Parminder Singh (left) and Harnarayan Singh (right). Photo from The Toronto Star.

My PhD research explores South Asian experiences in ice hockey. Why, you ask?

  1. Because the South Asian community in Canada has become some of the most devout and enthusiastic hockey fans you will find on this planet.
  2. We don’t talk about race in Canada; therefore, there is very little literature about what it is like to be a “visible minority” playing in Canada’s game (a game that remains pretty white-dominated).
  3. Lastly, because the Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada has become a significant development for hockey culture and Canadian media more broadly.

Two years ago, I conducted a study via Twitter to try and see how people made sense of Hockey Night in Punjabi. It was a term paper that eventually made it’s way into the Sociology of Sport Journal. This was well before the “Bonino Bonino Bonino” call went viral during the 2016 NHL playoffs and before the broadcast moved from CBC online to OMNI television. This post is compiled from excerpts from the article in an attempt to translate some of the material for a popular audience. Please keep in mind that a lot has changed with the broadcast and it’s online presence since the study was first conducted.

According to Statistics Canada, South Asians, a geographic group that includes people from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, are now the largest group of “visible minorities” in Canada, and this demographic change is reflected through the creation of a Punjabi language version of the iconic Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) broadcast. Still, even though Canada is touted as a global leader in multiculturalism, Bruce Kidd argued in 1985 that Canadians understand very little about the ethnic and immigrant experience within sport, and thirty years later we have still yet to make “minoritized” voices a priority in Canadian sport scholarship. Joseph, Darnell and Nakamura’s (2012) book, “Race and Sport in Canada: Intersecting inequalities,” is one of the few significant attempts to center racialized sporting experiences, but the South Asian experience (in Canada) is notably absent from this collection. Thus, with South Asian interest growing in hockey, and four South Asian prospects poised to break into the NHL, Canadians should be asking what type of cultural currency and visibility are afforded to South Asian Canadians, if at all, through the addition of Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi (HNIC Punjabi).

In October 2008, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) created weekly Punjabi broadcasts to accompany the traditional English language HNIC broadcasts. The iconic HNIC was first created as a CBC radio broadcast in 1931 and then moved to television in 1952 where it has been firmly ensconced as a form of Canadian cultural citizenship through the decades. It remains Canada’s longest running broadcast averaging approximately 2 million viewers each Saturday. The French-language equivalent, La Soirée du Hockey, was created in 1937 and lasted until 2004, but it was more dedicated to showcasing games featuring the Montreal Canadiens. After attempting broadcasts in Mandarin and Inuktitut (an Inuit language), Punjabi is now the only language, other than English, in which the show is broadcast. There are no firm statistics on the viewership for the Punjabi broadcast but, in 2009, one of the commentators estimated approximately 100,000 viewers per episode. David Sax, of The New York Times, refers to the Punjabi broadcast as “[marrying] Canada’s national pastime with the sounds of the Indian subcontinent, providing a glimpse of the changing face of ice hockey”.

Bhola Chauhan and Harnarayan Singh during the CBC days. Photo from The New York Times.

Punjabi Sikhs were the first South Asians to immigrate to Canada during the late 19th century. Today, Canada has one of the largest Punjabi populations in the world, and Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Canada. CBC’s goal in creating HNIC Punjabi was to extend “hockey to a variety of different communities and [engage] kids in a variety of different ways” (Aulakh, 2009). Despite the show’s popularity it has been cancelled numerous times due to lack of funding, but community outcry and fundraising has brought it back to life each time. During this study, the broadcast was hosted by Harnarayan Singh, Bhola Chauhan, and Inderpreet Cumo, and could be streamed online at CBC.ca, the official website of the national broadcasting network, or found on specialty cable television channels; however, in 2014 the broadcast moved from CBC to the multicultural channel, OMNI Television. Recently, the Calgary Flames, of the NHL, added a weekly online video feature in Punjabi, with Singh also hosting this program. It would appear as though the Punjabi community, in particular, is becoming well integrated into Canadian hockey; yet, the question remains “whether the wider hockey-watching public is ready to embrace a commentator with a beard and a turban”?

All of the tweets used for analysis were collected during the 2013-2014 NHL regular season and then categorized into three themes: acceptance of multiculturalism, ambiguous ambivalence, and resistance to multiculturalism.

The discourse of multiculturalism in Canada can be traced back to the 1960s and Pierre Trudeau’s influence as Prime Minister when he stated, “Canadians have a precious opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of dissimilarity and the richness of variety” (cited in Mann 2012, p.487). Fast-forward to the 2012 Canadian citizenship study guide, Discover Canada, and multiculturalism continues to be outlined as “[a] fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity. Canadians celebrate the gift of one another’s presence and work hard to respect pluralism and live in harmony” (p.8).

These values were reproduced in a number of the tweets analyzed. For example:

Multiculturalism done correctly. MT @X: In Canada, you can watch hockey in English, French… and Punjabi… cbc.ca/sports-content…

Great to see Punjabi-language hockey web coverage, so our national game can be seen/heard in as many languages as possible.

The most powerful discourses are those that “ground themselves on the natural, the sincere, the scientific” (Hook, 2001, p.524) and here we see that the inclusion of Punjabi commentators into the national pastime is reproduced as a common sense progression for both Canada and hockey. Others were pleased that HNIC Punjabi provided an additional outlet for them to watch hockey; in other words, hockey was the most important aspect and what language it was broadcast in was somewhat irrelevant:

Crisis averted. Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi is showing the #Leafs game. Won’t have to stream it on the laptop.

Along similar lines, some fans expressed a preference for HNIC Punjabi because they were displeased with the commentators on the English version of HNIC:

I’m going to start listening to the Punjabi version of Hockey Night in Canada so I don’t have to listen to Glen Healey #HNIC #LeafsNation

At times, it was difficult to discern the intention behind some of the tweets due to the brevity of messages, coupled with the unobtrusive method of data collection. Still, I believe that much of the ambiguity felt as a researcher stemmed from an ambivalence about Canadian values and multiculturalism by the tweeter. It seemed as though a number of people were not sure what to make of the unfamiliar sight of three dark-skinned men wearing turbans anchoring a sports desk and speaking in an unofficial language about a game still controlled by white faces:

Hockey Night in Canada is broadcast in…Punjabi? (photo of Chauhan, Cumo, and Singh attached)

Hockey night in Canada Punjabi edition.. Ummm #interesting (photo of Cumo and Singh attached)

Although most Canadians may encounter a diverse range of people in their everyday lives, it appears that when people of color are made visible in traditionally white arenas, some Canadians are flummoxed by the sight of multiculturalism, while not necessarily being opposed to the idea of it:

Does watching the punjabi broadcast of hockey night in Canada make me diverse or just an asshole? #bitofboth

This tweet highlights the ambivalence felt by some viewers who may want to cheer for Canadian multiculturalism but also see it as Othered and counter to what they are used to seeing.

Nonetheless, in the nation’s attempt to be “anything but racist… the White, male nature of hockey creates an absorption and minimization of difference” (Krebs, 2012, p.85). Hence, hockey becomes one arena in Canadian society where two fundamentally conflicted markers of national identity—multiculturalism and hockey—must negotiate each other’s presence. Accordingly, even though Canada may espouse unapologetic diversity as a value and national priority outwardly, within its boundaries, notions of resistance still percolate. Forty tweets were categorized as embodying some form of resistance to HNIC Punjabi with feelings such as:

Hockey Night in Canada in punjabi??? Really?????
Is nothing sacred
“He shoots…he party num nums”

Many tweets challenged the shows existence, asking “Hockey night in Canada in punjabi? What the fuck is this…”, to which one person replied “absolute insanity….”. Others expressed that the show makes them “cringe,” or that “there is something wrong here”. Some people made rather bold statements such as, “Punjabi people dont even know hockey why CBC whyyy?” The following conversation that took place between, what appears to be, a white female (E) and a white male (N), is revealing about how some may feel that HNIC Punjabi is not a display of multiculturalism but rather an encroachment on Canadian values and tradition:

E: As if they have Punjabi hockey night in Canada. . . (shocked face emoticon) what #really #fucked

N: @X haha they’ve had it for a few seasons now, they pretty much have it for the Peel region lol

E: @X I know. It’s not right in my opinion like really? Come to our country you should be enjoying our customs not creating your own

N: @X I think it was more to appeal to a larger audi- ence in the GTA and get them interested in a sport that they havent [sic] experienced

E: @X who cares if they’re interested. I don’t agree with it at all.

N: @X haha it generates viewership and $$$$, I imagine that’s their reasoning behind it lol

I was surprised to find that a number of tweets expressed amusement over the existence of a Punjabi hockey broadcast. Out of the 40 tweets categorized as resistance, 21 of the tweets included an expression of laughter through an acronym, hashtag (#), or overt explanation:

LMFAO [laugh my fucking ass off] HOCKEY NIGHT IN PUNJABI!!!!!!!

Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi is arguably the funniest thing in professional sports instagram.com/p/ fG7dXcoEMu/ (attached photo of commentators)

Hahaha! Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi. #lololololol (attached photo of commentators)

Hertzler (1970) explains that laughter is an intimate and vital aspect of human social interaction that has diverse functions and forms. It is

an agent of subtle potency. It can produce social effects when argument and logic and even force have proved themselves ineffective; for in laughter we tap something much deeper and more elemental than logic, and often more persuasive than force. (p.84)

The current team after moving the broadcast from CBC to OMNI. Left to right: Randip Janda, Harnarayan Singh, Bhupinder Hundal, Harpreet Pander.

Berger (2010) further explains that there are four main theories about laughter. The first dates back to Aristotle and Hobbes and the belief that humor and laughter arise from superiority and making someone of lower status seem ridiculous. The second theory is one of incongruity whereby the difference between our expectations and the actual materiality causes laughter. The third is Freud’s theory that laughter is the result of unconscious and masked aggression, where malicious intent exists at the core. The last theory is from cognitive and communication theory explaining that laughter is a way of dealing with a paradox when processing information and meaning. While laughter may have psychological benefits, Medhurst (1990) reminds us that “comedy is inherently political” because a joke must consist of “those who laugh and those who are laughed at” (p.15).

It is difficult to discern from the methods used what exactly is perceived as humorous about HNIC Punjabi; still, when we look at the academic research behind laughter and humor, when contextualized against race relations, we can argue that laughter is not a positive reaction to multiculturalism. Laughter, as a form of social control, “separates, isolates, or excludes a portion of those in interaction” (Hertzler, 1970, p.84) and can be used as a weapon against so-called deviants.

Post Script

A young me and Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks.

Shortly after drafting this manuscript, I personally experienced the LOL phenomenon. I entered a hockey photo contest and my photo was chosen as the winner. The photo was posted on Instagram where it was viewed and “liked” by thousands. The majority of the comments were complimentary but one early comment caught my eye: “Go figure…its [sic] an Asian #Vancouver lol.” The comment was quickly removed, which is an expected business practice for creating the notion of safe spaces, but the physical erasure of such comments also reproduces the notion that racism is nonexistent and/or irrelevant. Having already conducted this research project, I was less offended than I was intrigued again by this reaction of laughter. It is time we acknowledge that culturally neutral space may be more harmful than it is utopic and, as scholars, we must find a way to elicit meaningful discussions about race. Perhaps, we can start by asking: What is laughable about people of color participating in sporting contexts?

To read the full article: 

Szto, C. (2016). #LOL at multiculturalism: Reactions to Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi from the Twitterverse. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33, 208-218 or email cszto@sfu.ca for a copy.

Works Cited

  • Berger, A. (2010). What’s so funny about that? Society, 47(1), 6–10.
  • Hertzler, J. (1970). Laughter: A socio-scientific analysis. New York, NY: Exposition Press.
  • Hook, D. (2001). Discourse, knowledge, materiality, history: Foucault and discourse analysis. Theory & Psychology, 11(4), 521–547.
  • Krebs, A. (2012). Hockey and the reproduction of colonialism in Canada. In J. Joseph, S. Darnell, & Y. Nakamura (Eds.), Race and sport in Canada: Intersecting inequalities (pp. 81–106). Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press Inc.
  • Mann, J. (2012). The introduction of multiculturalism in Canada and Australia, 1960s-1970s. Nations and Nationalism, 18(3), 483–503.
  • Medhurst, A. (1990). Laughing matters: Situation comedies. In T. Daniels & J. Gershon (eds.), The Colour Black: Black images in British Television (pp.15-60). London: BFI.

Courtney Szto is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She is the Assistant Editor of Hockey in Society and writes for her own blog The Rabbit Hole. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.