Punjabi broadcasters unite NHL fans across language barriers

From left, Randip Janda, Harnarayan Singh, Harpreet Pandher and Bhupinder Hundal call NHL games in Punjabi every Saturday from a studio in Vancouver. Courtesy Bhupinder Hundal

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- While Amrit Gill was growing up in a Vancouver suburb, watching "Hockey Night in Canada" was a family staple that brought three generations together. Her parents and grandparents were immigrants from India, but ice hockey -- with its similarities to field hockey, one of their native country's most popular sports -- connected them all, despite the language barrier of the broadcasts.

"My grandmother did not speak a word of English," Gill said. "But she could tell you what a goal was and who was winning or not because the game was just so electric that you do get revved up watching."

One day in 2009, the then-teenage Gill heard there was a television broadcast of hockey in the Punjabi language. She didn't quite believe it at first, but it was true. There was a Punjabi ice hockey broadcast -- not English, not French, Punjabi.

"I turned it on, and for all of us sitting there, it was a moment of shock and almost disbelief because we were watching our favorite sport on TV but hearing it in a language that everybody in the room could understand," Gill said. "And my grandmother, who could only understand the word 'goal' in English, could now tell you the difference between a major penalty call and a minor penalty call. So because of Harnarayan Singh and the rest of the broadcasters who were able to explain the intricacies of this beautiful game, I could now have a postgame analysis with my grandmother. And those are some of the best memories for me."

Gill now is the social media host for "Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition," which is creating and spreading great memories for many more fans with -- and without -- Punjabi backgrounds. They also are helping extend hockey nights beyond Canada.

"In the last year, the online streaming has really opened it up to global audience as well," Punjabi hockey broadcaster Randip Janda said. "We've got people who are watching in India. That's great because Canada is associated with hockey, and certain parts of the United States understand and love hockey too. Whereas in India, unless you're in the Himalayan mountains, you don't really [have a place to play ice hockey].

"There is a rich history of field or grass hockey in India, so that's a link, but there has never been an association between the Punjabi community and [ice] hockey in India. So hopefully this is helping to bridge the gap and show maybe there is a reason to pay attention to the sport."

Especially -- as you might have heard during last season's playoffs -- when Pittsburgh's Nick Bonino (Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!) scores a goal.

Punjabi, the native language of the Punjab region in northern India and eastern Pakistan, is spoken by nearly half a million residents of Canada, including 20 members of Parliament. Only English and French are spoken by more Canadians, and more than 100,000 are estimated to speak Punjabi in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey.

Hockey games in Punjabi began on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) in 2008, along with broadcasts in Mandarin and the Inuit language of Inuktitut. The other language broadcasts did not catch on, but the Punjabi version did.

Rogers Communications took over the Punjabi broadcast three years ago and now shows a doubleheader every Saturday on the multicultural Omni Television system, with announcers Singh, Janda, Bhupinder Hundal and Harpreet Pandher providing play-by-play and insightful commentary from a Vancouver studio. All four were born and raised in Canada and learned to speak English and Punjabi fluently. They were passionate hockey fans but never considered that the games would one day be broadcast in Punjabi.

"Yeah, we might be fun, you might tune in for the novelty -- but you're going to get a good hockey broadcast. And we're going to dump information on you. And we know what we're talking about." Bhupinder Hundal

As Hundal said of watching a Punjabi broadcast for the first time, "It's got 'Hockey Night' branding, and they're speaking our language: 'What's going on here? Oh, my God. Really?' That was the first thing. You're sitting there, 'Oh, my God. I can't believe this has happened.' Now it's just a regular thing, but initially it was, 'I can't believe this. I never thought I would see the day. Who would have thought?'"

It worked. After nearly a decade of broadcasts, the Punjabi show gained enormous attention last year during the Stanley Cup playoffs, thanks to Singh's calls of goals by Bonino. Singh excitedly repeated "Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!" and then howled "Nick Buh-Nee-Noooooooooo!!" after key tallies by the Penguins center against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals and the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup finals.

It was simply awesome. Singh's calls went viral on social media and drew widespread media attention, including from non-sports outlets such as NPR. #BoninoBoninoBonino became a trending hashtag and a battle cry during the Penguins' championship run.

"It was really revved up," Gill said. "It was almost like a connecting point. Yes, it was done in Punjabi, but since the call was so elaborate, everyone just jumped on."

The calls received so much attention that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told Singh the team started playing it to fire up the players, who began shouting the call as well. Bonino even suggested that his family should start using it as their ring tones.

"It was very special," Singh said. "When we actually made the call I don't think myself or anyone on the show realized we were going to get that type of reaction from the fans or from the media. I would say it was very memorable and very special for sure. There is nothing more you can ask for as a broadcaster than to have your work appreciated so much, especially considering how the Pittsburgh Penguins players themselves were using the calls in the dressing room. For me, it really hit home during one of the Stanley Cup finals [when] one of the first questions asked of Sullivan was, 'What are your thoughts on the Bonino call?'"

How incredible was it? Hockey legend and Penguins co-owner/chairman Mario Lemieux told the announcers they were part of history and the Stanley Cup run.

Pandher says that when he was still a kid playing video games with his brother, he would provide vocal commentary, mostly in English but sometimes in Punjabi. The current Punjabi hockey broadcasts he and the others deliver have some English wording as well. Team names are in English, of course, as are traditional hockey terms such as icing, power play, offside, cross-checking, goal, puck and others.

"There are certain things you can't directly translate into Punjabi," Janda said. "Like puck. There is no Punjabi word for puck. Sometimes on the previous shows, Harnarayan would use a food item, a thing made out of potatoes called 'tikki,' that he used as a term because it kind of looks like a hockey puck. But we say puck now."

Said Hundal: "We'll use those terms with a nice, fine balance. We'll say the word in English and have a little description that also describes it a bit for people who don't know it."

The crew provides commentary while watching the live broadcasts of games on their studio monitors. They strive to be as informative, entertaining and energetic as possible, occasionally using Punjabi cultural references. They also are certain to be very fun. For instance, when Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov scored a goal last year, Singh began singing a popular Punjabi song that rhymed with the player's name.

He made a reference to "The Simpsons" in a game, calling San Jose's Brent Burns "Mr. Burns" and using the word "excellent," a catchphrase of the animated show's rich tightwad. When a player beats a goalie up high, Singh uses a phrase that translates into English as, "He fired it top shelf -- where grandma keeps the treats!"

"We have to be cognizant of the audiences tuning in," Hundal said. "There are people who in the past would be like, 'I'll watch it in Punjabi for a few minutes, but I'll go back to English.' Or, '[the other guys] are pros, and these guys are just doing it on the side.' That's why we try to focus on being as good and up-to-snuff on the world of hockey as anybody else. Yeah, we might be fun, you might tune in for the novelty -- but you're going to get a good hockey broadcast. And we're going to dump information on you. And we know what we're talking about.

"That is important. We want to make sure that we are being the masters of both of those domains. It's important that we have our pulse on what people are feeling and saying."

The announcers say the broadcasts are helping grow hockey -- not only in fan interest, but also with Punjabi parents who have their children playing the sport now that they can watch and understand it on TV.

The broadcasts are helping connect the Punjabi community with the broader community. When Singh was a growing up in Alberta, his passion for hockey provided an important connection with schoolmates. "Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition" is helping to create that dynamic on a larger scale.

One example was the Bonino phenomenon. Pittsburgh does have not a significant Punjabi community, but the call was so popular that the broadcasters were invited to the Penguins' Stanley Cup championship celebration. The four were recognized and cheered by hordes of fans when they took the stage with the Penguins players and did the "Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!" call.

"It's just amazing. The whole city knew who we were," Pandher said. "We're based in Vancouver and can walk down the street there and nobody knows who we are, but everybody in Pittsburgh knew who we were. We felt like rock stars for the weekend.

"That's the amazing thing. In the time that we're living, the thought crossed my mind that we might run into this or that. But it just goes to show you there are good people in this world anywhere you go."

Hundal says the Pittsburgh celebration showed that he and his partners are playing an important role in breaking down barriers and misperceptions.

"As they say, 'If you assume, you make an ass of you and me,'" he said. "We can break a lot of assumptions by doing what we're doing. Yes, we're broadcasting hockey and we're having a lot of fun, but by no means does it stop there.

"It's not just about us. It's about much more than that. What we're doing means so much more to so many more people on a much deeper level. And I think that makes what we're doing really special. It's not just another show. I think we've gone into the realm of meaning something important to people. People can appreciate that we enjoy the sport, and they enjoy the sport, and it's fantastic. We can all enjoy the sport."

No matter your language, no matter your background, sport unites -- even when someone other than Bonino scores the goal.