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...

...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...

...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...

...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.

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