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National Anthem a Chicago specialty

Friday, 10.24.2008 / 11:59 PM / Super Saturday

When United Center organist Frank Pellico plays the opening notes of the National Anthem, the sound is nearly deafening.

During the song, there are two focal points — and neither of them sports the Blackhawks' logo. One is the American flag; the other is the Blackhawks' regular anthem singer, Jim Cornelison.

But the crowd cheers so loudly, no one can hear the song. At Blackhawks games, "The Star-Spangled Banner" isn't just part of the pre-game routine — it's an event.

"You actually have to choke back emotion to keep yourself in the right place," Cornelison said about the electricity of performing the anthem in front of a packed stadium. "It's like pitching or a golf swing — the more efficient you are and relaxed in the right way, the more powerful your delivery."

"In many stadiums and in many sports, the National Anthem has become just part of the routine — rote and perhaps almost ignored," Blackhawks fan Steve Sobel said. "To Chicago Blackhawks fans, it is an integral part of the experience."

Chicago's anthem tradition began during the 1985 conference finals against Edmonton. After dropping the first two games of the series on the road, Hawks fans entered Chicago Stadium on May 9 fully energized and ready to help their team get back into the series. The crowd was so excited they cheered all the way through the National Anthem — and the tradition stuck.

"When I introduced the anthem, fans just started clapping and cheering," said Harvey Wittenberg, the Blackhawks' public-address announcer from 1961-2001. "That was the start of the phenomenon."

Perhaps the most memorable moment in the tradition's history was Wayne Messmer's rendition at the 1991 NHL All-Star Game, a game played right after the start of the first Gulf War.

"Some people thought the game should have been cancelled — even Wayne Gretzky wasn't sure we should play it," Wittenberg said. "But the overwhelming sign of patriotism, the appreciation of one's country ... it gave me goose bumps."

"I love hearing from veterans that I brought tears to their eyes," says Cornelison, who has been performing the anthem for the Blackhawks on and off since 1996. "It's one of the best parts of the job."

"I think back to my dad taking me to Chicago Stadium when I was a kid. (The anthem) was so loud it hurt," Blackhawks fan Ryan Comerford recalled. "I don't think the anthem is something that always has to be heard and taken in some sort of solemn reverence. I cheer because I love my country."

Brad Boron is a New Media and Publications Assistant for the Chicago Blackhawks.

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