It’s only 120 miles from St. Clairsville, Ohio to Nationwide Arena, but it’s quite a journey that brought Leo Welsh from singing a cappella in his local church at age seven to being the anthem singer for the Blue Jackets -- and now, the Canadian anthem singer for the MLB All-Star Game tonight in Cincinnati.
Welsh comes from a family of singers. His father was the person his family would always look to start a sing-a-long and that made it easy for a young Welsh to get comfortable singing in front of people ever since he was a child.
He went on to cultivate his love of singing in high school as a member of the St. Clairsville Singers and, when he moved on to Ohio University (where he studied voice), Welsh sang with the Singing Men of Ohio – a men’s glee club – as well as the University Singers, a co-ed group.
“I was the kid who left football practice to go to show choir,” Welsh said. “But I think that’s worked out for me. I don’t think anyone I went to high school with is a professional football player.”
It was in college that Welsh received his invitation to come to Columbus. Then-maestro Bill Boggs of Opera Columbus was at Ohio University to serve as guest conductor for the school’s performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. After hearing Welsh sing, he invited the soon-to-be graduate to join the company in central Ohio.
“(Boggs) asked what my plans were after graduation,” Welsh said. “He said come to Columbus and sing for me until you figure it all out. I’d drive from Athens to do chorus work and then back to make class the next day.”
Welsh built a life in Columbus. He continued to sing opera and working as an administrator of a local nursing home, and then one day, opportunity came knocking.
“I was in the car and my wife called and said she heard on the radio there were auditions for people to sing the anthem for the Blue Jackets,” Welsh said. “She told me the first 50 people to email in get an audition and that I should do it.
“It was a no-brainer. I was the first person in line on the day of auditions.”
Welsh said he auditioned in front of Blue Jackets staff and crowds, and the pool of potential anthem singers was whittled down to four contestants who recorded versions of the anthem to be voted on by fans.
Welsh called everyone he knew encouraging them to vote, and he ultimately landed a job singing for half of the Blue Jackets’ home games. When the singer he shared the schedule with moved to Nashville, Welsh was offered the opportunity to take on the full season’s duties and he jumped at it.
Now, before every home Jackets game, Welsh, in either a custom Blue Jackets jersey, or a tuxedo for special occasions, sings a rousing version of the national anthem accompanied by two trademarks: a fist pump and a crowd-wide cheer of “LEO!” but interestingly, neither tradition began on purpose.
Welsh said he had no idea he was doing the fist pump until one day after a game, a member of the TV production crew asked him why he hadn’t performed the move that night. The crew had to show Welsh video to prove he did it and convince him to should continue.
And the cheer of “LEO”? At first, Welsh didn’t want the attention of a personal cheer. He admitted to trying to start singing quickly to keep the chant from happening. But a member of the event production staff encouraged him to see what would happen with the cheer and Welsh said he found the courage to give fans their space, and so, a tradition was born.
And even though many will say that the national anthem is hard to sing, it’s one Welsh counts among his favorites. He’s performed it at NASCAR events and in front of the home crowd for the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians.
Welsh warms up before every game by singing through the vowels of the anthem to force him to focus on pronunciation, and he’s honed his version of the second-most commonly sung song in Nationwide Arena, "O Canada," thanks to former Blue Jackets goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
“Any time we passed one another he’d always say hi,” Welsh said. “Finally one time he said 'the French (version)…can I just say it to you once?'”
With his anthem singing down to a science, Welsh also embraced his role as ambassador to service men and women who join him on the ice before each game. Most nights, unseen by the Nationwide Arena crowd, Welsh will visit one-on-one with the veteran(s) being honored. He counts singing on the ice with members of Lima Company – an Ohio reserve unit that lost 15 members in a Baghdad attack - as one of his fondest memories.
“They had many things to say to me about not messing up their song,” Welsh said. “They made it very clear to me this song means something.”
And now Welsh, who performed "O Canada" at the NHL All-Star Game in January, will add singing in front of a second pro sports All-Star crowd to his resume when he takes the mic at Great American Ball Park.
“I can't believe that I've been fortunate enough to sing at both All-Star games in Ohio this year,” Welsh said. “What a thrill for me and my family. I know it all would not have been possible without thanking many people, too many to list.
“Thank you to the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, especially Lynn Truitt and Derek Dawley. Thank you to the Cincinnati Reds, all of the Blue Jackets fans who have supported me and most of all, thank you to my lovely wife Lisa, who lets me out of the house to go and do what I love.”
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