It all started with one voice at the Winnipeg Jets’ first preseason game in September.
Stacey Nattrass was singing O Canada and when she reached the line “The True North strong and free,” someone in the crowd yelled “True North!” in homage to the Jets owner, True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd.
It stuck, and now fans yell “True North!” during the national anthem at every Jets home game.
“It’s not something we planned for,” True North chairman Mark Chipman said. “It’s just one of those very nice things that has resulted from all of this. We’re quite pleased with it.”
Planned or not, the True North shout in Winnipeg is just the latest twist on national anthem singing at sports events that has irked some fans and tickled others. And it’s part of a growing trend to turn parts of O Canada and The Star-Spangled Banner into cheers or marketing slogans for teams.
Take the Florida Panthers.
Last summer, the NHL team unveiled a new marketing campaign called “We See Red.” It includes new red uniforms, red seats and flashy red lighting during games. Fans also now shout “red!” when the anthem singer reaches, “And the rockets’ red glare.”
Fans in Washington do the same thing during Capitals games. They also yell “O!” at the phrase “O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” which is a take off on what Baltimore Orioles baseball fans having doing for more than 40 years.
Some U.S. college students go even further. At the University of Oklahoma football games the crowd shouts “Sooners!” instead of “brave” when the singer sings the final line, “and the home of the brave.” Fans at the University of Kansas and North Carolina State University have done the same thing, despite urgings from school officials to stop because it shows disrespect.
All of this bastardizing of the national anthems bothers people like Mary Kennedy, an associate professor of music education at the University of Victoria who has done studies on singing anthems.
“I really feel we should sing O Canada respectfully and joyfully,” Kennedy said. She added that changing or shouting out specific words takes away from the importance of the song.
If we are taking the time to sing it, we should sing it properly, she added. “I wonder what it would be like if some big honcho in Winnipeg got up and said ‘The national anthem is an important part of our heritage and let’s sing it with respect?’ ”
Her preferred option is to have no singer at all. “There was a time when we didn’t have to be led,” she said.
Just why national anthems are sung at professional sports events is rooted in patriotism.
The Star-Spangled Banner, which began as a poem in 1814, was played sporadically at baseball games and other major events in the early 1900s, at the behest of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, even though the song wasn’t the country’s national anthem yet (that didn’t happen until 1931).
O Canada, which dates to 1880, was also sung at International League baseball games in the late 1930s. But it was the outbreak of the Second World War and the ensuing national fervour that cemented the tradition.
By the end of the war, the home team’s national anthem was a regular feature at NHL games. Both anthems started to be played in 1967, and the practice became mandatory across the NHL in 1987.
There have been calls to get rid of the tradition. The NHL came under pressure to consider dropping the anthems in 2003, after fans booed the U.S. anthem to protest the war against Iraq during a game in Montreal between the Canadiens-New York Islanders. The league held firm.
Fans such as James Stewart think it is time to drop the songs.
“I think the whole concept of a national anthem before a sporting event, which is a form of entertainment, is kind of outdated,” said Stewart, a history teacher in Toronto who has written articles urging an end to the practice. He added the fact that fans have turned the songs into cheers, by shouting certain words or changing lyrics, goes to show the anthems have become just a part of the show.
But getting rid of the anthems isn’t easy.
Goshen College, a small Mennonite liberal arts school in Indiana, got headlines around the world for its clumsy decision to introduce and then drop The Star-Spangled Banner before campus sports events. The college had long believed the militaristic language clashed with its Mennonite beliefs of pacifism and the national anthem had not been played before games.
Last year, the school relented to mounting pressure and permitted an instrumental version. That caused a furor across the campus and, in August, the college backed down, dropped the anthem and replaced it with America the Beautiful.
Many fans enjoy the national anthems at hockey games, believing it’s one of the few occasions people get to hear or sing them.
Chipman is among them. But he also has a preference for how they are sung: let the fans sing it without accompaniment, like they did last season in Vancouver during the Canucks’ playoff run.
“I think that is probably the most impactful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I really, really like that.”