-- Fans of the Chicago Blackhawks have traditionally made their presence felt well before the puck is dropped for the opening faceoff of every home game.
And during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that decibel meter rises exponentially.
In the one minute, 38 seconds it takes Jim Cornelison to sing his rip-roaring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the sellout crowd, one can only wonder if United Center becomes the loudest building on the face of the earth at that particular moment.
It's a tradition like no other in sports and one that began at the old Chicago Stadium back during the 1985 Campbell Conference Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. The Blackhawks would lose that series, but the exuberant hand-clapping and cheering during the playing of the anthem certainly stuck.
"The anthem is probably one of the biggest events beside the actual game going down," Blackhawks fan Marco DeCarlo of Naperville, Ill., told NHL.com. "It's the loudest stadium you're going to enter in the NHL. You might as well not even have anyone singing because you can't even hear (the singer). These fans are getting ready to watch our Blackhawks win a championship -- this is outstanding."
Cornelison, who has sung in opera houses around the globe, admits nowhere else does he receive the reaction that the fans of United Center bring with each performance.
"I usually do more warming up in the penalty box when the crowd is screaming and it's just so loud down there with the pregame show and the crowd that I have to stand right up against the glass so that my voice will bounce back into my face or else I can't even hear myself," Cornelison told NHL.com. "It's really a different situation than anywhere else I've sung. I've always had pregame jitters, and if I don't have jitters then I get jitters because you don't have jitters. I think that keeps you sharp when you're nervous."
Cornelison earned a shot at singing the anthem after moving to Chicago in 1995 when a friend of his, David Honore, asked to audition in order to be part of the rotation of singers the organization used at the time. The rest was history.
"It's great that the crowd gets involved the way they do," Cornelison said. "They become part of the performance. They show what they're feeling and what they're thinking. To have the fans come up to you afterwards and high-five you -- it's a tremendous experience.
"I have to stay emotionally even but, I have to say, a couple moments in the anthem, particularly before I do the hand gesture where I know the crowd is just going to explode, I always get a rush."
And how does Cornelison prepare for his big night?
"At home, I'll sing before I get dressed but on a day like (Saturday), where the whole thing is surreal, there's so much energy in the city and kind of going through me, I've been really just taking it easy and staying calm," Cornelison said. "The main thing (Saturday) is the head game. Not to get caught up in all the energy until after the anthem."
The United Center opened in 1994, across the street from the site of Chicago Stadium on the city's West Side. It was originally the house that Michael Jordan built, but, in recent years, has seen a meteoric rise in hockey fanatics. The team has ranked first in the League the last two seasons in average attendance, hitting 21,783 per game in 2008-09 and 21,356 this campaign. They were 19th in the League in 2007-08 (16,814).
In addition to the fans, players on both sides admit the anthem in Chicago has become a pretty special event at United Center.
"It's got to be one of the coolest things in sports, as least for me," Blackhawks right wing Adam Burish said. "The noise and the excitement that comes from the anthem at United Center is unbelievable. There's not a guy in this room that won't tell you he gets the chills when he hears the place roar."
"It's very cool to see," Hawks forward Patrick Kane
said. "Everyone asks about the anthem and what it's like. It's really fun to see and fun to be a part of and I would think for other teams to come in, instead of just a regular anthem where people are quiet, they get up and get loud and it's really enjoyable."
Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, who signed his first pro contract with the Blackhawks in June 2001, spent two seasons in the Windy City and wore the hometown colors for 42 regular-season games. He's privy to the electric atmosphere during the anthem.
"I didn't play a full season here (in Chicago), but I remember the arena, the fans," Leighton said. "During the National Anthem, it's pretty exciting. If you don't get chills watching that or being part of that, then there's something wrong with you." Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer