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Chak de phatte, Canada!

Ice hockey has a new language as Punjabi commentary dominates TV screens.

world Updated: Apr 28, 2013 01:55 IST
David Sax
David Sax

Harnarayan Singh and Bhola Chauhan sat at a desk in the CBC’s studio here last month, watching the first period of a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets on two televisions.

Dressed in a pinstriped suit with gold cuff links, a blue-and-white tie and a matching turban, Singh, a play-by-play announcer, called the end-to-end action in an animated stream of Punjabi, punctuated with English words like “linesman,” “icing” and “face-off.”

Singh spoke at great volume as Toronto scored its first goal, crediting wing Joffrey Lupul for what translates to “picking up the wood,” a traditional Punjabi battle cry akin to bringing the house down.

“Chak de phatte goooaaalll Joffrey Lupul! Torrronto Maple Putayyy!”

A few minutes later, Winnipeg’s Chris Thorburn and Toronto’s Colton Orr dropped their gloves and began pounding on each other, and Singh rose in his chair to animate each blow.

As the players were led to the penalty box, Chauhan, an Indian-born draftsman, writer and taxi driver wearing a cream-colored turban, read a fighting poem he had written based on a Punjabi style of verse.

The guy who is winning has a punch like a lion, and takes over the fight. He hits like a sledgehammer. They’re rivals, and he’s hung the other out to dry, not letting him go.

The weekly Punjabi broadcast of “Hockey Night in Canada,” as venerated an institution for Canadians as “Monday Night Football” is for Americans, is the only NHL game called in a language other than English or French.

The broadcast marries Canada’s national pastime with the sounds and flavors of the Indian subcontinent, providing a glimpse into the changing face of ice hockey.

Singh, 28, has developed a signature style tailored for his audience. A puck can be described as an “aloo tikki”. When a team comes back in the second period with renewed energy, Singh might say what translates to “someone must have made them a good cup of chai in the intermission.” A player who celebrates after a big goal will “dance bhangra moves.”

Singh’s parents, Santokh and Surjit, were born in India and moved to Canada in the late 1960s, to work as teachers in Brooks, a small town in Alberta.

Singh, the youngest of their four children, was born in 1984, months after Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup.

“These were the prime Gretzky years,” Singh said. “I would set up a podium in the basement and do whole hockey awards shows. I’d sit in front of the TV and call games until everyone told me to shut up.”

Inderpreet Cumo, a distant cousin who then lived in British Columbia, would sometimes visit, and they would narrate games together. Today, Cumo, 31, is a teacher in Calgary and shares the analyst role with Chauhan, 46.

By the time Singh was 4, “all he was doing was remembering hockey,” his father said.

He added: “I told him: ‘You just have a hockey encyclopedia in your head. Nothing else!’ ” Singh said his obsession stemmed from hockey’s ability to act as an icebreaker with other children at school, where he was the only minority student.

Prayers and Highlights
Over time, Singh’s fixation took over the family. A visitor to his home in northeast Calgary — where he lives with his wife, Sukhjeet, a teacher; his parents; and his sister Gurdeep — can expect to see a car with a vanity license plate based on Gretzky’s No. 99, a TV continually showing NHL games or highlights.

Singh’s recent wedding took place at a nearby rink, with hockey ticket invitations, a Stanley Cup cake and custom hockey cards with marital statistics.

The couple had a photo session at the Saddledome, with Singh in an Oilers jersey and Sukhjeet in a Flames jersey — she is a longtime fan — taunting each other from the penalty boxes.

The ceremonial puck was dropped by the former NHL goalie Kelly Hrudey, who is Singh’s broadcasting mentor.

For every Sikh religious figure on the walls of the Singh home, there is an equivalent picture of Gretzky nearby.

Singh, who has a degree in broadcasting, began working in televised professional hockey as an intern for the cable sports channel TSN when he was 19, and he also worked for CBC Calgary as a radio news reporter.

“Hockey Night in Canada” dropped into his lap in 2009, when Joel Darling, the executive producer of the show, asked Singh if he would call a game in Punjabi.

Darling said that as a public broadcaster, CBC had a responsibility “to attract new Canadians and people who normally wouldn’t watch the sport of hockey.”

In 2008, CBC broadcast the playoffs in Mandarin online and on a specialty channel. The next year, for a “Hockey Day in Canada” special, the network added Inuktitut, an Inuit language, and Punjabi.

“It just seemed to hit a groove,” Darling said, explaining why Punjabi outlasted the other languages. “The community really opened their arms to it quickly.”

During his first two seasons with”Hockey Night,”Singh would work at CBC Calgary during the week to pay for his flight to Toronto on Friday.

He would call the games Saturday night from CBC’s downtown headquarters, sleep on a relative’s couch and return to Calgary the next morning.

Even though it was exhausting, and required substantial support from his parents, Singh never complained to Darling because he feared they will replace him.

Slurs and Taunts
The transition in hockey’s culture has not always been smooth. In February, Nabil Karim and Gurdeep Ahluwalia, both of whom come from South Asian-Canadian families, co-hosted “SportsCentre.” The broadcast drew a barrage of racist and xenophobic comments on social media.

“This was the first time we both hosted together, and the backlash was brutal,” said Karim, who had received similar comments after hosting hockey specials.

Singh has endured barbs over the years, and it remains to be seen whether the wider hockey-watching public is ready to embrace a commentator with a beard and a turban.

“We’ve gotten comments from people who aren’t our viewers,” Singh said with a shrug. “Stuff like ‘What the hell do you know about hockey?’ and so on. But that’s a really tiny percentage of Canada. Not the majority.”

This week, Nail Yakupov, an Oilers wing from Russia who is one of the league’s two Muslim players, posted a message on Twitter that roughly translated to “How can this be?” and that was attached to a photo of Singh in the broadcasting booth. The message and photo have since been removed.

Players have also been taunted with racial slurs in recent years, both by opponents and by fans. In a particularly ugly incident at a 2011 preseason game in London, Ontario, a banana landed on the ice as the Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds, who is black, skated toward the goal during a shootout.

The NHL and some individual teams see multilingual broadcasts as a valuable tool in attracting a more diverse fan base, although “Hockey Night” in Punjabi is the sole model.

A Saturday Night Ritual
For the past two seasons, “Hockey Night in Canada” in Punjabi has been filmed in a Calgary studio, with Singh calling back-to-back Saturday night games and either Chauhan or Cumo providing commentary.

It is shown on specialty cable channels across the country and free to stream online. The show was suspended twice because of trouble in securing a sponsor, but it was brought back after intense lobbying by fans. Chevrolet is the current sponsor.

As much as Singh loves the Punjabi broadcast, he acknowledged that his dream was to eventually call games in English, his native tongue. “It’d be a beautiful thing,” he said.

“And nothing would spell multiculturalism in Canada better than having a visible minority on the broadcast.”

“If I did this for the rest of my career, I’d still be happy,” Singh said with a smile. “I never even dreamt I’d ever get to this level. In the middle of a game, sometimes I’ll turn to Inderpreet and say, ‘Can you believe we’re actually doing this on “Hockey Night in Canada?”

Vancouver scored off the first rush. “Chak de phatte Alex Burrows!” Singh shouted. “Six seconds into the game, and what an amazing start!” NYT

First Published: Apr 27, 2013 23:59 IST

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