Apr 15, 2014
At his first professional hockey game in March, 11-year-old Ben Spangrud saw his beloved Chicago Blackhawks defeat the Carolina Hurricanes.
A real high point came before the game, when tenor Jim Cornelison sang his a cappella rendition of the national anthem, to a crowd that cheered and sang along.
"It was so loud," Ben said, shaking his head. "That's going to be something to remember."
"We had goose bumps while he was singing," his father, Dave Spangrud, said.
In other sports, the singing of the national anthem is a formality. Fans stand and remove their caps. Then they sit and the game begins.
Hockey is different. In the NHL, 26 of the 30 teams employ regular anthem singers who give emotional performances night after night. Many are celebrities with cultlike followings.
Minnesota Wild anthem singer James Bohn says his status has helped him escape speeding tickets. When 33-year veteran New York Rangers singer John Amirante takes a night off, the fans chant, "We want John!" Singing the anthem for the Detroit Red Wings since 1990 has won Karen Newman stints as a backup singer for Michiganders Kid Rock and Bob Seger.
The Washington Capitals jokingly placed singer Bob McDonald on the injured-reserve list one season when his duties as an Army sergeant drew him away. In Philadelphia, before Lauren Hart begins to sing, fans shout, "I love you, Lauren!"
A singer named Arlette was performing at a New York City restaurant two decades ago when a diner, New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello, asked her to sing the national anthem before a game. She has been the Devils' anthem singer ever since.
It's a job that pays anywhere from free parking and dinner to $1,000 a night. There is no industry standard.
Cornelison has been the Chicago Blackhawks' singer since 1996. A 6-foot-5 opera professional, he delivers the anthem with military strength and stunning clarity. He has more than 12,000 Twitter followers and sings commercials for a Chicago-area Lexus dealership.
A few teams in other sports employ regular singers. For three decades, baritone Robert Merrill sang the anthem regularly for the New York Yankees. But typically in professional sports, the anthem gig is farmed out—to school choirs, military bands or singers of small renown. Sometimes it is used as a sales tool: Buy a big block of seats and you can sing the anthem, too.
In Canada, the anthem singer-as-hockey celebrity dates back to 1970s Montreal, where tenor Roger Doucet sang a bilingual version of "O Canada." At a time when separatists were advocating sovereignty for French-speaking Quebec, historians say Doucet helped hold the country together.
Jen Conway, a hockey historian who tweets 'This Day in Hockey History" facts, said that Doucet's performance in both languages was so beautiful that it seemed to unite fans on both sides. "It smoothed over that tension," Conway said.
Stateside, the tradition took root in Philadelphia. In 1969, many Flyers fans were unhappy with the country's involvement in Vietnam and refused to stand for the anthem. In an effort to overcome that resistance, the Flyers substituted the anthem with American radio star Kate Smith's recording of "God Bless America." The first time the song was played, the Flyers won, and a tradition was born.
Today, Hart, the Flyers singer, sometimes sings a duet with the late Smith, who appears on a screen above the ice.
In Winnipeg, where Jets anthem singer Stacey Nattrass teaches school by day, she is sometimes held accountable for the team's performance. "My co-workers will walk by my classroom and say, 'Oh, you didn't sing well enough last night—the Jets lost'," she said.
The flamboyant national anthems sometimes heard at basketball and football games don't go over well in the NHL. In hockey, anthem singers perform the tune as written, note for note. Loud is good. Pop-inspired flash isn't.
"I don't want people to say, 'Wasn't that a lovely rendition of our anthem?'" Bohn, the Minnesota Wild singer, said. "I'd rather have them say, 'Yeah, let's play some hockey!"
Hart got the same message from her broadcaster father, Gene Hart, moments before singing her first anthem for the Flyers as a teenager: "Keep it straight … just sing the song," the Hall of Fame broadcaster told his daughter.
"I don't like it when they embellish," said right winger Jamal Mayers, who recently retired from the league after 15 years. "I see that all the time in football and basketball where they do their own little riffs and I'm like, you can audition for 'The Voice' another time; this is the national anthem."
In the NHL, anthem singers are more like band leaders than soloists. Fans are encouraged to sing along. It's one more reason not to stay home and watch the game on TV, said A.J. Maestas, president of Navigate, a firm specializing in sports marketing research.
In the NBA, Dustin Godsey, vice president for marketing for the Milwaukee Bucks, said the team reserves half of anthem performances for group sales. Godsey said the sale of singing rights enables fans to get involved.
Anthem singers sometimes promote their teams outside the hockey arena. In Chicago, Cornelison often makes appearances at Cubs and Bears games. In Philadelphia, Hart also performs for the Eagles, Phillies and 76ers. "If Lauren is going to sing the anthem at an indoor soccer game, the fans know she is ours," said Flyers senior publicist Ike Richman.
At times, said Conway, the hockey historian, the anthem has even had a peacekeeping purpose.
"Back in the day when there was a fight or a brawl, they would play the national anthem—it was an attempt to stop the brawl," Conway said. "Sometimes it worked."
By KALYN KAHLER