When the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Vancouver Canucks in the 2009 Western Conference Semifinal, Mats Sundin sat on the bench and hummed along “Chelsea Dagger,” the Hawks’ goal song.
Maybe it was the sudden shock of his realizing that not only was the Canucks’ playoff run over, so was his career.
Or maybe “Chelsea Dagger” is simply a hell of a catchy song.
“Music is such a big part of hockey games that music has been played at games even during the pandemic when there have been no fans in the stands,” says Kaj Ahlsved, a Finnish researcher who wrote his PhD thesis at Åbo Akademi’s musicology department on music in sports events. Hockey was one of the sports he studied.
“You can’t think of a hockey game without music,” he told Hockey Wanderlüst over Zoom.
“The first time I played [in Las Vegas] when I was [a Canadien], I texted my wife after the game about how this barn is crazy, the fans are out of control … the music… and the players feed off of that.”
– Max Pacioretty, Las Vegas Golden Knights, on The Ray & Dregs Hockey Podcast
Music has been part of sports and hockey games for … ever. Back in the 19th century, bands played at gymnastics and swimming competitions, and the organ made its way to hockey games at the beginning of the 20th century. The Chicago Stadium, where the Hawks played, opened in 1929 featuring one of the largest organs of its time, designed to be used at a circus, hockey games, boxing matches, bicycle races and other sports events, writes Matthew Mihalka in From Town Hall to ‘Play Ball!’: The Origins of the Baseball Organ.
The first organists came from the silent movie world with the skills to quickly find a suitable tune to comment to the action on the ice.
“We haven’t had the organ tradition in Europe, even though there were some attempts to import it in the 1970s. It just didn’t take,” says Ahlsved, who’s currently doing more research at Research Association Suoni.
Music played at the Carolina Hurricanes games last season
One possible reason is the European tradition of fans singing and chanting in the stands, with the crowd creating a lot of the sound inside the arena.
“Ideally, the music played in the arena makes the fans happy, so that they’ll clap their hands and sing. Recorded music isn’t simply enough to do that on its own. Now, there are differences in the fan cultures in North America and Europe,” he explains.
“The songs the DJ plays and the songs the fans sing aren’t the same but the DJ can help fans get into it by playing songs they consider ‘theirs,’ whether they’re classics that always get played, or their goal songs, so that they get both the avid fans and the more neutral spectators engaged,” he says.
Music creates drama, and it builds the story arc from the moment the fans arrive at the arena and wait to get in, to getting their snacks, to finding their seats, to warm-ups, building up energy only to release it when the heroes step on the ice.
The most popular songs, still today, are often from the Eighties, but according to Ahlsved, 80s rock songs don’t have a special hockey ingredient that would make them better than others that have a similar structure.
“The songs that seem to work best often have strong riffs and get right into it. The DJ only has a short window to work in, maybe 20-25 seconds, before the puck gets dropped again,” Ahlsved says.
“Back when Avicii was at the height of his popularity, his songs were played at all games everywhere,” he adds.
The sound landscape inside the arenas follow the times and take their cues from, for example, video games.
“Artists love to get their music on video games. If it gets played inside a game, it will also get played live in the arena. It doesn’t work the other way around,” Ahlsved says.
One of the lucky ones is Franz Ferdinand whose “Take Me Out” was part of NHL 2005 and Madden NFL 2005. It’s the band’s most popular song on Spotify, with almost 500 million streams. In comparison, their second most popular song has a tenth of that.
But music also becomes part of tradition. In Helsinki, IFK fans expect to hear Bill Misener’s “Let’s Play Hockey,” the 1976 Canada Cup theme song the Finnish team took as their own in the late 1970s, an audio nod to Carl Brewer’s legacy. Across town, Jokerit still play Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now”, which they adopted in the late 1980s when the underdog team clawed their way back to the top division. The team has since won several titles and joined the KHL, but they still play the music from Rocky.
“Now that music has become so mobile, it’s easy to forget that back in the 1980s, songs were copied onto cassette tapes and that was it. That was the tape that was played and the songs just stuck in our heads,” Ahlsved says.
“They’re almost a part of the show. Fans expect to hear “Final Countdown”, “Jump,” “We Will Rock You” or “Thunderstruck,” Ahlsved says. “Players come and go, but the music stays,” he adds with a laugh.
While music is played even in empty arenas, and even though home teams seem to have a home-ice advantage even in empty arenas, Ahlsved doesn’t think music plays into it.
“I think the recorded music has a minimal impact, but the home team does have the advantage of having the power to choose the music,” he says.
If they choose it right, even the losing team’s players hum along. They’re literally in their opponents’ heads.
First published on Hockey Wanderlüst