Q&A: Harnarayan Singh, co-host of Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi, on Don Cherry’s infamous “you people” rant

Q&A: Harnarayan Singh, co-host of Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi, on Don Cherry’s infamous “you people” rant

“I can't tell you how often I've had to justify my Canadianness”

As co-host of Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi, Harnarayan Singh is a puck fanatic who represents the future of Canada’s most beloved game. Since joining HNIC as an announcer in 2008, Singh has experienced the highs and lows of being a public figure. He achieved viral fame for an epic goal call during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, but he’s also endured the type of racism that entered the national spotlight following Don Cherry’s infamous “you people” rant. We spoke to Singh about growing up a hockey fan, the struggles of being a visible minority and why Cherry’s comments really were that bad.

It feels like the drama surrounding Don Cherry brought out even more vitriol and divisiveness in our country than the recent election. 

I agree with that. I think for the most part, Canadians have a reputation for being humble and respectful to one another. And then this whole thing happened over the last couple of weeks and it’s revealed a very ugly side of the country. A lot of visible minorities, including me, were quoted in articles about what happened [after Cherry was fired from Coach’s Corner], and the hate that was spewed on social media was just, well, it was very scary.

How do you respond to people who say Cherry’s comments weren’t a big deal, or that he could’ve been talking about, say, Irish immigrants?

When you single out a certain geographical area of Canada—one where there’s a very high population of visible minorities, it’s pretty clear what you’re actually saying. As for why it’s a big deal, I think those comments contribute to this extremely dangerous mentality that there’s an “us” and a “them” in this country. For me personally, I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to justify my Canadianness. My great-grandfather came to Canada in 1908. As a kid, I always had that in my back pocket, something I could pull out. But I don’t think I should’ve had to.

Most Caucasian Canadians aren’t called on to demonstrate their ancestry.

Right. It’s those of us in visible-minority communities. I always say I’m from Brooks, Alberta, and people want to know: no, no, where are you really from?

Safe to say there weren’t a lot of brown kids with turbans in Brooks?

There were none. I was the only one.

Were you always a hockey nut?

Yes, even in kindergarten and grade one, I was wearing my hockey sweater to school. My family was different from everyone else—what we wore, what we ate, the music we listened to. I was self-conscious about sticking out, and hockey helped me fit in. I was able to participate and be part of a community, whether it was trading hockey cards or playing shinny after school. When I think about the friends I made during that period of my life, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do it without hockey.

Well you certainly wouldn’t have had the same career. You became a viral sensation when you put a unique spin on calling Nick Bonino’s game-winning goal during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. 

Ha! Sure. It wasn’t planned. What happened was I had written down the player’s name three times [on my game sheet]. I had it in my head: “Bonino, Bonino, Bonino!”

More like “Boninooooooooooooooo.” You’re like the Céline Dion of hockey announcers. Where did you get those pipes?

Thanks. I’ve never heard that one. I grew up singing and performing in my community. I’ve even toured as part of a Kirtan singing group. That’s definitely a skill in Punjabi music—to be able to hold the same note for a long time.

You’ve said that you’ve seen an uptick in bigoted attitudes in the last few years. Why do you think that is?

It’s hard to ignore what’s happening in the States when you look at the timeline. I started on Hockey Night In Canada: Punjabi in 2008. For a long time, it felt like people were really accepting and excited. I mean, there was the odd stupid comment, but mostly everything was heading in a good direction. More recently, some of the old attitudes returned. When I posted my first Calgary Flames video this season, I got comments on social media: “Why is my hockey being fed to me by a guy in a turban?” and that kind of thing. I think we’re seeing this wave of divisiveness all over the world.

Did Sportsnet have any option other than to fire Cherry?

I’m not an executive, but I know these decisions are not easy to come by. I will say this: it’s not the first time he’s said something controversial, right? So there was a lot for them to think about.

Cherry has a podcast that’s pretty popular at the moment. Have you heard it? Are you surprised?

I haven’t heard it, but I’m not surprised at all that it’s popular. He’s been an icon in the industry for a long time and he’s got a big following. After everything that’s happened, there’s a certain amount of interest and curiosity, even from people who don’t watch hockey.