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Singh breaking barriers in hockey broadcast world

Flames TV's Harnarayan Singh made history when he became the first Sikh to ever broadcast a sporting event in English

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH / CalgaryFlames.com

CALGARY, AB -- Growing up in Brooks in the late '80s-early '90s, a Wayne Gretzky fan (but, hey, don't hold that against him), the son of two teachers, Harnarayan Singh spent much of his spare time mimicking his favourite hockey announcers on a toy microphone.

"I'd copy hosting the NHL Awards, between periods, intermissions and all that kind of stuff,'' recalls the groundbreaking Sikh broadcaster.

"I loved listening to all the announcers.

"I liked Ed Whalen, of course. But the person I really looked up to was always Ron MacLean. The encyclopedia of hockey, this guy. So smooth, the way he hosted.

"Bob Cole, too. All the big moments in the playoffs seemed to be called by Bob Cole. I loved his ability to play up the drama in the game. And still do.

"So it's just what I always wanted to do. I just didn't know if a guy like me would ever have a shot at it. I had other people caution me that the chances of this happening were very slim and not to get my hopes up too high.

"But thankfully my mom and dad'' - Surjit Kaur and Santokh - "said give it a shot and if it doesn't work out we'll switch directions.

"But certainly, give it a go."

Turns out, the support, that encouragement, was not misguided. Whatever skeptics were out there have long gone silent.

On Wednesday, Nov. 30th, Singh became the first Sikh to ever broadcast a sporting event in English, as rinkside reporter for Hockey Night in Canada's Maple Leafs-Flames skirmish at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

The notice he received for his part in the telecast bowled him over.

Even USA Today took note with a story.

"I was definitely not expecting this much attention for a debut for a broadcaster like myself,'' says the 31-year-old, already a familiar face and voice to the South Asian community for his role on HNIC's Punjabi telecasts since 2008.

"Obviously it was a bigger stage, a different animal than what I've been a part of in the past with Hockey Night Punjabi. I'm amazed and surprised at the attention but it makes me feel a part of the greater hockey family.

"Internally, everybody I worked with that day went out of their way to make sure I felt comfortable. I can't say enough about them.

"The other great thing is that because I've had this wonderful relationship with the Flames organization, with Flames TV Punjabi, that connection, it felt extra special for this opportunity to happen in Calgary, at a Flames' game."

Singh is the first person to call play-by-play of a hockey game in Punjabi. His exuberant call of Nick Bonino's OT goal for Pittsburgh in last season's Stanley Cup final morphed into a web sensation.

Tweet from @HkyNightPunjabi: Here's the call to the goal that won the series for the @Penguins! #HockeyNightPunjabi pic.twitter.com/uwGjbUQ9Nu

While Singh was in high school, John Petrie, the manager of Brooks radio station Q13 gave he and a pal a chance to do high-school sports reports.

"With that door opening, I thought, 'Well, wait a minute. If this can happen, maybe somebody else will give me another chance somewhere.' I didn't want to regret at least not giving it a real shot."

Broadcast school at Mount Royal was followed by an internship at TSN in Toronto in 2004 that became a job-job.

Not that there weren't frustrations, roadblocks, along the way.

"During Hockey Night in Punjabi's initial years, when they didn't have any sort of budget and it was just sort of a pilot project they were doing for diversity, I wondered. I wondered how long I could sustain paying for my flights or is this something in the future that I could support a family on.

"So along the way it's been a roller-coaster. Which is why this opportunity, to break down the door into mainstream English is … huge. Not only for myself but in opening doors for other little kids out there who can think, 'Hey, I'm a little different but I might have a chance, too.'"

The work consumes him. On Saturday nights, Singh and his mates on HNIC Punjabi call both ends of a doubleheader.

"To be able to fill six hours on television you need to know your stuff. You need to know inside-out about the teams and the players. There's a lot of information you need to digest."

The historic Nov. 30th Leafs-Flames tilt didn't match those telecasts for sheer volume. But there were other, more far-reaching pressures involved.

"It was exciting, exhilarating and scary in some ways, too, because it was a new role for me.

"Mostly, though, I wanted to do justice to the opportunity. For myself and for the long journey it took to get to that point. But also for my colleagues on Hockey Night Punjabi and the rest of the (South Asian) community.

"You want to make sure you're representing everybody as best you can and do well enough that other opportunities like this come along in the future.''

Singh doesn't necessarily think of himself as a trailblazer. But a role model, or a reference point, that'll he'll ascribe to.

"I've met a lot of young people, visible minority Canadians, when I've spoken at different schools across Canada, and they tell me, 'Hey, we didn't realize we could eve consider a TV-radio job but now that we see you up there, this is what we want to do.'

"I've tried to encouraged them because the more people who enroll in these broadcast programs, the more choice the people who are hiring are going to have.

"I've been mentoring and encouraging other youngsters to try this out; to go for it."

He's certainly come a long way from the toy-microphone days back in Brooks, mimicking his favourite hockey announcers.

Harnarayan Singh has his own voice, his own style, now.

So after having hit so many targets already, what can he see out there on the immediate horizon?

"Right now, it's still in the moment, still so fresh,'' he admits. "But I'd love to have more opportunities on the English side. I think that'd help in terms of breaking down more barriers.

"I think Canada's ready for it.

"I think where I'm at in my career, I'm ready for it.

"Whether it continues to be through hosting or a shot on play-by-play in English, who can say.

"I know when my parents came here in the '60s, the kind of hardships they went through. The way they were able to maintain their culture and heritage and still be proud Canadians … I couldn't imagine how tough it was.

"But hockey is something that binds us all together.

"I'm doing something I love.

"So at the end of the day, wherever it does take me, this is something I'm very grateful for."

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