Hockey organists, once a bygone species, have made an NHL comeback as the league increasingly markets its past. Incorporating nostalgia and modernity within its in-game musical offerings is a challenge Seattle's new NHL team is addressing through a partnership with KEXP.
Inside the NHL
A memorable scene from the iconic “Slap Shot” movie of 1977 features Paul Newman’s hockey player-coach character Reggie Dunlop tearing up the arena organist’s sheet music and warning him: “Don’t ever play ‘Lady of Spain’ again!’’
Organists were the original live-music entertainers of the National Hockey League, dating to 1929 when the Chicago Blackhawks introduced a then-$220,000, mammoth 3,663-pipe organ dubbed “The Barton’’ worth roughly $3.2 million in today’s money. But as synonymous as organ music eventually became with hockey, some felt it outdated — evidenced by Newman’s character — and by the early 1980s, prerecorded rock and heavy-metal music began taking over arenas.
Only in the past decade, coinciding with an NHL marketing push emphasizing the league’s history, has the hockey organist made a comeback alongside other live and prerecorded music as teams strive for the right combination of nostalgia and modernism. Word that NHL Seattle has made KEXP its music partner for future games at KeyArena gives our city a unique opportunity to chart the league’s future music course.
“It just merged perfectly with our interest in making music a very important part of how we’re going to put games on,’’ said NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke, whose team launches in October 2021. “We’ve got a little bit of time here and we’re going to do the deep-dive and the deep-think on everything from walk-in music, to anthems, to live music, to goal songs and situational music. And why not do all that in Seattle?’’
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Indeed, nobody in the NHL quite has this whole music thing figured out. The fact organists are now “in” again — albeit in more limited fashion — shows just how difficult it can be to gauge what newer fan generations might want.
The shift away from organists toward prerecorded music began with the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers playing clips of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America’’ before games. From there, the Minnesota North Stars went with earsplitting, headbanging rock tunes in the early 1980s and others followed.
With a 1990s and 2000s onset of new arenas, many teams abandoned longtime organists as relics of bygone former homes. Team owners felt younger fans would relate more to harder-edged music they already listened to.
But they weren’t entirely correct. Fans began complaining the noise onslaught was a distraction and often literally sat on their hands as the prerecorded music thumped.
A 2011 master’s thesis on the history of hockey organ music prepared in Ottawa, Canada, by Carleton University music student Antonio Giamberardino concluded prerecorded music had limits connecting with fans. The live organ music, he added, had succeeded largely because of its spontaneity and ability to interact with fans through humor — like Blackhawks organist Al Melgard serenading on-ice officials with “Three Blind Mice’’ in the 1940s — or by using musical cues to prompt certain crowd chants.
“The organist serves as community builder,’’ he wrote, “and by bringing the audience together in common song — whether through cheering, clapping, or the shared knowledge of an inside joke — renews the inherent playful nature of the ‘game’ of hockey lost in the professionalism and seriousness of the ‘sport.’ ”
Giamberardino wrote that the revival of organist popularity has coincided with an NHL decision late last decade to aggressively market its lengthier history than other major sports leagues. Team-centennial celebrations, retro-jersey nights and the addition of outdoor “Winter Classic” games generated fan nostalgia for things from the NHL’s past — including organ music.
But Giamberardino’s most interesting conclusion was that the nostalgia wasn’t limited to older fans. Even fans too young to have ever heard organ music played at games seemed to share in the nostalgia.
“The organ allows its audience to situate themselves in the past, even if the context of its particular and peculiar history is not one they have experienced directly,’’ he wrote. “This form of ‘displaced nostalgia’ allows for even greater proliferation of the organ throughout the league, and shapes the ways in which a business such as the NHL attempts to brand its product.’’
By the time of Giamberardino’s thesis, 23 of 30 teams had added organs. Today, 27 of 31 have them.
The thesis suggested further exploration of how all forms of in-game music can be best incorporated; something Leiweke seems intent on doing.
Leiweke was a young fan in St. Louis in the late 1960s, when popular Blues organist Norm Kramer got crowds so revved up that an anonymous organization source suggested to a newspaper reporter he was adding a half-goal per game to the team’s output. When Leiweke was the Tampa Bay Lightning CEO, he and new owner Jeff Vinik in 2011 installed the NHL’s largest organ at Amalie Arena.
“I’m definitely somebody that believes there is a traditional part of the game that we also need to showcase,’’ Leiweke said. “An organ can be such a powerful thing. It’s not just old-time hockey. An organ can move the building. And so we’re definitely going to have live music at our games. And if I’m a betting man, the organ is going to play an important role in that, too.’’
As for contemporary music, Leiweke and his older brothers, Tim and Tracey, are often credited with innovating modern in-game entertainment during their 1980s indoor-soccer days in Kansas City, where prerecorded rock — along with video and laser light shows — became the mainstay.
Those aspects were also heavily featured at Lightning games when Leiweke was CEO.
But when it comes to live NHL music beyond organists, the genre is still evolving. The Nashville Predators have for years used house bands to keep fans entertained between periods.
Leiweke attended a Montreal Canadiens home game in November where they experimented with a “Habs Band’’ — consisting of a guitarist, bassist, drummer and soul vocalist — that played in-game song requests from Twitter during play stoppages.
The KEXP deal could potentially play off that idea using multiple local bands. KEXP will also lend its expertise on which prerecorded music should supplement the live versions.
“There is this vast universe of beautiful music for when you’re trying to choreograph a game,’’ Leiweke said. “It’s a drama without scripts so you can’t quite tell what’s going to happen, but having pieces of music for every situation, having traditions of going to the same piece of music for very important things, that’s all part of the equation.’’
An equation where such sheer variety of musical genres at a game makes it less likely Newman’s “Slap Shot” character would become annoyed enough to start tearing any one song sheet to shreds.