night, joining greats like Ron MacLean and Jim Hughson. He already appears on the show regularly as a guest commentator. And he's been calling games for the Sportsnet channel in English—which he of course speaks with a perfect Canadian accent. (For those versed in both languages, listening to Singh switch from Punjabi to Canadian English is like hearing an Appalachian switch from a hillbilly drawl to flawless French.)

In fact, notes Szto, Canadian hockey fans would sooner embrace someone exotic-looking who knows and passionately loves the game than a white dude like George Stroumboulopoulos, whom Rogers Media tried as a co-host of Hockey Night with disastrous results. Although he was a major media personality who'd earned a name for himself VJing for the MuchMusic channel and serving as a CBC talk show host, Stroumboulopoulos didn't have a solid hockey background. Ratings took a nosedive as unimpressed fans tuned out, and he was ousted from the show after less than two years. After Cherry got the boot, some hockey fans suggested replacing him with Singh.

Perhaps racism in hockey is only skin-deep. Fans take the game too seriously to really care whether sportscasters shave their faces or wrap turbans around their heads. What matters is the quality of the play and of the commentary.

The fact that a Sikh could be the man for the job is testimony to the assimilative capacity of immigrants, who aren't nearly the threat to native culture that restrictionists make them out to be. Of course they're nostalgic for the things they leave behind. But they're also eager to explore and embrace the new things their adopted homes offer. And when they do so, they strengthen—not tear apart—a country's cultural fabric. They weave new strands into it, creating a far richer and more durable tapestry.