Inside Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition’s long fight to create a true reflection of their community.

It’s as if the set designers feared any inch of real estate granted the reprieve of darkness would simply cease to exist. Just after 3 p.m., an hour to air, the lights are up on the Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition set in East Vancouver. A sprawling constellation of overheads reflects off the enormous glass top of the grand desk parked at centre stage; giant screens behind it project even more brightness into the mix, their illuminated white bordering practically buzzing. The front of the desk is adorned with all manner of ornate schematics — a sly jumble of charts, graphs and rink diagrams — the kind that seem impressively complicated as long as you don’t investigate too closely. The graphics are glowing too, of course. Below them, a softer radiance falls just a few inches from the raised platform upon which the desk sits, giving the momentary impression that it’s hovering amid this absurd collection of bulbs. There’s no mistaking this for an amateur operation.

Harnarayan Singh, Randip Janda and Bhupinder Hundal look the part, too, clad in patterned navy suits and ties tinged with red and purple. Hunched over the desk as a Punjabi dance mix blares over the in-studio speakers, the men pore through pages of stats and lineup sheets in preparation for today’s late-afternoon broadcast. Singh sits with pen in hand, coffee cup ahead of him, blazer draped over the back of his chair. Hundal’s buttoned up and ready to go, his eyes darting behind frameless glasses, bouncing between his notes and the laptop in front of him, on which game highlights roll uninterrupted. Janda’s on his feet, mic clipped to his tie, hands in his pants pockets, reviewing notes scrawled on game sheets. Just behind him, the Hockey Night in Canada logo, its curling blue lettering long a stamp of legitimacy in this country, holds steady on the background screens.

The significance of this visual can’t be overstated. For the people behind Hockey Night Punjabi, this set, and the studio it sits within, are more than just an address stamped on a business card. This is the final, shining stop on a circuitous path that has run from Toronto to Calgary to Vancouver, with all manner of unexpected turns and detours along the way. It is the tangible proof that after fighting for a voice and devoting years to reinventing and refining it with eyes on bringing about positive change for their community, Hockey Night Punjabi has found itself. Now, bent to a shared purpose in front of that iconic logo, they look perfectly calm and right at home. But their work is still far from done.

A steady transformation led by Sekhon (back row centre), brought in new on-air talent including Taqdeer Thindal and Amrit Gill (back row), as well as Janda and Harpreet Pandher (front row), to join Singh and Hundal.

The first seeds of the effort to broadcast hockey games in Punjabi were planted in the years leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with two separate shoots sprouting in opposite ends of the country. One came up in Toronto, when Singh — a general assignment reporter for CBC, based in Calgary at the time — was contacted by Joel Darling, then-executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada, about heading to the city to call NHL games in Punjabi. CBC was experimenting with broadcasting games in a number of different languages — Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian and Inuktitut among them — as part of its Hockey Day in Canada program. Singh’s debut was a high-stakes one: the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. That he rose to the occasion may have been the first hint of the Punjabi broadcast’s staying power. It wound up being the only one of CBC’s many language experiments to stick around long term.

“That first year, I’m not sure anybody had a vision that it would be something that would continue,” Singh says. But the following season, weekend doubleheaders were added to the CBC mix, with Singh on the mic. Still based in Calgary at the time, Singh paid his own way to Toronto, flying in every Friday to call the pair of games on Saturday night and then flying home Sunday. “I lived in Calgary with my family and couldn’t justify the expense of moving to Toronto for what Hockey Night Punjabi was paying at the time,” he wrote in a piece for the Players’ Tribune. “But I also knew that if I said no to the opportunity, there would be a lineup of people ready to take on the position.”

“Television’s a visual medium. And if people aren’t buying into it from the first glance, it’s an uphill battle from there.”

In fact, at that very moment, two potential stand-ins in Vancouver were in the earliest stages of a similar plan. Hundal was an assignment editor for OMNI B.C., where current Hockey Night Punjabi producer Nathen Sekhon also served as the producer and director of OMNI’s Punjabi news broadcasts. Both hockey lovers themselves, the pair tried to move the needle in 2009, cobbling together some gear and creating a play-call demo tape for the network. It didn’t garner much of a response from their higher-ups initially, but six months after that first pitch, Hundal and Sekhon heard OMNI would be part of the Olympic consortium, their network set to provide multi-language coverage of Vancouver’s Winter Games. “Punjabi actually wasn’t even in the cards,” Sekhon recalls. “Even though we were in Vancouver for the Vancouver Olympics, they were going to do everything out of the Toronto studios, and it was all in Cantonese and Mandarin and Italian. So we came back and said, ‘Look, we’ve had this demo floating around — let us do it.’”

Eventually, the powers that be granted them the chance to call one preliminary-round game for the Canadian men’s team. That stretched to two, and then three, then four. “One by one, we eventually got to the point where we did all the men’s games right through to the gold medal, and we did basically all the Team Canada women’s games all the way through to the gold medal,” Sekhon says.

In 2012, Hundal and Sekhon brought Singh into the OMNI fold to anchor some of the network’s coverage of the Summer Games in London. And the following year, the true tipping point in the eventual tumble towards the trio’s long-term partnership came when Rogers, which owns both Sportsnet and OMNI, secured long-term national broadcasting rights to the NHL. Sekhon remembers hearing the news: “I went into Bhupinder’s office and said, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’” the producer recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve been thinking it this whole time.’”

Another pitch was launched, this time up the chain at OMNI and on to Sportsnet. If he and Hundal were going to get involved with Hockey Night Punjabi, Sekhon says, they wanted to do it right. They wanted a studio, they wanted to shoot in high definition, they wanted on-screen graphics — all the key elements that would elevate the program from its original place on shoestring fringes to the realm of Hockey Night proper.

Hundal and Sekhon’s sway at OMNI allowed for the biggest get of the new era. Sportsnet Pacific, the network’s west coast brand, had just moved to Toronto, leaving their studio vacant. Hundal and Sekhon convinced Sportsnet not to tear it down, and got approval from then-president Scott Moore to launch a revamped, grander version of Hockey Night Punjabi in the space. The impact of getting that green light isn’t lost on the current team. “That was the stepping stone that let us be a legitimate broadcast; that’s what was missing,” Sekhon says of securing that studio.

“If you don’t reflect the community then you’re not a show of the community.”

The significance of their new home was felt by more than just the production team. “[Viewers] make their judgments within 10 or 15 seconds,” says Janda, who was pulled onto the on-air team from the OMNI newsroom during this transition. “Television’s a visual medium. And if people aren’t buying into it from the first glance, it’s an uphill battle from there.”

The new studio and Hockey Night branding created “instant credibility,” Janda says, serving as the visual bridge for this drastic departure from the norm. English was swapped for Punjabi, white skin for brown, but that long-understood overall framework — the lights, the suits, the extraordinarily lit desk — was all familiar.

Securing a proper studio was the "stepping stone that let us be a legitimate broadcast," Sekhon says.

The on-air look of the show was a major first step in building today’s Hockey Night Punjabi, but it was still only the first step. Far more critical for Hundal and Sekhon was the need to elevate what actually took place once the cameras were rolling.

During those early days in Toronto — and Calgary, where the show was based for a few years prior to the Vancouver move — there wasn’t time to worry about the best way to represent Canada’s South Asian community or consider the importance of their insight and analysis equaling that of the English broadcasts. Hockey Night Punjabi Version 1.0 was simply in “survival mode,” says Janda. “If you don’t reflect the community then you’re not a show of the community. And I think, originally, it was just such a small-scale operation that the guys working on the show couldn’t really do that [reflecting]. They didn’t have the manpower or the budget. There was always a limit to what they could do.”

The absence of structured oversight also played a role in those early issues, adds Sekhon. “They were kind of just left to their own devices,” he says. “That’s not always a bad thing — sometimes people can really excel. [But] the problem is you’ve got no critic.”

“We want to take the Punjabi language and make it hockey-accessible, but also shine a light on the language.”

The DIY environment of the broadcast’s early incarnations created something thrilling and novel, something that drew Punjabi fans in droves. But it also lacked a path to longevity, or the means “to bring it to life, to realize its potential,” as Hundal says.

“[It wasn’t] a show of substance — the Punjabi show wasn’t a place where the people in the community could turn it on and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to get some real insight,’” Sekhon adds. “When you listen to Ron MacLean, you know you’re getting an informed opinion. That wasn’t happening yet on the Punjabi show.”

The show also wasn’t yet truly reflective of the people it aimed to represent, with certain aspects only capturing specific corners of the South Asian community. The show’s vocabulary, for example, was tinged with religious references that drew in Sikh fans but alienated others. “There’d be a couple of guys downstairs in a basement watching the game, drinking a beer, and it would kind of feel odd, right?” Hundal explains. But, more than that, it pigeonholed Hockey Night Punjabi as a show by and for only one type of Punjabi. “When I was trying to go out and identify who else was interested when me and Bhupinder were talking about moving it over to OMNI, there was a big gap,” Sekhon recalls. The show had a strong following among young Sikhs, “but the actual core value of the show, the context, none of that was coming across.

“I didn’t just want to be speaking to young Sikhs; there are people from Pakistan, there are Hindi speakers who can pick up the words we’re talking about. This is not just a broadcast for kids in turbans, but I feel like the community at large had started getting a feeling that it was.”

So, the Hockey Night Punjabi team went to work on themselves, pulling the show apart at the seams with eyes on stitching together a finer result. Task No. 1 was to open up the language. Gathering writers from the OMNI newsroom, they formed a language committee that combed through every term to be used on the show — English and Punjabi — to carefully craft a new on-air vocabulary. Eventually, they took it a step further, incorporating Punjabi household phrases as creative names for weekly segments — like the debate segment, Meri Gal Sun (“Listen to me”) “which, basically, is what your parents would say to you before they lecture you,” Hundal explains.

The process wasn’t one of endless experimentation, though. It was, instead, the opposite — pulling back, reining in, refining. “We wanted to make sure we were using words correctly and not making a mockery out of the language as well,” Janda says. “Because the reason we were on air is that we want to take the Punjabi language and make it hockey-accessible, but also shine a light on the language.”

With the voice of the show coming together under Hundal’s direction, the next phase involved overhauling the outward face, the broadcast team itself. “Until [2014], all of the announcers had been guys with full turbans and beards,” Hundal says. “There’s nothing wrong with that — I’m a guy with a full turban and beard. But what happened was I don’t think it was representative of the entire community.”

To try to correct that, Sekhon led a slow and steady transformation of Hockey Night Punjabi’s roster of on-air talent. “We can’t claim that we’re representing the cultural and community group when we’re only showing one facet,” he reasons.

They added Janda, who brought a deep knowledge of sports beyond hockey — and some balance to the beards and turbans on the roster with his clean-shaven look. They added Amrit Gill, the first woman on the broadcast, who began as an intern and handled social media duties before taking on her own weekly segment highlighting community stories — now one of the most impactful aspects of each week’s show. And they kept adding — bringing in Harpreet Pandher, Gurpreet Sian, Mantar Bhandal and Taqdeer Thindal, too — with a simple formula in mind: Incorporating voices from all corners of the South Asian community and trusting the show’s tone to grow naturally. They even instituted an unofficial rule to ensure the on-air panels better represented the entire community.

Of course, the diversity extended beyond simply the presence or absence of facial hair. “There’re different types of Punjabi speakers,” Janda explains. “I’ll drop a Drake reference and Harp [Pandher] will come in with a Punjabi folk reference. He’s hitting a certain population, I’m hitting a certain population.

“[It’s framed as] ‘The Punjabi show represents the diversity of Canada,’ which is true. But it actually represents the diversity within the Punjabi community. You can be a Hindu Punjabi, you can be Sikh Punjabi, you can be a Muslim Punjabi, you can speak Urdu, you can be a Pakistani Punjabi. When we were thinking about this show, we wanted to appeal to as many people as possible.”

Essentially, they wanted to ensure they weren’t doing to themselves what has long been done to ethnic minorities by national media. “[Racialized communities] are presented as monoliths,” says Yasmin Jiwani, a professor at Concordia University whose research focuses on the influence of race and gender on media representations, “and there isn’t a sort of fracturing of how different they are from within, how many different communities they are … There are more differences within a group than between groups.”

Hockey Night Punjabi's success is interwoven with Sidney Crosby's Penguins; the show's breakout viral moment coming in the Pens' 2016 Cup run.

Lay out all these pieces of Hockey Night Punjabi’s story on the kitchen table and you’ll notice one odd, coincidental link between two of the most significant moments in the show’s history — the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Singh called the first ever Punjabi NHL broadcast: Game 1 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final between Pittsburgh and Detroit, the first Final of the Crosby era. That was May 24, 2008. Eight years later, nearly to the day — May 30, 2016 — the Penguins were back in the opening match of a Final for the first time since they won it all in 2009, in a game that once again brought a pivotal moment for the Hockey Night Punjabi crew. This particular one came in the tilt’s final minutes, when Nick Bonino wired home the winner that prompted Singh to belt out the three-beat call that came to define Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition in the wider, mainstream consciousness. The viral swell that followed Singh’s “Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!” call overwhelmed the broadcasting team — perhaps never more so than a couple weeks later, when the Penguins invited Singh, Hundal, Janda and Pandher to Pittsburgh for the club’s championship parade.

Hearing word that Pittsburgh radio stations were replaying their goal calls on a daily basis was strange enough for them. Hearing Penguins players had repeated those calls in the locker room, and that head coach Mike Sullivan had included one in a video made to hype his players up during the playoffs, was downright surreal. But it was the trip down to Pittsburgh from Vancouver that gave the crew a true sense of the maelstrom they had somewhat inadvertently created.

It had been two days since the Penguins closed out the San Jose Sharks to win the 2016 Cup when the four broadcasters boarded a plane at Chicago O’Hare, embarking on the final leg of their Vancouver-to-Pittsburgh journey. They had heard all the stories of their sudden fame, but still had no idea what to expect south of the border. A few minutes on the Pittsburgh-bound aircraft helped clarify things. “We get on the plane, and basically everybody on the plane knew who we were,” Hundal says. The foursome took their seats, each in different sections of the plane — the price of booking four last-minute tickets. “You guys don’t know how big this is, do you?” Hundal remembers one fellow passenger asking him. “They’ve been playing it on television, they’ve been talking about you guys on the radio. They play your goal calls everywhere.”

“It was one of the strangest things we’ve ever experienced,” says Hundal.

“You guys don’t know how big this is, do you?”

The following morning, in the sweltering heat of summertime Pittsburgh, things got even stranger for the Hockey Night Punjabi crew. After Crosby and Co. had their say on stage in front of the championship parade crowd, team announcer Paul Steigerwald reclaimed the mic, calling for a chant that had become a signature tagline in the Steel City: “Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!” The echo came booming back from the 400,000-plus supporters. “That was pretty good,” Steigerwald said over the loudspeakers flanking the stage. “But I’m going to bring up the guy who actually said that.” On walked Singh, his fellow broadcasters behind him, the four of them among an unavoidably noticeable minority in terms of the ethnic makeup of those present. A healthy smattering of claps and cheers, a fleeting moment of tension, and then Singh hit those assembled in the crowd with what they’d been waiting for: an in-the-flesh re-enactment of the goal call that had thrust this small Canadian broadcast team into the pages of this all-American city’s hallowed sports history. The crowd erupted, flags waving wildly, Pittsburgh’s collective hands held high.

The impact on Hockey Night Punjabi’s notoriety was about as subtle as an Evgeni Malkin one-timer bulging the twine. And as their popularity skyrocketed, they also quickly became a national torchbearer for Canadian diversity. “We were part of the infrastructure early on, but until we really had the success with the Pittsburgh call back in 2016, it was kind of slow to come around, as far as being welcomed,” Janda says.

With this unexpected viral lift opening doors for them, the show’s creators tried to use their newly elevated platform to better achieve their core goals. “What I really wanted to see out of this show was an avenue for our community,” Sekhon says. “You can be entertainment value for the community but do nothing of value to help the community.”

Hundal and Sekhon weren’t interested in simply providing entertainment. Nor were they content with just tipping the scales of representation a bit further towards the side of brownness and calling it a day. Adding new voices and perspectives to the coverage of Canada’s game was a historic step, but they wanted to accomplish even more. “This should be a launching point,” says Janda. “Even though the hockey world and the broadcasting world are slow to adapt to these things, we can help ourselves too. We can make sure that there’s a steady pipeline coming in.”

Over time, that pipeline has not only brought new young broadcasters into the fold, like Gill, it’s also carried members of Hockey Night Punjabi’s team into the English-speaking broadcasting world — still Everest to the humble hills of ethnic programming — offering a vision of previously unimaginable possibility to future generations. When Sportsnet launched its Vancouver radio station, Sportsnet 650, in late 2017, Janda was brought in as the co-host of one of the debut shows; and he and Hundal twice appeared on Sportsnet’s Hometown Hockey broadcasts during the 2017–18 season, highlighting Surrey, B.C. and Brampton, Ont. Singh, having put in nearly a decade calling plays in Punjabi, was called up as an on-air host for Sportsnet’s English broadcasts that same season, making him the first Sikh broadcaster to contribute to English NHL coverage. In May, Hundal moved on from the show altogether, accepting a senior producer role with CBC News.

Being catapulted into the spotlight clearly brought its advantages. But it also unearthed an entirely different set of worries and questions for those used to a dimmer glow.

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At the core of these new concerns was a key distinction: Hockey Night Punjabi’s south-of-the-border rise earned incredible attention, but whether it was grounded in genuine appreciation or in something else, something less celebratory, wasn’t clear. And so, even with all the accolades, there’s still something nagging at the back of Sekhon’s mind. “Let’s face it, the Bonino thing was a great story — it was fun,” the producer says. “But you tell me, doesn’t part of you sit there and analyze the situation and think, ‘Yeah it was a really energetic, passionate goal call — but is it just a passionate energy that had people excited? Or is it kind of, ‘Look what that ethnic dude’s doing’? How many people out there were saying ‘That was so hilarious’ as opposed to ‘We love the energy’?”

The awkward, even painful weight of that question can’t be avoided. Having to worry about the content of the crowd’s heart instead of just enjoying the moment is an uncomfortable wrinkle in the otherwise inspiring ascent of Hockey Night Punjabi. But that dual feeling of being at your highest of highs, on stage before thousands, the applause swelling, and wondering whether you’re being genuinely celebrated or cheerfully mocked is a foundational part of the show’s story. “You’re not going to turn away accolades just because you think their heart’s not in the right place, but that’s kind of the struggle we go through,” says Sekhon. “‘Oh you did a pretty good job, considering, you know, you’re a brown guy.’”

For Sekhon and the Hockey Night Punjabi team, one of the most uncomfortable parts of this ride has been the fact that the success of their show seems to be based more on the picture they’re painting for non-South Asians. “The one unfortunate reality, and it’s very frustrating, is that a lot of our success is based on how the mainstream perceives us, not our own community,” he explains. “I can’t walk into a CBC [executive’s] office and say, ‘Look, there’s this many thousands of people who interact with us on a given day.’ That doesn’t connect to them — what connects to them is the Bonino video going viral.”

“We wanted to re-invite people who felt excluded.”

So, there’s still work to be done, and Hockey Night Punjabi is ready to take it on, continuing to refine and reinvent, as best they can. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate all they’ve accomplished. They’ve become a show of the community, as Janda hoped. They’ve expanded their viewership to the sector they’d long been seeking — “more young families, moms and dads with their kids in the living room sending in photos,” Sekhon says. And they’ve created a path for those who’ve drifted from their roots to slowly return: Brown kids who grew up Canadian, who felt a stronger connection to playing shinny at the local rink and growing out a scraggly playoff beard than going to bhangra practice on the weekend or lighting sparklers on Diwali. “That [ability to bridge the gap] was kind of my vision when Bhupinder and I were talking about revamping the show,” Sekhon says. “We wanted to re-invite people who felt excluded.”

All the success they’ve found over the past few years hasn’t changed their desire to achieve that original goal. “We’ve been able to benefit from all of this luck, timing, whatever you want to call it — a mix of all of this. But it’s not just about us,” Janda says. “Just like I was a kid that used to collect hockey cards back in the day, dreaming of working in hockey or working in sports, there are kids now that are doing the same thing — maybe minus the hockey cards.”

Minus some of the confusion Janda and Co. faced in their younger days, too, they hope. Minus the uncomfortable realization that many brown kids throughout the country have had to face before this recent decade of progress — that hockey, and its surrounding culture, wasn’t meant for us. That we weren’t permitted to be part of that all-Canadian club; the evidence as simple as the absence of more than just a couple faces that looked like us.

The presence of Janda, Singh and the rest of the team is slowly shifting that narrative, offering up a vision of a hockey culture that’s willing to open its doors. And that’s a wonderful thing, because the truth is, it was always meant for us, just as much as anyone else. “There’s this idea that hockey is a white man’s game in Canada. It’s a lie, basically,” says Courtney Szto, whose doctoral research at Simon Fraser University investigated the relationship between multiculturalism and hockey. “It’s something that we’ve been told and we’ve grown up with, and we believe it because we see it on TV and we see it in our media. But there’s been this gross erasure of racialized contributions to the game, whether it’s Indigenous contributions to the early stages of the game or the black hockey leagues in the Maritimes that changed the rules of hockey.

“People of colour have always been part of hockey and they’ve been part of creating the game. So I think it’s important that we understand that we’re not really trying to re-incorporate new Canadians into this game. We’ve always been there, and we’re part of that history.”

Design by Drew “The GOAT” Lesiuczok
Edited by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Courtesy Hockey Night Punjabi (2); Getty Images; Courtesy Hockey Night Punjabi (3).