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With glowing heart

Stacey Nattrass went from small jazzy coffee houses to lead the loudest anthem choir in the land

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Stacey Nattrass sings the national anthem at the MTS Centre before a pre-season game.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Stacey Nattrass sings the national anthem at the MTS Centre before a pre-season game. Photo Store

On June 23, Taylor Swift played for 33,000 people at Investors Group Field. Two months later, Paul McCartney drew 31,200 fans to the same venue. Impressive numbers, for sure, but if you're wondering who has performed in front of the most Winnipeggers this year, the answer is Stacey Nattrass.

Nattrass is the anthem singer for the Winnipeg Jets. Since January, she has appeared at 28 National Hockey League games, including Friday night's home opener versus the Los Angeles Kings. With sellout crowds of 15,004 per tilt, that adds up to a combined, live audience of 420,112 -- more if you include players, coaches and Dancing Gabe.

Just don't let those gaudy totals trick you into thinking the married mother of two is leading a lifestyle befitting a country diva or ex-Beatle.

An hour before a recent, pre-season match between the Jets and visiting Edmonton Oilers, Nattrass is scrambling around her kitchen, trying to get dinner on the table for her sons, Max, 4, and Jackson, 1. After wolfing down a few forkfuls of chicken and broccoli, Nattrass fetches her purse, reaches for her car keys -- no limo waiting outside AGAIN -- and rushes downtown in a bid to get to the MTS Centre 30 minutes ahead of the opening faceoff.

"I suppose there's some notoriety associated with singing the anthem," says Nattrass, who in her "real" life teaches choir at Garden City Collegiate. "Sometimes when I'm out shopping for groceries a person will come up to me and say, 'Good job last night,' which is really sweet. But for the most part, I live pretty anonymously."

Sixteen years ago, Nattrass, 36, was studying music at the University of Manitoba. On weekends, she handled lead vocals for a smallish, jazz ensemble that performed in lounges and coffee shops around town. One evening, the group -- minus Nattrass -- was booked for a show in support of the Manitoba Moose's Yearling Foundation. Between sets, a person associated with the then-IHL squad approached the band. He said the team was in the market for a regular anthem singer and asked if they knew anybody who might fit the bill.

A couple of weeks later, Nattrass was standing at centre ice at the old Winnipeg Arena, belting out O Canada for a half-dozen interested on-lookers.

"They didn't really say too much but they seemed to like it," Nattrass says.

True that: within days, Nattrass was summoned to sing the anthem for a Moose game. One turned into two, two became three, and so on and so forth.

Nattrass sang for the Moose for 14 years. Twenty-six days after her last appearance on May 6, 2011, Mark Chipman announced that True North Sports and Entertainment had purchased the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, with the intent of moving the team, hook, line and Slater, to Manitoba. Like every other hockey fan around these parts, Nattrass was thrilled by the news. Within a week or so, though, she started to wonder how the switch to the bigs would affect her personally.

"I never assumed but I hoped," Nattrass says. "By mid-summer, I was contemplating emailing my contact and saying, 'So what are you thinking?' But luckily they beat me to it." (In August 2011, Nattrass topped a poll that asked "Who do you think should sing the anthem at Jets games?" Among the nominees she beat out were Burton Cummings, Maria Aragon and the Weakerthans' John K. Samson.)

"Stacey had been with us for years and she deserved the gig," says Kyle Balharry, True North's director of event production. "I think the best thing about Stacey is that she sings the anthem the way everybody in the crowd sings it themselves. What I mean is, she's not out there trying to change it up with all these weird parts, or going all operatic. Stacey sings it exactly how we all learned it in school."

That said, it's a safe bet nobody who attends Jets games nowadays -- not Second World War veteran Len Kropioski, not the fellows dressed like Don Cherry, not the "Queen" -- grew up yelling "True North" at the top of their lungs, during O Canada's second verse.

"The first time that happened was at the very first exhibition game against Columbus," Balharry says, referring to the now-famous shout-out. "A few of us looked at each other and said, 'What was that?' The second game it got a little bit louder and by the time opening night rolled around, it was thunderous. Now it's become a part of the whole brand."

Balharry gets calls and emails on an almost daily basis from people who are interested in singing the anthem prior to a Jets game. He has a couple of back-ups in case Nattrass is unavailable -- or adds to her family. Two seasons ago, Nattrass sang the anthem on Dec. 9, gave birth to Jackson on Dec. 14 and was back at the rink on Dec. 31 -- a feat that earned her a spot on Ace Burpee's 2011 list of outstanding Manitobans.

"There are always a couple of times during the year when we do a special anthem. This month, for example, we have a Kenyan boys' choir coming in as part of We Day," Balharry says. "But I'm not a big fan -- and I know our ownership's not a big fan -- of having different singers every time out."

For her part, Nattrass is willing to sing at Jets games for "as long as they'll have me." Sure, she'd love to get back on stage one day: in the past she has worked with Danny Schur in Strike!, performed at Rainbow Stage umpteen times and was called upon by filmmaker Guy Maddin for a live version of his feature Brand upon the Brain! at the 2008 New Music Festival. (Better still: when Nattrass was a member of the Winnipeg Youth Chorus, she sang on a trio of Fred Penner records: Happy Feet, The Season and Fred Penner's Place.)

But until Nattrass lands her dream role -- that would be Elphaba from Wicked -- singing for the Jets is as perfect a fit as the aviator-blue jersey she sports on game-night.

"I realized just how much singing the anthem meant to me during last year's lockout," says Nattrass, whose aunt is opera singer Tracy Dahl and whose brother is actor/singer Carson Nattrass.

"Don't get me wrong: I have a busy life with two little ones at home. Plus I absolutely love being a teacher. But deep down I'm a performer. And if I wasn't performing somehow, somewhere, I think I would really miss it."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 D11

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Updated on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 7:05 PM CDT: Adds photos, corrects copy.

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