There are a handful of professional sports teams that enjoy a special connection with the national anthem. It’s coincidental, I’m sure. I doubt the Boston Braves picked that mascot hoping the audience would adapt the song’s final word. Same goes for Baltimore Orioles fans starting the anthem by yelling O! or Houston basketball fans shouting rockets! at the appropriate time.
In the summer of 1992, my family moved to Dallas. In the summer of 1993, the Minnesota Stars did the same. Of course, I was living in the suburbs with the white picket fences and the two-car garages and the 2.3 kids (actually, 6 kids in my family) and the NHL team was living in a downtown arena where the professional athletes, presumably, slept right there on the ice — but clearly they and I were having more or less the same life journey.
But with a new team came fervor, and with my dad’s corporate gig — the reason we had to relocate from the armpit of America to God’s country to begin with — came the occasional leftover season tickets. Like any large company, my dad’s employer would occasionally wine and dine current or potential clients with a sporting event — hoping the novelty of a hockey game would overshadow the fact they were too cheap to spring for tickets to see America’s Team. Since my dad didn’t drink, he often wasn’t handpicked to be the one to wine and dine anyway, so I don’t exactly remember if it was the first or second season when I saw my first NHL game.
But what I do remember — the same, I’ve discovered, as what most people remember from their first professional hockey game — was the sounds and the smells and the pace. The crispness of the ice being cut through with each stride and each stop (on a dime! how do they do that?), the whoosh of cool air through your nostrils (despite it being 102° outside), and the pace! (oh the pace! you do not realize how fast ice hockey really is until you see it in person.)
I remember all of that, I do. But I also remember the national anthem — not who sung it or how well it was sung, but what happened when they got to the line:
Whose broad stripes and bright …
And two men in the nosebleeds shouted, at the top of their lungs, STARS!
There were some muffled laughs. Some darting eyes back and forth. But the singer continued. A real professional.
But then, a few lines later, came:
O say does that …
And the same two men again turned the solo into a trio by shouting STARS!, with the singer finishing out the phrase with “pangled banner”.
And that was that. The song ended. We all clapped and sat down. And we enjoyed the greatest game, shaking our heads and the two buffoons in the bleachers.
I was able to go to a couple of Dallas Stars games each season growing up, but I must have always arrived after the national anthem because it wasn’t until several years later that I discovered what had happened.
“Whose broad stripes and bright” led into thousands of fans all yelling STARS! And it happened again when “O say does that” came around. It was tremendous.
It had caught on. It was now standard practice. Tradition. And has been ever since.
I don’t know if those two (drunk?) men were the first. I don’t know if they thought of it themselves and came to every game they could until it caught on. I don’t know if they knew about the anthem traditions of the Braves or the Rockets or the Orioles.
But I do know that now, living 800 miles away from their home arena, I try to turn the game on early enough to maybe catch the national anthem — and enjoy the nostalgia.