Since Xcel Energy Center opened its doors to welcome the NHL back to Minnesota in 2000, it has quickly gained a reputation for being one of the best places in the league to watch a game. In addition to good sightlines and a good sound system, the X (as locals like to call it) has become cutting edge for something else – namely, putting together a terrific pre-game show.By Dave Wright
Since Xcel Energy Center opened its doors to welcome the NHL back to Minnesota in 2000, it has quickly gained a reputation for being one of the best places in the league to watch a game. In addition to good sightlines and a good sound system, the X (as locals like to call it) has become cutting edge for something else – namely, putting together a terrific pre-game show.
The NBA was at the forefront of this idea. If Cecil B. DeMille was alive today, he might be doing NBA pre-game format instead of thinking of a new way to shoot “The 10 Commandments.” It started with the success of the Chicago Bulls in the Michael Jordan era and quickly spread to every arena in the league. NBA starting lineups are regularly introduced with the kind of flair that used to be reserved for the Rolling Stones.
The staid NHL didn’t follow suit immediately. Even the early Wild efforts were rather low key. In its early years, the Wild would shot a short video followed by a hokey theme song. (It was kind of cheesy but that’s the type of people we are in Minnesota. We love this sort of thing. I know folks who sing the Vikings’ theme song after every Minnesota touchdown – whether they are in the stadium or watching at home.)
Seven years after they started, the Wild’s pre-game show has expanded to the point you almost expect John Maher, the fellow who coordinates the whole thing, to stand up and take a bow when it is over.
“There aren’t a lot of rules about what can’t be done,” said Bill Robertson, who is the team’s Vice President of Communication and Broadcasting. “Basically, we can do almost anything we want. If we go too far, somebody from the league will tell us. Nobody has called us yet.”
The other night, with league boss Gary Bettman on hand, Minnesota hosted Game 2 of their Stanley Cup playoff series with Colorado. Maher and company were in good form. The show started 10 minutes before faceoff as the lights were dimmed. Using the video portion of the scoreboard, the team ran highlights from a previous playoff series win against Colorado as well as some memorable moments from the first game of the current series.
From there, things got creative. The images began to be extended onto the ice prior to the players’ appearances. It ended with a picture of a giant Stanley Cup that nearly took up the entire ice. As the crowd was getting revved up, Adam Abrams, the public address announcer muttered the Avs’ starters so quickly and softly hardly anybody in the full house noticed.
At this point, the fun really began. From the Zamboni end, out shot a young kid who took a Wild flag, stuck it as hard as he could into center ice and pumped his arm to the crowd. When it was time to introduce Minnesota’ lineup, a foghorn exploded into noise and the starters got their rousing welcome. While this was going on, the youngster is still at center ice, waving his arm frantically. Eventually, a couple of players go by and highfive him.
None of the above surprised Bob Kurtz, the team’s radio announcer whose NHL pedigree dates back three decades. “It’s one of the biggest changes that has happened to the league since I started,” Kurtz said. “Scoreboards aren’t really scoreboards anymore. They are used for entertainment purposes.”
The Wild’s efforts have not gone unnoticed around the league. Just about every team in the league does some type of theatrical opening. Even at staid Joe Louis Arena, things are reportedly livelier this year. The Red Wings, one of the league’s old guards, are famous for concentrating on the game and the game alone. This year, however, they publicly announced they had hired a fellow to spiff things up before games. Told of this, Robertson only smiled and said something about imitation being flattering.
Robertson knows a little bit about show biz because he used to work for Disney, which (at the time) ran the NHL Ducks and baseball’s Angels. He admits the current pre-game routine in St. Paul tops anything that was done in his time there. St. Paul, showbiz capital. Who knew?
The Wild was may be the future for NHL pre-game activity. Kurtz notes every team in the league now does something but “some are more amateurish than others.” The shows are meant to appeal to the non-fan much in the same way minor league baseball used promotions to lure people to ballparks.
Still, there is something to be said for enthusiasm whipped up the old-fashioned way. Ron Foyt, now one of the league’s replay officials, was a NHL linesman for many years. As he surveyed the pre-game scene in St. Paul the other night, he recalled the loudest place he ever worked. “Even though the Blackhawks did very little pre-game stuff, Chicago Stadium was always an incredible place to work. The Blackhawks used to have climb stairs to enter the ice from one end of the building. “The noise would start when the crowd would see the first player hit the ice and the foghorn would go off,” Foyt recalled. “If that didn’t get you excited to be there, you should have stayed home.” The only other special pre-game thing the Blackhawks did was put a spotlight on the anthem singer, who stood on a podium in front of the organ near the top of the building. “By the end of the anthem, the place was roaring so loud you swore it was shaking [a clip from the 1991 NHL All-Star game — which you can see at the end of this article — is an excellent example of what it was like],” Foyt recalled. “I was always afraid the anthem guy (Wayne Messmer in the later years) would fall off the ledge he was standing on.”
Dave Wright is a senior editor at August Publications.