Q&A: Harnarayan Singh on new book, importance of representation in hockey

Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi commentator Harnarayan Singh. (Macleans/Twitter)

Harnarayan Singh sits in his home office, the shelves behind him displaying a collection of items that have helped shape his hockey journey up until this point.

Above his right shoulder, a framed photo of Singh with Wayne Gretzky, the man responsible for instilling a deep love of hockey in the heart of a kid from Brooks, Alta. Below that is a crest for HEROS, the charitable organization with which the Sportsnet broadcaster volunteers, dedicated to helping marginalized youth through hockey. To Singh’s left is a black T-shirt adorned with the word “Bonino!” on repeat, harkening back to the now-famous goal call that made him a Pittsburgh legend during the Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup run.

But the focal point of this virtual conversation, held (like everything nowadays) via Zoom, is the newest addition to that memory wall. Sitting on a shelf just above his left shoulder, is a copy of One Game At A Time — Singh’s debut book, released Tuesday by Penguin Random House Canada.

“Hockey’s been such a big part of my life, and I feel like I owe a lot to the game and I want to give back,” said Singh, whose NHL broadcast career began in 2008 when he started calling play-by-play for the then-newly formed Hockey Night in Punjabi. “So to be able to talk about all of that has been huge. Bringing it all together, a book is what allows you to do that.”

In a conversation with Sportsnet on Monday, Singh discussed his career, his new book, hosting games in the Edmonton bubble, and the importance of representation and diversity in the sport he loves most.

SPORTSNET: You’re coming off covering such a unique time in hockey in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble. What was that like?

HARNARAYAN SINGH: That was such a thrill being in Edmonton for that. It’s such a made-for-TV event. It’s remarkable, how they’ve pulled this off with so few people.

The qualifying round is when I got [to Edmonton] and it was really, really busy. With COVID [protocols], they only allow one host in per day in the arena – so if you were the host assigned that day, you’re on all three games. Those days in the qualifying round, I would get there at nine in the morning and I would not leave the arena until 12:30 or 1:00 at night.

I was in a bubble that was just outside the actual [players’] bubble, so we had a separate entrance for media, separate elevator, and only certain areas of the arena we could actually go to. I would say it was almost eerie in the sense that there was literally nobody there, but it was also really cool – I developed a cool, close bond with [colour analyst] Louie DeBrusk and [play-by-play announcer] Chris Cuthbert. Those guys were just so great to work with and so supportive and encouraging.

I was coming up between Calgary and Edmonton a lot because I was calling Hockey Night in Punjabi from Calgary play-by-play on the weekends. It was quite busy. I got a lot of miles between the cities. Chris and Louie and Scott Oake and all those guys are stuck there for so long, and I’m getting to come home and they’re not, so a couple of times [my wife and my mom] sent some home-cooked East Indian meals and care kits for them. It was just so unique, because what other situation would we have been able to bond on that level?

Do you have a personal highlight from your time covering the games – an in-game moment, or a conversation with a player?

I was really lucky to get some really good games. I would say the one that sticks out has to be talking to [Vancouver Canucks goaltender] Thatcher Demko after his unbelievable performance and to get to ask him just how significant a moment this was for his career. It’s something that these players strive for for so long and then to be able to come in and play that well … it was unbelievable. My producers at the time were even chiming in, saying just, ‘This isn’t normal, but Thatcher, that was just brilliant. Can’t believe you did that.’ He was just laughing. Those were some cool moments.

You’ve long been an advocate and an example of how much the game benefits from having more diverse voices. What has it been like to be a leader in that conversation – particularly during such a powerful time and in such a unique setting?

I got to talk to Ron MacLean one on one on The Conversation during the postponement. It was cool, because the players in the [Western Conference bubble] were all standing together with Ryan Reaves at the forefront and other members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance. As that show was going on, the players were continuing to stand there and they watched the rest of the program. After that, some of the players, when I would talk to them after that for an interview, were like, ‘Hey, Harnarayan, how’s it going?’ and it was kind of touching.

I think that interview also showed the players, feeling the way they were, that they’ve got a lot of support even in the media world, too. It was a neat experience to be a part of that and I was glad I was able to speak as well.

It’s really important for us to have this conversation, to continue this conversation, because there’s a lot of people out there saying, ‘Why do you marry politics into sports?’ but this is just talking about respecting one another.

It’s mind-boggling why there’s so much hatred in the world. My kids are five and three, and I don’t want them to have to go through racism. It’s also so important for them to see representation when they’re watching hockey, and I’m glad to see we’ve made so much progress. There’s a long way to go still, too.

That moment when the NHL decided to have women participate in the fastest skater competition [at the 2019 All-Star Skills Competition], I’ll never forget that -- we were watching it as a family, and my daughter, the look on her face, she lit up and her jaw dropped and her eyes widened: “There’s girls playing.” It’s just proof, right there, how much this really has an impact.

We’re speaking Punjabi at home, [the kids] speak English at school … and for them to feel comfortable as they’re playing with their mini hockey sticks, to talk about hockey or call a goal in Punjabi and then also do the intermission interview in English, it’s cool to see that because I never had that growing up, and that was one of the barriers that was brought up in front of me — that “No one looks like you,” and that “This is a long shot.”

In your book and in interviews, you’re open about talking about the obstacles you’ve faced — including hearing a lot of doubts from people with whom you shared your aspirations. How has that shaped your journey?

Well, I was lucky to have parents who were willing to give me the encouragement to at least give it a shot. There are significant moments in my life where I’ve totally reconsidered this journey, but I would say — and I write about this in the book, too — in the small town of Brooks, Alta., the one local radio station, they opened their doors and allowed me to come on air. That’s what planted the seed – “Hey, if these guys can give me a chance and we’re in Brooks, Alta., maybe someone else will, too.” And that’s what gave me the encouragement to go.

When I was discouraged, I was lucky enough to have moments of encouragement that kept me going. We’re so lucky to be in a country where these opportunities are available to us and there has been an awakening recently that this is important. I’m very thrilled to be along for the ride and if I’ve been able to help open the doors for others in the broadcast world, I’m hoping the book will do the same for other diverse voices in the mainstream book world, too, because these are stories that need to be told.

Writing a memoir must be such a massive undertaking…. Where did you even begin in this process?

One of the things I would say I’m the most proud of about the book is that I was able to tell the story of my family and the previous generations who had to endure so much more in terms of struggles and hardships and racism. For someone like myself to be able to have the opportunities that I have today, it’s because of my parents…. My great grandfather came here in 1907 – people of colour were not welcome in Cananda. He didn’t have the right to vote or buy land, yet here he was.

To be able to tell that story … to be able to share that, and to talk about how much my sister, Gurdeep, had an influence in my life in terms of helping me in my career, helping fuel the passion for hockey.

What a powerful process to go through, particularly at this point in your life and career. Was there a particular chapter that made you reflect a little more on your journey to this point?

The chapters from early on in Brooks, I’m talking about how the passion for hockey grew, but within that I also talked about some difficult moments that my own family hadn’t even heard about until I wrote the book, where I experienced some bullying. Having to reflect on those moments.

But then, there’s so much fun stuff, too – the obsession with Gretzky. [laughs] So, it’s got a mix of reflecting back, and some moments where I’m laughing at myself, too.

As we have this conversation [on Monday], we’re one day away from your book being officially released [on Tuesday, Sept. 22]. What’s going through your mind?

I think one of the biggest moments was just a week ago, when we received advanced copies. I didn’t open the box right away – we took it into our prayer room and we did a prayer to say thanks, and my parents and my wife and my kids and my sister were all a part of that. Just to be able to reflect on that moment, I was emotional. It was tears of joy. I never imagined that this would happen, ever. I’m just so grateful, so thankful. That was a moment where I was able to share – my parents didn’t know I dedicated the book to them, so we opened the first copy and I showed them.

For [my kids] to see a book with me, associated with hockey, was so cool. I really hope that the book can inspire other people to go for whatever their goals are and not hold back.

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