From the Fringes to Centre Stage: A chat with HNIC Punjabi’s Harpreet Pandher

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From left to right: Harnarayan Singh, Randip Janda, Bhupinder Hundal, and Harpreet Pandher.

If you are any kind of hockey fan you know that the Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi broadcast (herein referred to as Hockey Night Punjabi) was an integral part of the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup run this year.  It all started with this call on April 28th during Game 1 of the Pens series against the Caps:

And then it just kind of blossomed from there…

…with more and more Bonino…

No doubt Bonino was a star for the Pens in the post-season but it was as if with each goal, the goal call made him even stronger creating a virtual relationship from which both Bonino and Hockey Night Punjabi would benefit.  And, that’s not to say that Bonino was the only guy to receive an epic call. Ovechkin, Kucherov, and Crosby all received some Punjabi flair during the playoffs but there’s something about saying Bonino in triplicate that just makes it that much better.

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Harpreet Pandher with the WWE belt.

A huge part of what made this viral post-season possible is the speed at which the broadcast team’s highlight calls can be posted on social media, because you can’t go viral if you aren’t on the Internet.  When the broadcast covers a Canucks game I will often see the Punjabi highlight on my Twitter feed before the Canucks are able to put any replay on their social media. You can thank the production members working behind the scenes (of which there aren’t many) and Social Media Host, Amrit Gill for working non-stop during the game to make sure that you have something to ‘like’ and retweet. If you knew how small the Hockey Night in Punjabi operation is you would be impressed with how much they are able to accomplish with so few people and resources. For example, during one of the playoff games, Bhupinder Hundal who is normally an analyst, went back to his roots in the production room. That’s like asking Elliotte Friedman to cover for Hockey Night by putting on the headphones and calling camera switches and doing the countdown. That’s not to say that Friedman couldn’t necessarily do it, but it is also highly improbable that they would ever ask/need him to pinch hit. Like I said, more with less.

 

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After clinching Lord Stanley’s coveted drinking container, the Pens shared their victory with the men who covered three out of their four rounds.  I was fortunate enough to sit down with one of Hockey Night Punjabi’s analysts, Harpreet Pandher, to talk about their Pittsburgh adventure. There we were, a Chinese woman and a Punjabi man talking hockey in a Tim Hortons. Tim’s couldn’t have scripted a better commercial.

Pandher joined the broadcast in 2014 and is a jack-of-all trades. On any given day he could be a hockey analyst, a realtor, a counsellor, and/or a blueberry farmer. He is also the father to a young daughter.  When asked how the Pittsburgh trip came to fruition, Pandher explained that they had discussed as a group [Harnarayan Singh, Bhupinder Hundal, and Randip Janda] whether or not they would make the trip if the Pens won. Hesitation stemmed from not having anything officially organized with the Penguins organization ahead of time, which meant that they would be travelling to Pittsburgh as fans instead of members of the media. When it was announced that the Cup parade would take place on Wednesday, June 15th, the guys got the okay from the Penguins on Tuesday to book their plane tickets (and yes they booked their own tickets). They knew that they would have something to do…they just didn’t know what. They also didn’t know who would be paying for their Pittsburgh jaunt. As Pandher explained to me, the guys said “Let’s go. We’ll figure it out later who’s picking up the bill…”

Once arriving in Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening the guys were out for dinner when someone from the Penguins messaged Mr. “Bonino Bonino Bonino” himself, Harnarayan Singh, saying “be at the rink tomorrow at 9:30am.” A little later, a second message came in informing them that the Pens would be doing their team photos at that time. At this point I think it is best to let Pandher’s own words tell the story:

So by the time we got out to the rink we were hosted by their PR people, Tom and Billy. Super nice from the get-go. They walk us in, walk us by the souvenirs:

“You guys are going to get whatever you want from there.”

And then we’re just walking and I’m just starting to feel like this is going to be a really good day.

We walk outside, there’s the hallway outside of the dressing room and that’s when the WWE belt is there with their PR people. They were taking pictures with it and then they throw it to us and we were posing, we’re like this is cool…I was a big WWE…F fan. I’m not going to say “E” because I stopped watching it then.  Stopped watching it religiously then, let’s just say. So the belt was there, we’re taking pictures and we’re like this is cool. Then Tom says:

“We’re going to go into the dressing room and we’re going to go surprise these guys.”

But before that happened Mario [Lemieux] walked through the door and we were just like whoa, we were just blown away. So he sees us and he knows who we are, we don’t need to introduce ourselves, and he goes “which one of you guys did the goal call?”

Right there we pointed at Harnarayan and Harnarayan did a variation of Bonino and then after he goes Lemieuuuuxxxx. I was like what quick thinking that was, you got to do a Lemieux goal call in front of him. So [Mario] took some pictures with us and that was right before we went into the locker room to surprise the players. For me, I wasn’t in awe of the players or being in the room, it was just the hardware sitting in the middle of the room…the trophies are massive, the Cup, the Art Ross and the Price of Wales trophy are huge. So we hung out in the locker room and I’m noticing that no one is there except the Penguins PR and Showtime is filming whatever they did for the playoffs. There is no other media there, so that was a pretty special feeling. From there it just kept rolling.

And roll they did, right over to the parade where they were met by many many Pittsburgh fans screaming BoninoBoninoBonino at their trolley (#RockStarLife). At this point, they had no idea that they they would be asked on stage but the thought of having Singh up on stage to do his now legendary goal call had certainly crossed their minds.

Folks, some dreams do come true:

Anyone who didn’t already know that Hockey Night Punjabi was in the ‘hizzle’ now knew and as Pander recalled, “after that we came down the stage and then it was like ‘hey guys over here’ and selfies and Snapchats.” After the parade they met the keeper of the cup, Phil Pritchard, who also requested a photo with them.  They joined the Pens for an exclusive friends and family lunch at the stadium where again, no media other media were present. Mario and Pen’s GM, Jim Rutherford, were sitting at the next table.

“We were battling being fans and being professionals,” Pandher remembered.

Bonino also came over to chat with them during lunch and thanked them for making him famous, to which they replied, “you made us famous.”

If you were wondering whether or not he touched the Cup, I did ask:

Yes. If I go back to regrets, I regret not kissing it…It’s all happening so fast I’m thinking, ‘No only players can kiss the Cup,’ that’s what’s going through my head. You know, at this point, I’m 35 years old and I haven’t played in an NHL game yet so I’m pretty sure I’m not going to win one as a player. So I was okay touching it.

The next day the Pens took them to lunch with their Game Presentation Crew and arranged a private tour of PNC park.  To put it very succinctly, Pandher reflected that they “won this big contest that doesn’t even exist.”

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After returning home from Pittsburgh the broadcast team expressed their gratitude to both the Penguins organization and to the city of Pittsburgh by writing a public thank you letter. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

We are truly humbled and honoured by your generosity during our visit. Since the beginning of the viral goal calls, something incredible was happening, that has transcended hockey or the celebration of a championship. This was an example of a shared experience that brought everyone together, regardless of race, religion, language, or background.

The truth is, members of our community living in the United States have faced very difficult challenges due to their identity. Our visit was the polar opposite of the experience many have had, and this has filled much of the community with hope and optimism. This is why our visit to Pittsburgh is so emotional for us, and why all of you deserve our sincerest thanks.

These are tumultuous times; as a result, the acceptance that the Hockey Night Punjabi team received in Pittsburgh was a much needed reminder of what sport can do to bring people together. But sport does not do this by itself, rather individuals make conscious decisions everyday about whether to include people to their “team” or whether to exclude them.  According to the 2011 US census, the prevalence of Punjabi and “other Indic languages” (such as Bengali) increased 86% in America between 2000 and 2011; however, Punjabi Americans are very much in the minority with a population of only about one million (with most residing in California). Post 9/11, anyone with brown skin has unfortunately been swept up in Islamophobia with those in the Punjabi-Sikh community often being misidentified victims of hate crimes and hate speech, which is why what unfolded in Pittsburgh became even more significant and symbolic because it demonstrated our potential as welcoming and inclusive human beings. Diversity and inclusion, unlike fine China, are supposed to be for everyday use, not merely saved for days of celebration.

The Hockey Night Punjabi broadcast has been cancelled a couple of times during it’s eight year (nine season) run due to a lack of and/or unpredictable financial support, but never from a lack of community support.  Currently, Chevrolet Canada is the show’s title sponsor but the reality of sports and entertainment is that nothing is set in stone so if you want to make sure that these guys are calling games in the future do your part to support them by watching them on OMNI TV in Canada, liking them on social media, and sharing their energetic commentary with the rest of the world.

Facebook: Hockey Night Punjabi

Twitter: @HkyNightPunjabi

Instagram: hockeynightpunjabi

 

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5 thoughts on “From the Fringes to Centre Stage: A chat with HNIC Punjabi’s Harpreet Pandher

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