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Hawkspotting: Chicago Hockey Meets Nashville Sound

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks
Brian O'Connell

At a recent Chicago appearance, Gary LeVox, the lead singer of award-winning country group Rascal Flatts, emerged for the show's encore wearing the familiar red, black and white of the Blackhawks. The jersey was given to the band by Country Music Award-winning music executive Brian O’Connell, country music division president of Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the U.S. spoke with O’Connell, an Arlington Heights native and graduate of Western Illinois University, to get the inside story of how the best sweater in hockey wound up in the hands of one of the most-popular bands in the world.

How did Gary LeVox end up wearing a Blackhawks jersey?

A buddy of mine with the Blackhawks, [Senior Vice President of Business Operations] Jay Blunk, came to the show and gave it to me as a gift. From time to time the guys will be given jerseys from the local building, and sometimes wear them for the encore. I asked Gary if he wanted to wear it for the encore, despite it having my name on it, and he said, “Absolutely!” I read some of the message boards after the show that thought it was disrespectful to have the number 9 on the jersey, but I beg to differ; I was honored to have my all-time favorite Blackhawk Bobby Hull's number on the jersey.

Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox wearing O'Connell's jersey. Photo by Matt Fichtel.

What was the crowd reaction like?

Any time an artist wears the local colors, they place goes crazy, but in this case I think it was louder due to the enthusiasm surrounding our Blackhawks these days. I like to think we helped stoke the flame a little bit!

What is your experience with sports-entertainment crossover like this – are most country stars really into sports?

As a rule, most artists want to be athletes, and vice versa. It's a competition thing... an adrenaline rush... to a certain degree they share many of the same traits.

Blackhawks defenseman James Wisniewski was at the concert and later found his way onto the bus with the band. What’s the story there?

Jay called me and told me that Wiz was a fan and wanted to come out to the show. We all hit it off right away when they arrived and wound up having a few cocktails with the guys after the show. I can't wait for his rehab to get him back on the ice... hopefully by Jan. 1 at Wrigley!

How did you become a Blackhawks fan?

When I was growing up in the Chicago area, sports were a way of life for me. If you could keep score, I was going to play. There was really no limit in those days, several practices and games in multiple sports every week.

My earliest memory was watching the games on TV. I remember a broadcaster named Jim West on WGN doing the games, and what really got me was the song “Here Come the Hawks.” I will never forget the way I felt when I heard that song. I was glued to the TV and then to the radio to hear the call of the home games. I saw one of the greatest sports played by some of the all-time greats in Chicago, and I wanted to play.

Through the years I was able to go to the Chicago Stadium as a kid. Trust me when I tell you, I could scale those stairs five at a time to get to the standing room areas... the Pipe Organ, The National Anthem being drowned out... banging on the plywood covering the old windows… it was paradise. Then seeing the speed and the toughness - that hooked me

When I got to college, a friend of mine was an over the top Blackhawks and Denis Savard fan, so we had something to bond us immediately. He went on to open a bar in DeKalb called Lord Stanley's, and he has got to be losing his mind that the games are going to be on all the time now.

Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita

Who is your favorite Hawks player?

My favorite player was Bobby Hull, but I have to tell you that I am a fan of the eras. Stan Mikita, Tony O, Pit Martin, Maggy, Bill White, Chico Maki, Jim Pappin, Dennis Hull... that era was my childhood.

The Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Al Secord, Murray Bannerman era was great as well. I can still hear Pat Foley calling a big save, “BAAAANNNNEEERRRRMMAN!"

Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios... I could go on for days!

Have you been able to convert any colleagues or clients in country music into becoming Blackhawks or hockey fans?

There is a surprising number of hockey fans here in Nashville. I really don't try to convert anyone, rather I prefer to enjoy it when I go see the Blackhawks play here in town and beat the Predators. If I am not on the road, you can usually spot me behind the goal on the glass in my Blackhawks jersey. I am not hard to find!

How did you get into music promotion?

I never wanted to wear a tie to work. There were only two things I really gravitated to, sports and music. Well, at least the music part worked out so far.

You’ve won “Promoter of the Year” awards and been nominated multiple times… how rewarding is that recognition?

I have been blessed with six “Promoter of the Year” awards from a couple different organizations and yeah, it is cool. The real reason I have been fortunate in this area are the artists that I work with: Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Brooks and Dunn, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Martina McBride… they are responsible for anything coming my way. No one has ever bought a ticket to see me, I promise!

Would you trade them for a Blackhawks Stanley Cup?

I will trade John McDonough and Jay Blunk my trophies for the day if I can have the Cup for a day on the bus. The guys who travel around with the Stanley Cup would have a heart attack!

How do you keep up with the Hawks and your other favorite Chicago teams while on the road so much?

Thank goodness for Direct TV Center Ice Package and the internet. I watch everything I can, and read way too much about this stuff.

What are your feelings about the current excitement surrounding the Hawks?

When I heard that John McDonough was heading to West Madison Street, I was crushed on one hand, and elated on the other. My Cubs loyalty is legendary, and I hated to see John leave the Cubs. But as a Blackhawks fan I was elated. I have had the privilege of meeting John on a few occasions. He even came over to my tour bus one time at Wrigley to see what all the fuss was about, and he was very cool. I knew that John was going to turn around this franchise, and do it quickly. Jay Blunk came over shortly thereafter, again from the Cubs, and it was icing on the cake. (Jay asked me to say that.)

But seriously, there are very loyal fans of this franchise all over the country, and the key to being successful in music or sports is relatively easy: put a great product out there and take care of your fans – it works every time. These guys will do it perfectly!

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