Years before Harnarayan Singh made history in November as the first Sikh to broadcast an NHL game in English, he spent his own money on weekly eight-hour round-trip flights between Calgary and Toronto to work a part-time announcing gig.
He only got that job — doing play-by-play in Punjabi at what would become Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi — after working as a radio reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for several years.
“I would find benches at the airports to catch an hour of sleep,” Singh told NBC News. “I look back upon it as something that was well worth it. Had I not done that I wouldn’t be able to have the experiences that I’m having here today.”
The sacrifices have paid off for Singh. During the Nov. 30 game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames, he became the first Sikh to broadcast in English, according to the CBC. It was a dream come true for the 31-year-old Alberta native, who grew up with aspirations of becoming a sports broadcaster while watching hockey legend Wayne Gretzky skate the ice in his hometown.
“I feel blessed and grateful,” Singh said. “It was an exciting day that I’ll never forget.”
Singh had already broken new ground when he became the first person to call the play-by-play of NHL games in Punjabi as part of Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi.
“I had a lot of people tell me along the way that it wasn’t possible, because they wanted to make sure my goals were realistic,” he said.
After paying his way through the initial seasons of the program, things started to improve for Singh. By season four, he was getting flights and accommodation paid for by the show, which he said was growing vastly.
“Back in those days, [the show] was an idea from the CBC to try something multicultural and I don’t think anyone thought it would be so well received by the Punjabi community,” he said.
For Singh, hockey was a way to connect with the world around him as a child.
“I grew up in a small town,” he said. “There weren’t visible minorities and I needed something common amongst classmates. Hockey allowed me to grow friendships with my peers and a rapport with my teachers.”
Growing up, Singh would make radio shows at home about the sport, imitate broadcasters, and collect hockey cards. He often reflects on his past, he said, as well as the hardships of his immigrant parents who came to Canada in the '60s.
“My father got his first job as a teacher, but when they saw how he looked, they said, 'thanks but no thanks,'” Singh said. “So when I think about my family’s journey or my colleagues journeys, to be given these opportunities now is a night and day difference.”
Singh is hoping to make the best out of those opportunities given to him, by turning them into a way for hockey to grow in the Sikh community. He said he often meets families at hockey rinks who tell him that they wouldn’t have put their kids in hockey without seeing his show. He also mentors teens that are striving to become sports broadcasters.
“I’ve been approached by kids who say they never would have imagined that as a possibility until they saw us,” he said. “There’s a lot more at work behind the scenes and that’s very special.”
As he continues his career as a broadcaster, Singh wants to open more doors for aspiring young people to foster the next generation of Hockey lovers.
“Be proud of who you are,” he said. “There are opportunities available to you no matter what your cultural background may be.”