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Star-spangled salute: Jim Cornelison on the anthem

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks

In Blackhawks lore, there are few traditions as famous or revered as cheering during "The Star-Spangled Banner." At the center of this tradition is Jim Cornelison, a classically-trained opera singer who has been the Blackhawks' regular anthem singer since 2008. recently caught up with Cornelison to discuss the anthem and the impact it has had on his life and the community.

Do you still get butterflies before going out to perform the anthem?
I get excited more than I get butterflies now, particularly before the playoffs. You know how much energy is in the building… you can feel how loud it is, and it’s a tremendous feeling from the introduction of the players all the way through the song.

What do you remember about your first United Center anthem?
It was way back in 1996. I was only really told two things: There would be a delay between me and the organ, and the crowd would yell, which as we know is a bit of an understatement. The delay didn’t really bother me – the organ always sounds like it’s a little behind to me, and the sound takes a little while to come back because it’s such a big building. I remember that the crowd blew me away in 1996, and I think it’s louder now. I'd never heard anything like that before. It got me really excited. Opera singers aren’t used to singing while other people are screaming. It’s probably the closest thing a classically-trained singer can get to feeling like a rock star.

So you didn’t really know what a big deal the national anthem was for the Blackhawks until then?
I didn’t, not really. That was when I really started watching NHL hockey. I grew up in Washington state and came to Chicago in 1995, so when I got out here I'd never really had a favorite hockey team and didn’t really follow it. Now I’ve been here for 16 years, so I’ve come to love all of the Chicago teams. But the Hawks were my education and gateway to the NHL.

In the past couple of years, the Blackhawks and USO have honored veterans during the anthem, allowing them to stand on the ice with you as you sing. What has their reaction been generally?
They love it. They’re always so excited. Usually they know what to expect when they get on the ice, but sometimes they don’t, and during those few times you really see the impact of the moment. It’s not unusual to see someone cry; other times they’ll just stand there with their eyes wide open in disbelief; there’s even been a few cases where after we get off the ice, the veteran is visibly shaking because of the enormity of the moment and the gesture. They really appreciate the fact that people here appreciate the national anthem and everything it means to the country.

[The anthem] is probably the closest a classically-trained singer can get to feeling like a rock star. - Jim Cornelison

It’s really a great chance to show appreciation for the men and women who risked so much for the country.
Yes, it is. I learned a while ago that this is a great opportunity in the sense that there is a chance to do something with the anthem besides just singing the song. I love that the Blackhawks have that involvement with the USO and have the military members on the ice, and I’ve also started working with the USO to find more ways for me to help them gain awareness for their programs. There’s a way to use the anthem here to help do something very worthwhile.

Some musicians thrive on consistency, and some feel like every performance has to be personal and unique. Where do you fall on that argument?
I just try to go out and do my best job every time. There are some nights where I’ll leave the ice and have people tell me, “Wow, you really nailed it tonight!” It’s not the same every night because that’s not possible with a live performance. There’s always something that comes into play and makes it a little different.

Do you have a favorite rendition of the national anthem?
I don’t spend a lot of time listening to other people’s renditions of the anthem. I do love Whitney Houston’s version, but that’s going back 20-plus years. I really like her voice.

What does it mean to be so closely tied with this tradition, both in American and Blackhawks culture?
I had no idea what I was in for when I agreed to become the Blackhawks’ full-time anthem singer. There are so many positive and deeply-felt emotions from performing it night-in and night-out.  

I talk to a lot of parents at the UC who tell me that their young son or daughter stand up in their basement and sing along and do the hand gesture every time there’s a Blackhawks game on. I think back to when I was in school and used to have to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance and the reverence I felt looking at the flag. I think in a small way these new generations of young Blackhawks fans get that from cheering during the anthem, and I’m just so honored to do it. It’s probably my favorite thing about singing the anthem.

There are also the vets – they put their lives on the line and have very strong feelings about America and patriotism, and it shows. They really appreciate it. And being in the middle of this tradition now, they really make it special for me.

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