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Star-Mangled Banner: How Canadian sports teams avoid anthem gaffes

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TORONTO - A little over a month ago at the Memorial Cup, a rich-voiced young singer named Alexis Normand tried to tackle "The Star-Spangled Banner" and found a perilous fight indeed.

Like a speedy winger getting hooked from behind, Normand stalled out as she tried to summon the rest of the words. Fortunately, an empathetic Saskatoon audience was standing guard, ready to whistle their support and pick up the flagging Normand with the power of their collective voices.

If only the rest of us were so kind.

Over on YouTube, various uploaded clips of Normand's shaky performance have been viewed well over 800,000 times total. Of course, she's hardly the sole target of such schadenfreude. The one sports bet that you can consistently take to the bank is that if a singer screws up the American or Canadian anthem, he or she will be the subject of blooper reels, international memes and snarky online commenters.

So it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that sports organizations go to great lengths to ensure their singers are ready and prepared to belt the two songs that almost every fan knows by heart. Still, those in charge of selecting the anthem singers have a nervous few minutes each and every time the arena fans are asked to stand, remove their caps and sing along to the national anthems.

"I get like that every single time they perform," said Anton Wright, the Toronto Raptors' manager of marketing and game operations. "You've seen all the things that could go wrong.... You're always hoping that they get through it.

"Luckily, knock on wood, we haven't had anything that's really, really bad," he added. "We've had times where people have messed up, sung the anthem incorrectly at some points, but they haven't done it that badly where it's gotten all over on the news and on social media.

"But definitely," he continued, "when it's a new person that's performing for us for the first time, that's always in the back of my mind."

It's not hard to understand why. Many sports fans can mentally call upon the most memorable anthem screw-ups as if they were highlight-reel plays.

Among the most unforgettably awful performances? Well, there was Carl Lewis at a 1993 NBA game turning "The Star-Spangled Banner" into an off-key, rhythmless odyssey while members of the Chicago Bulls tried to mask their guffaws with their warm-up jackets. Similarly, one also must assume that after her screeching, irony-drenched version of the U.S. anthem at a 1990 San Diego Padres game, Roseanne was barred from ever squealing the tune again.

And the gold standard for bizarre interpretations of O Canada has to be Greg Bartholomew's sinful take at a Las Vegas CFL game in 1994, when he fused the original melody with "O Christmas Tree" and possibly provided the highlight of Canadian football's brief foray into the United States.

The anthems — particularly the long, winding American tune — are not easy to sing. They're particularly difficult in an arena packed with tens of thousands of fans, typically without the acoustics or carefully tailored sound equipment most singers are afforded for public performances.

So why do we take such joy in watching them flail?

"It's a song we all know — four-year-olds can sing O Canada ... so how could you screw up that?" said Dale Saip, vice-president of business development for the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants.

"If someone gets some rock song wrong, we don't even notice.... It's that kind of a thing. Everyone knows it, they know what you're supposed to do, and they'll watch when you screw up. People pay attention."

Further, many fans can relate to the terrified singers.

"We can't all visualize ourselves scoring a hat trick for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but a lot of us can visualize ourselves and imagine what it might be like to sing the anthem for the Toronto Maple Leafs," said Mike Ferriman, the Leafs' manager of game presentation. "They connect with that moment. It could have happened to them."

Saip might connect more easily than some. He frequently has his 26-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son handle the stressful job of singing the anthems at Giants games (they also sometimes perform at Canucks games).

They find encouragement from Giants co-owner Michael Buble, not that the three-time Grammy-winning crooner is anxious to get out there himself.

"He said to me: 'Anthems can be a career killer,'" recalled Saip with a laugh. "You walk out there and forget where you are or something happens, and that's not a good thing to have happen."

Which is why sports organizations take such precautions to avoid the unwanted attention of a derailed "O Canada" or mangled "Star-Spangled Banner."

All the teams interviewed for this story audition singers carefully before they ever appear in front of a home crowd (Ferriman estimates 300-500 hopefuls show up for the Leafs' biannual tryouts). Unanimously, the teams also prefer to keep a small stable of anthem singers rather than experimenting extensively with drop-ins, even if a splashy name might bring a brief rush to the audience.

Even with experienced singers, teams take precautions. Wright of the Raptors notes that he has co-ordinators at the ready to run out and prompt a singer with the next line should he or she briefly lose hold of the lyrics.

And even as the leagues or provinces vary, the criteria for a good anthem performance among these teams does not: just the facts, please.

"One of the things that's important to me is sing the song the way it was written," Saip said. "Don't try to reinvent it.... If you start warbling or going down some rabbit trail, no one's going to know what the hell you're doing."

Added Kyle Balharry, director of event production with the Winnipeg Jets and True North Sports and Entertainment: "The absolute, most important part about it is that the fans can sing along."

Because for all the mirthful laughs these gaffes inspire, the anthems are an extremely important part of most sporting events.

"I think a lot of fans look forward to it, and I think everyone in the organization really takes time to notice it," said Grant McNeil, game day and promotions manager for the WHL's Victoria Royals. "I think it's of vital importance to everyone in the building."

"There is some reverence still for the national anthem," agreed Saip. "You think about it, the reverence given to national anthems only happens at sporting events. You don't sing the national anthem at the beginning of the opera.... Where else do you hear the national anthem? It is the only stage for our national anthem and our respect for our country."

Plus, the last thing he wants are citizens of a foreign country to read disrespect in a botched anthem.

"I don't want to have an international incident," he says.

No venue or team has been immune from the odd spotty anthem performance. Though no representative from any of these organizations wanted to be specific on past lacklustre performances, they agreed that the response of the faithful fans varied depending on the cause of the anthemic infraction.

"If someone messes it up because of nervousness, the crowd will always forgive you," said the Leafs' Ferriman, whose team has had such guest anthem singers as the Barenaked Ladies, Jim Cuddy and Chantal Kreviazuk. "If they feel that maybe you've messed it up because you didn't prepare properly, that's when they might get on you a bit."

Still, even those in charge of booking anthem singers can't help but share in the fun of gawking at a performance gone awry — "everyone giggles a little bit when they see it," acknowledges Balharry.

The Raptors' Wright can reel off a couple of his most-memorable mess-ups — the Lewis misstep, or the performance at a 2004 Canada-U.S. exhibition game in which singer Caroline Marcil forgot the lyrics to the U.S. anthem, left the ice to compose herself, then returned only to slip and fall.

To Wright and others, such moments are certainly humorous — so long as they don't hit too close to home (ice).

"It's funny to watch in other places," he said. "(But) you think to yourself: 'Oh man. Don't let that happen here.'"

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