At first glance, being a nationally televised hockey commentator has virtually nothing in common with bhangra dancing.
But for Gurpreet Sian, a connection exists between his teenage involvement in South Asian arts and his job with Omni TV’s Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition.
“There’s an intersection,” Sian tells Pancouver by phone. “I think it was crucial for me in terms of my confidence. I was actually a really quiet kid. Even now, I prefer my quiet time.”
But thanks to his vast experience on-stage, Sian made a smooth transition into the broadcast booth. He began as a radio host before moving to one the highest-profile platforms reaching Canadians who speak Punjabi.
Sian glides between Punjabi and English with the same ease as Quinn Hughes evading a forechecker in the Canucks’ end.
It’s because both of Sian’s parents were born and raised in India and spoke to him in Punjabi. They moved to Canada as they approached young adulthood.
They settled in the tiny B.C. community of Clearwater to raise a family.
“We’ve learned their work ethic and their resiliency just by watching them throughout our childhood and our youth,” Sian says.
He began drumming on a dholak at the local gurdwara. Later, Sian graduated to playing a dhol—a bigger drum that required him to use sticks.
Monsoon Festival launched in 2016
Sian’s artistic passions flourished after he enrolled at Simon Fraser University. He joined bhangra teams, made movies, wrote screenplays and put on theatre productions and comedy shows.
All of this led to the creation of the South Asian Arts Society and a career as an educator at Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. In the process, he began transforming young South Asians’ perceptions of themselves and their culture.
In 2016, Sian cofounded the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.
“Through my experience as a young artist in the early 2000s, it became clear that artists were not held in the highest regard,” Sian declared after the society was honoured by Darpan magazine in 2017.
“I wanted to change that,” he continued. “And the best way that I saw to make that change was to elevate South Asian art forms—comparable to western art forms in terms of academia, quality, and acceptance.”
The society has since enjoyed tremendous success, staging critically acclaimed plays such as The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson and Dooja Ghar (The Other House) – A Mirza Sahiban Story. Playwright Paneet Singh wrote the first production about a B.C. Sikh martyr, Mewa Singh, who went to the gallows in 1915.
The second play, cowritten by Singh and actor Andy Kalirai, revisited a famous Punjabi folk tale in a barn in Langley.
According to Sian, the South Asian Arts Society is dedicated to helping artists get their creations into the public realm. In addition to the annual festival, the society offers workshops and other opportunities for community members to test their work.
“We want to tell stories of South Asian culture through performance art,” he says.
The society has also presented impressive visual arts displays, including four murals in the Punjabi Market, as well as topnotch dance and music performances.
“Representation is essential, I think, for any community, any person of colour—or anyone,” Sian says.
MuchMusic’s Monica Deol was a South Asian broadcasting pioneer.
Trailblazers inspired Sian
As he was growing up, he didn’t see many people in the media of South Asian ancestry. The few pioneers who broke through left a lasting impression.
“I think back to my childhood and the only people who looked like me on TV, I think, were Monica Deol, who was on MuchMusic’s Electric Circus, and, somewhere along the way, Ian Hanomansing,” Sian states.
Another inspirational broadcaster of South Asian descent was Farhan Lalji. Ironically, Lalji works for the rival TSN network.
Sian began his broadcasting career in 2006 at Radio Rimjhim, which was founded by Shushma Datt. She kept him when she obtained a licence to launch Spice Radio (AM 1200).
“We actually launched a daily sports show called Gopi & the Gora,” recalls Sian, who’s sometimes called Gopi by his friends.
He welcomed the Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition broadcasters into the studio on a weekly basis. When the national program decided to hire new staff, he was invited to audition. He made the cut even though he never went to broadcasting school, unlike many others who work on the show.
“In terms of pathways to a career in media, I think Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi is a fantastic example of a successful model,” Sian says.
Video: Gurpreet Sian isn’t shy about sharing his opinions about the hockey world.
Broadcasters cross over to mainstream
One of the former Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition broadcasters, Bhupinder Hundal, works as news director and station manager at Global B.C.
The play-by-play announcer, Harnarayan Singh, began broadcasting National Hockey League games in English during the pandemic.
Another member of the team, Randip Janda, landed a job as first full-time colour commentator of South Asian ancestry in the NHL. This came when he joined the Canucks 650 AM broadcast last month.
This is such a dream come true.
Getting love from the league that I grew up watching as a kid and imagined being a part of someway, somehow. Grateful for all the love, support and mentorship along the way 🙏🏾#RepresentationMatters #HockeyisforEveryone https://t.co/Zp9twOqec9
— Randip Janda (@RandipJanda) November 9, 2022
Meanwhile, a fourth member of the team, Amrit Gill, works as a producer and reporter with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, advancing diversity and inclusion in sports.
Never in my wildest dreams…
— Amrit Gill (@AmritG) March 14, 2022
Sian enjoys knowing that when kids of South Asian ancestry see him and the others on TV, they realize that they, too, can become broadcasters.
“You know, 25 years ago, I never would have thought it would have been possible to have a career in media,” Sian says. “I had never intended to have a career in media. It just happened. And it happened because of my involvement in the arts.”