At the end of January the Calgary Flames became the first Canadian team to offer commentary in a language other than English or French. Flames TV Punjabi will be hosted by none other than Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) – Punjabi Edition’s Harnarayan Singh. Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Canada and, despite the large Punjabi populations in Vancouver and Toronto, Calgary is the first to capitalize on this growing hockey crazed demographic. Singh explains that the broadcasts facilitate inter-generational love of the game enabling immigrant Punjabi grandparents to watch the games with their grandchildren. Many kudos have been passed around for this move by the Calgary Flames, which will hopefully encourage more teams to join suit – and rumour has it that the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking into a similar broadcast opportunity.
There are only two players of Indo-Canadian descent who have played in the NHL: Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra. Yet, there are a bunch of young Indo-Canadian draft picks such as Prab Rai, Kevin Sundher, and Jujhar Khaira waiting in the wings to make their mark and inspire more youth to get involved in the still white as ice game. The Punjabi community has also fought every time the HNIC Punjabi broadcast has been turfed due to lack of funding, and each time they have been successful with a revival. There is clearly a thirst for the game but, despite the common love of hockey, Canada has demonstrated time and again that many people still expect hockey to be a white game. Last year, when Gurdeep Ahluwalia and Nabil Karim hosted TSN’s Sportscentre tweets about terrorists, Arabs, Punjabi hour, Harold and Kumar, and the Middle East floated around Twitter. And these were two anchors who do not wear turbans and were speaking in English! By and large, a quick search on Twitter has revealed an abundance of acceptance and excitement for the Punjabi broadcasts (both HNIC and the Calgary Flames), which is great. However, it didn’t take long to find these tweets either:
When racists tweets were made toward Malcolm Subban when he played in the World Junior Championship I suggested these instances “only seem like aberrations because watching a person of colour play hockey in Canada is itself an aberration. However, if every time someone who is non-white puts on a jersey and a racist comment is made then the act of racism is consistent.” Thus, while it seems that we are moving in the right direction publicly, we must not forget that there is still much work to be done. Will we ever be able to quell everyone’s racist thoughts and opinions? Doubtful. But that is why introducing opportunities like the Calgary Flames have for new immigrants to join in on a typically Canadian past time are extremely important. It is a statement of institutional support that often times can mean more than a friendly coach or teammate (but both are necessary). If you are interested in some of the tensions that exist for Punjabi Canadians trying to navigate the Canadian hockey terrain check out the movie Breakaway (2011) (full movie available on YouTube and iTunes). While it may not be a cinematic masterpiece it depicts a very important and real narrative that exists in our nation’s rinks.
Check out Flames TV here.