The sport of hockey an important touchstone in Canada’s national identity.
But as the nation’s population grows increasingly diverse, advertisers and broadcasters are experimenting with ways to connect new audiences to the game and spark a greater sense of unity across cultures.
This Saturday, Canada’s NHL rightsholder, Rogers Sports & Media, will debut the Molson Hockey Night in Canada Multilingual Edition. In addition to the regular network broadcasts in English, French and Punjabi, both games in the all-Canadian North Division will be livestreamed with commentary in seven additional languages.
“Over 22% of Canadians are foreign born and that number is growing,” said Joy Ghosh, the senior brand director for the Molson family of brands, which is presenting the broadcast. “In a non-Covid year, I think we typically see about 300-350,000 new people come into our country.”
Molson has deep roots in the fabric of Canada. Founded in 1786, it’s the oldest operating brewery in North America and one of the oldest companies in Canada. Its flagship beer is Molson Canadian.
According to Ghosh, the multilingual broadcasts “felt like a really great opportunity for a brand that really speaks to our Canadian identity to reach out to this consumer group and make them feel connected, make them feel part of the culture. And what better way to be connected than Canada’s sport?”
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Putting the broadcasts together, Sportsnet has a successful template to work from. The weekly broadcast of Hockey Night in Punjabi, which has been on the air in various forms since 2008, is now produced out of Rogers’ Vancouver studios. It airs on the company’s multicultural network, OMNI Television, and has gained renown over the years for its evocative commentary, which resonates even with non-Punjabi speakers.
Randip Janda has been part of the Hockey Night in Punjabi team since 2014, and serves as host for the broadcasts.
As a child of immigrant parents from India, he fell in love with the game of hockey during the Vancouver Canucks’ run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 1994. His passion persisted to the point where he went on to pursue a career in sports media.
“When I started off, it was ‘Hey, we’re going to bring hockey to a Punjabi audience, and it’s just a different language,’” he said. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s about identity. It’s about having a role in Canada’s sport and being an active player and active participant.
“When I was younger, I was kind of searching. ‘Okay, I see Wayne Gretzky, I see Mario Lemieux, I see broadcasters. But I don’t see people that maybe look like me, or their names don’t sound like mine.’ I think you get to a certain point where you’re wondering, ‘Where do I fit in?’
“With the Hockey Night in Punjabi example, I hope this has changed the equation a little bit, where all of a sudden with that inclusion that we speak of, there is somebody sitting out there saying, ‘Wait a second. If these guys can do it, if they’ve been able to build a career out of it and they enjoy hockey, I can do it as well.”
All seven streams for Hockey Night in Canada’s multilingual edition will be available nationwide, but the languages were selected because they’re commonly spoken in the NHL’s seven Canadian markets: Cantonese and Mandarin in Vancouver, Hindi in Calgary, Vietnamese in Edmonton, Tagalog in Winnipeg, Cantonese in Toronto, Arabic in Ottawa and German in Montreal.
The commentary duties are being handled remotely by Spalk, a New Zealand-based company that specializes in customizing broadcasts for sporting events around the globe.
“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to work with Spalk directly, but we’ve had a number of conversations with them and have followed their work closely over the past few years,” said Anthony Attard, the vice-president of sports and NHL sales for Sportsnet. “With their international sports broadcasting experience, technical capabilities and ability to produce multilingual broadcasts, we firmly believe they are the perfect partner to help deliver this initiative.”
Hockey faces challenges when attracting new fans. It doesn’t have the same global footprint as soccer or basketball, and its fast pace and tiny black puck can make it challenging for neophytes to follow the action, especially on television.
There’s also plenty of sport-specific terminology. To help new viewers grasp some of the nuances of the game, Molson has created a lingo sheet which translates some of those terms into all seven languages.
And while the NHL has been running a campaign called ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ for the last few years in an effort to improve diversity and inclusion around the sport, there’s still plenty more work to be done. Initiatives to combat racism were at the forefront during the playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto last summer, but according to FiveThirtyEight, the NHL still has the highest proportion of white players of any of the North American pro sports.
That won’t change until a more diverse group of kids starts playing at the grassroots level.
Ghosh hopes this weekend’s broadcasts are a step toward helping to make that happen.
“There are challenges when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the sport,” he acknowledged. “But as a key part of our cultural identity, I think it’s so important to make the sport feel more inclusive.
“I think language is such a powerful tool. Making it more inclusive, making it more accessible is always a good first step. Getting more people to view the sport in a different way, engaging with your family members across multi-generational households, which often a lot of these multi-cultural households are, brings people together.”
Asked if he had any tips for the new commentators this weekend, “First of all, have fun,” Janda said. “If you’re not having fun, the viewer is not going to have fun. When we started off, I remember one of our team leaders said, ‘Just think of it as being in your basement with your friends.’
“I’m looking forward to this,” he added. “I might not understand the Arabic broadcast or the German broadcast, but we get this all the time on Hockey Night In Canada Punjabi, the comment, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying, but you guys sound like you’re having a lot of fun.’
“I know these broadcasts are going to bring that as well. I’m really excited for that.”
Saturday’s Molson Hockey Night in Canada Multilingual Edition games feature the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Vancouver Canucks (7 p.m. ET), followed by the Edmonton Oilers at the Winnipeg Jets (10 p.m. ET).
Fans in Canada can access the livestreams of the seven multilingual broadcasts at Sportsnet.ca/Molson.