Before agreeing to an interview with the Free Press, Chris Eccles, in his third season as the live organist at Winnipeg Jets home games, has a query of his own: is the prospective writer of the piece, yours truly, allergic to peanuts?
It turns out Eccles, an elementary school teacher in his "real life," is a bit of a superstitious sort. During the 2017-18 campaign, his first with the club, he brought a peanut butter sandwich to a game between the Jets and Detroit Red Wings, in the event he was hungry between periods and didn’t have time to slip out for a Jumbo Jet Dog. Because the Jets won that particular matchup 4-3, he packed another peanut butter sandwich for the next game, a 6-2 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks and for the one after that, a 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars.
"(The Jets) ended up going on this crazy run — something like nine (home) wins in a row — and ever since, I’ve brought a peanut butter sandwich to every game," he says, parked in his perch in the southwest corner of Bell MTS Place, five storeys above the downtown rink’s freshly flooded ice surface. (For the record, he prefers rye bread over white, and occasionally adds crabapple jam to the mix, but only if it was prepared by his mother Margaret.)
"My students are well aware of my superstition. Every once in a while if the Jets are losing, I’ll get texts saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Eccles, don’t you think it’s time you ate your sandwich?’"
Remember the scene from the 1977 movie Slapshot when Charlestown Chiefs player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) shreds the organist’s sheet music in a huff, imploring him to never play Lady of Spain again? Fat chance of that occurring during a Jets game where Eccles, his long hair almost always tied back in a ponytail, is more likely to offer up tunes by Megadeth or Iron Maiden than standards written in the 1930s.
"I’m a rocker through and through, no question about it," says Eccles, 49, who, besides his teaching duties, also moonlights in RattleSnake SuitCase, a Guns N’ Roses tribute act.
"My uncles got me into Zeppelin and Kiss when I was kid but what really cemented things for me was the Van Halen album 1984. Being a synth guy and hearing those opening notes to Jump... heck, they could have farted their way through the rest of the album and I still would have loved it."
In January 2009, one of Eccles’ friends won the Manitoba Moose’s annual, backyard rink promotion, which earned him the right to host a live Moose practice at his home in Oakbank. A few days before the get-together, Eccles’ pal asked him if he’d be interested in adding some old-school charm to the festivities, by using an old, electronic keyboard he’d hooked up to replicate the sound of an organ, while Moose players were going through their drills. "You bet," Eccles replied.
The night of the event, Moose executive Kyle Balharry, now the Jets’ director of game production, tapped Eccles on the shoulder to let him know he was enjoying his song selection. Furthermore, he wondered if Eccles might be interested in "doing that for real" at a Moose game down the line. A few months later, there Eccles was, revving up the crowd between whistles at a game between the Moose and visiting Hershey Bears.
Eccles played the organ at Moose games off and on for the next two years, mainly during the playoffs. That is, when he wasn’t touring with Blackstöne Cherri, a Minnesota-based outfit that opened for the likes of Poison, and once performed in front of 75,000 people at Moondance Jam, an annual, classic rock festival staged near Walker, Minn. In 2011, Eccles was chatting backstage with Rudy Sarzo, bass player for Quiet Riot, when he had "an epiphany."
Sarzo, in his early 60s at the time, was lamenting the fact he’d recently purchased a new home in Los Angeles but because of Quiet Riot’s endless touring schedule, he wasn’t sure when he was going to get a chance to move in. Then and there, Eccles, never married, made up his mind that wasn’t the type of future he envisioned for himself.
Before embarking on his music career, Eccles briefly studied education at the University of Manitoba. So at the age of 40, he re-enrolled, this time with the intention of completing his degree and landing a teaching position.
Eccles began teaching grades 5 and 6 at Champlain School in 2016. A year later, Balharry got in touch again, this time to ask if he wanted to reprise his organist role in front of 15,000 rabid Jets fans, 40-plus nights a year. (At the start of the 2016-17 season, the Jets became the latest NHL squad to bring an organist back into the fold, a tradition that had largely been scrapped league-wide in the 1990s when loud, canned music became the norm during breaks in the action.)
"Except for playing for myself in the basement, I pretty much gave up music when I went back (to university) in order to fully concentrate on my studies," he says. "But because I’m also a crazed hockey fan who already had Jets season tickets, when Kyle told me the guy they’d originally hired (to play the organ) wouldn’t be returning for the next season, it was like having the best of both worlds suddenly fall into my lap."
Chris Eccles, the Jets’ in-game organist, is a true-blue rock ‘n’ roller. As a nod to both his instrument and taste in music, here’s a list of the Top 10 rock songs of all time, which prominently feature an organ, as selected by the website, ultimateclassicrock.com.
10. Light My Fire, the Doors
9. 96 Tears, ? and the Mysterians
8. Karn Evil 9, Emerson, Lake and Palmer
7. House of the Rising Sun, the Animals
6. You Keep Me Hanging On, Vanilla Fudge
5. Your Time is Gonna Come, Led Zeppelin
4. Chest Fever, The Band
3. Gimme Some Lovin’, the Spencer Davis Group
2. Hush, Deep Purple
1. A Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum
Game day for Eccles begins at 6 a.m., when he takes his dog for a stroll. Sometimes during their walk he’ll check a twitter feed devoted exclusively to sports organists to see what his colleagues are up to, what tunes worked for them, that sort of thing. Other times he’ll run songs over in his head — last week it was Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself, days before it was the Headstones’ Cemetery — trying to decide if they’ll be crowd-pleasers or not.
If it’s a school day, and puck drop is at seven bells, he heads to the rink straight from class, making sure to grab an extra-large, double-double on the way. (Not the tidiest of sorts, when asked what’s with all the empty coffee cups littering his lair, he replies, "That’s from the Penguins game, that’s from the Bruins game, that’s from the Oilers game...")
He generally arrives at Bell MTS Place at 4:45 p.m., taking his place alongside food hawkers and beer vendors waiting their turn to take a freight elevator to the upper bowl. Because their queue is on the way to the visiting team’s dressing room, players who’ve been in the league a while, ones who recognize Eccles from seeing his mug plastered on the Jumbotron, shout out song titles, while parading by. Last month, for example, Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid asked Eccles to play a specific hip-hop number only to be rebuffed with, "Sorry, man, just metal."
After reaching the rink’s upper level, Eccles ascends the stairs to the top row of Section 317. Pointing at what he refers to as a "hobbit hole," he announces, "That’s us, that’s where we go in."
After making sure his keyboard is in working order by playing 20 seconds of Europe’s The Final Countdown, he slips on his Jets jersey — he sports No. 88 — and, through his headphones, touches base with the directing crew, seated in the press box almost directly across from him. His first sound check is at 5:50 p.m., his initial tune about 15 minutes later, as early-birds begin filing into the stands to watch the night’s opponents warm up.
Once the game is underway, there is a script indicating when and when not to play, he explains, but that sometimes gets tossed out the window — yes, there is a window; yes, fans seated nearby shout out requests for Sweet Caroline or Black Betty — if a game is fast-moving and there aren’t a lot of stoppages in play.
"I’m always going to play two or three songs during intermission, that’s pretty much set in stone," he goes on. "During the game, not so much. Kyle’s the one who makes those decisions. Sometimes if the crowd is a bit quiet or the Jets are down a goal, I’ll hear in my ear, ‘Music!’ or ‘Organ!’ and I’ll play a crowd prompt to get people clapping or yelling, ‘Go, Jets, go!’"
Is he allowed to be a fan during games? Certainly, he says, though he has to be extremely careful in that regard. Last season, after a referee raised his arm to indicate a hooking penalty on the Jets’ Dustin Byfuglien, Eccles slammed his right fist down on his keys in disgust, before quickly realizing the unit was turned on and folks in the crowd were being treated to a series of indeterminate notes.
After the contest is in the books, Eccles, who often invites young Jets fans into his space between periods to have a look-see, sticks around for the game’s three stars, then heads downstairs and out the door, to his parked vehicle. It takes him a while to wind down after a game, he admits, so he regularly PVRs the action to rewatch when he gets home, mostly to rate his own performance.
"Just like any other job, there are always things you can improve upon or do better the next time," he says.
"Even though this is my third year doing this, I still get butterflies. You know that Jets slogan, ‘Fuelled By Passion?’ To me, if you’re not a bit nervous, if the passion isn’t there, don’t do it. And honestly, you can apply that to almost anything in life, whether it’s teaching or playing organ at a hockey game."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.