Another mistake makes us wonder: Why do we play national anthems before sporting events?


If we rank the worst performances of “O Canada” ever performed in the United States, what John deCausmeaker did Thursday night in St. Paul doesn't top the list.

That honor would comfortably fall to lounge singer Dennis Casey Park, who managed to transform Canada's national anthem into a version of “O Christmas Tree” before a CFL game in Las Vegas in 1994.

In deCausmeaker's case, he simply got his lyrics wrong and repeated the phrase “from afar” twice in a 10-second span before the Wild-Flames game at Xcel Energy Center.

What's notable is that deCausmeaker's performance wasn't even the worst performance of the Canadian anthem in an NHL game this week. That distinction goes to Sholanty Taylor’s version of “O Canada” on Monday at Long Island’s UBS Arena.

Taylor’s sped-up, sloppy 59-second version of “O Canada” before the Maple Leafs-Islanders game was woeful at best.

Offensive at worst.

And these two anthem abominations continue a trend we've seen on multiple occasions in 2023.

In March, Ryan Michael James suddenly forgot the words to Canada's anthem while singing before a game between the Maple Leafs and Panthers in Sunrise, Florida. James later admitted on a Toronto radio station that he was struggling to learn the lyrics to “O Canada.” “Two hours before his performance, since it was a last minute replacement.

In November, Buffalo anthem singer Christian Kramer messed up the lyrics to “O Canada” Halfway through the anthem.

At one point, Kramer sang, “Oh Canada, we keep our eyes.”

So, after four failed Canadian anthems at NHL games in 2023, it's time to question the practice of performing the anthems before every sporting event in North America.

Maybe it's time we save the anthem for the games and moments that really matter.

The first documented instance of an anthem being played before a sporting event dates back to May 1862, when “The Star Spangled Banner” was played before a baseball game in Brooklyn, New York. The practice occurred sporadically over the next several decades, and the national anthem was played before major sporting events such as the World Series.

The performance of the anthem gained traction during World War II.

As North American professional sports leagues continued to play during the conflict abroad, teams began playing the national anthem as a symbol of wartime support and patriotism. When World War II concluded, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden firmly believed the tradition should continue.

“The playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff,” Layden said. “We should not abandon it simply because the war is over. We must never forget what it represents.”

NHL clubs required the home team to honor their own country before games in 1946. About a decade later, both “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner” were played before NHL games, regardless from where the game will take place.

However, in 1969, Canadian resistance to American involvement in the Vietnam War opened the door for the NHL to allow the Maple Leafs and Canadiens to only play “O Canada” before their home games, opting to skip the ” “Star Spangled Banner.” An old CBC broadcast shows a game between Toronto and Boston from Maple Leaf Gardens in November 1970, in which only an instrumental version of “O Canada” is played before the game. The same thing happens a few weeks later in a game between the Bruins and the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.

But by 1987, the NHL had made it mandatory for both anthems to be played in games between a Canadian team and an American opponent. In Buffalo, they actually play both the Canadian and American anthems, regardless of the Sabres' opponent.

This is an exclusively North American phenomenon.

In Europe, national anthems are reserved for major international competitions, or when an urgent or important national situation arises.

Earlier this year, for example, the Premier League asked its clubs to play the UK national anthem before matches to mark the coronation of King Charles III.

When national anthems are played infrequently and saved for special occasions (as is practiced in other parts of the world), they carry more weight and meaning.

In North America, we have diluted the tradition to the point where hymns are played thousands of times each year, creating awkward and disrespectful moments like those described above.

The national anthem should be played sparingly and reserved for moments that evoke genuine feelings of national pride.

In 2014, all of Canada was shocked by the corporal's death. Nathan Cirillo, killed by a gunman at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Days later, fans in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa simultaneously sang the national anthem in a coordinated show of national unity. It was moving, genuine and profound.

That same week in 2014, the Pittsburgh Penguins played “O Canada” before a game against the Philadelphia Flyers in a show of solidarity with their neighbors to the north.

And we must never lose the ability to live these sincere moments.

But when you shoehorn in hymn singers who don't even know the words in order to hit your quota of 82 games a year, it makes the whole practice seem disingenuous and performative.

Save playing the national anthem for opening night, home games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, international competition (whenever we return to the best-versus-best format), and special occasions when necessary.

Arguably the best and most moving performance of a national anthem before an NHL event took place in January 1991. Against the backdrop of the Gulf War, Wayne Messmer sang “The Star Spangled Banner” to a raucous crowd in Chicago Stadium before the NHL All-Star Game. It was a moment that gave me goosebumps.

Whitney Houston's version of “The Star Spangled Banner” the following week at the Super Bowl might be the greatest anthem performance of all time.

Those moments felt genuine, emotional and powerful. It was a confluence of world events and great sporting moments.

That same magic simply won't exist when the Florida Panthers visit Edmonton this weekend. Or when the Canucks are in Chicago. In these cases, the interpretation of the national anthem becomes serious and monotonous. And it's almost an invitation for something to go wrong.

In 2021, Dallas Mavericks fans and media went 13 games before realizing that the club had stopped playing the national anthem before its home games. It was tangible proof that anthems are not as intrinsically woven into American sports as we might think.

So would hockey fans really notice, or care, if NHL teams followed the same approach full-time in the future?

(Photo of Sholanty Taylor singing the US national anthem before a New York Islanders game earlier this month: Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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