From the fields to the rinks: how Canada’s Sikh community is embracing all things ice hockey
- ‘Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition’ shot to fame in 2016
- Canada’s large Sikh population gravitating towards all forms of the game
Like any regular Canadian boy growing up, Harpreet Pandher was raised on a healthy dose of Hockey Night in Canada – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship programme that showcases the nation’s most famous pastime.
His father was a rabid fan of Wayne Gretzky, who shone as part of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Edmonton Oilers dynasty in the early 1980s.
“Growing up in Vancouver, it wasn’t until I got into kindergarten that I learned there was a local team, the Vancouver Canucks, because my dad was such a Gretzky nut,” Pandher said.
The sport of hockey has been deeply embedded within Canadian culture for well over a century, and now a new enclave of citizens are adding a new flavour.
The 37-year-old Pandher, whose father and mother came from separate areas of the Punjab region in India in the 1970s, is part of a wave of Sikhs that have migrated to Canada over the past few decades in various diasporas, and have embraced hockey in an interesting form of cultural assimilation. It is estimated there are around half a million Sikhs living in Canada.
Vancouver, and most notably Surrey, the city east of it which is the second largest in Metro Vancouver, has a massive Indo-Canadian population. Estimates are that South Asians make up more than a third of the denizens and Punjabi (the language most predominantly spoken by Sikhs) is one of the most commonly spoken languages in households across the city.
Sikhism is also now one of the most practised religions in all of Greater Vancouver, as the area houses one of the largest populations of Sikhs outside India.
Pandher is now an analyst and colour commentator for the wildly-popular Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition, first launched in 2008 and now handled by telecommunications giant Rogers.
The show shot to fame in 2016 with one call: Pittsburgh Penguins centre Nick Bonino’s go-ahead goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. The play-by-play and subsequent video went viral, bringing the Indo-Canadian love affair with ice hockey into the nation’s limelight.
— Hockey Night Punjabi (@HkyNightPunjabi) May 31, 2016
Pandher, who was on colour commentary for the game, said everything changed that night when it came to Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition.
He first joined the show in 2014, when it mostly catered to the Punjabi population across North America who wanted to watch NHL games in their native tongue. But the Bonino call flipped their tiny show on its head.
“I remember we just sat around after calling that game, just watching our social media feeds, Twitter especially, it just blew up,” Pandher said. “We went from less than a thousand followers to 10 thousand followers in a few hours.”
— Hockey Night Punjabi (@HkyNightPunjabi) November 27, 2017
The call, made by Harnarayan Singh, launched the show into the stratosphere – coverage poured in from major outlets like ESPN, HBO and NPR.
The commentators were also invited to the Penguins championship parade, and the exposure has showcased how various sports can jump continents along with diasporas.
“The Punjabi community will always have a link to hockey, we call ice hockey just hockey here, but back in India and Pakistan, hockey is grass hockey,” Pandher said. “And cricket is more popular now, but in the ’70s and ’80s, field hockey was the number one sport in India.”
Field hockey dominated the Indian subcontinent for most of the 20th century and was one of the world’s most famous post-war sports, culminating with India winning the gold medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, less than a year after the area went through a bloody partition which saw the end of British Raj and the creation of India and Pakistan.
As Sikhs – who hail predominately from northern India and eastern Pakistan – left their homeland and moved to Canada partially because of religious subjugation, the transition from field to ice hockey was a natural one.
“They’re both easy games to understand, it’s about putting the puck or the ball into the net,” Pandher said. “So with the youngsters here in Canada whose parents came from India, playing street and ice hockey just became a natural thing.
“Most of us are kids of immigrants and sometimes our parents could not afford to put us into ice hockey.”
This led to another wave of interest in ball hockey, which is played in the summertime after the ice is taken out of the rinks. Once a fringe sport, it now hosts an international championship every two years, and Surrey-based India are one of the top-ranked sides.
Team India won silver in 2009 and the squad are now ranked eighth in the world heading into the 2019 International Street & Ball Hockey Federation championships, which will take place in Slovakia. Sikh Smiter Kaila, one of the country’s most famous ball hockey players, was recently featured in a VICE Sports video which declared him the “The Godfather of Team India Ball Hockey”. The video now has more than a quarter of a million views.
The waves of immigration into Canada have now created increased diversity in the NHL. Once a mono-ethnic league dominated by white Canadians of various Anglo-Saxon descent, it now boasts players from 17 different countries and various ethnic backgrounds. Canadians still make up roughly half of the league, but athletes of varying skin colours and backgrounds have started to don jerseys.
Edmonton Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira is one of the most prominent pro hockey players of Punjabi descent. He hails from Surrey and has helped further the sport’s exposure within the Indo-Canadian community.
Khaira, who has 12 points in 32 games this season for the Oilers, is the third player of Punjabi descent to suit up in the “show” – which the NHL is referred to – following Robin Bawa and Manny Maholtra.
Surrey is now full of rinks that host numerous ice hockey leagues in the winter and ball hockey leagues in the summer. In November, a female Team India hailing from the mountainous Ladakh region in the northern area of the country made history by suiting up against a Surrey Falcons bantam division squad in the city.
It was the team’s first game outside their native homeland and the squad were discovered via social media and invited to Canada to take part in a number of tournaments. They also toured various NHL facilities, and spent time with the Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition crew.
— Hockey Night Punjabi (@HkyNightPunjabi) November 19, 2018
Pandher said it’s only a matter of time before the NHL produces a Punjabi superstar as the league’s racial make-up has become almost as multicultural as Canada itself. The North American nation features more than 250 different ethnic groups and four in 10 people described themselves as having more than one place of origin, according to a recent census.
“In general we’re seeing more diversity in the NHL,” Pandher said. “It seems like there’s a few guys on every NHL team now that are of visible minority.”
And of course, the Indo-Canadian love for the sport and its various iterations will only grow.
“Whichever variation of hockey it is, Punjabis will love their hockey,” Pandher said.