CALGARY -- McMahon Stadium is a world away -- both literally and figuratively -- for Thompson Square, the country act that will sing the Star-Spangled Banner at the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic.
The duo hails from Nashville, more than 1,500 miles from Calgary. And playing before 40,000-plus rabid hockey fans in an outdoor game never even entered the big-time dreams of the husband-and-wife duo.
"We were both bartending this time last year," Shawna Thompson said.
"We've come quite a long way," added her husband, Keifer.
That trip continues Sunday afternoon when they stride onto the McMahon Stadium field and belt out the American anthem before the crowd and national TV audiences in both the United States and Canada.
"We've never sang in front of this many people before," Keifer Thompson said, adding that a crowd of 18,000 when they played on the same bill as Brooks and Dunn was likely the previous high-water mark. "There's a little more added pressure today, that's for sure."
While Thompson Square may be new to Calgary, they are not new to hockey.
Like many of the musicians that now call Nashville home, Thompson Square has adopted the Nashville Predators, attending games whenever their schedule allows. Ironically, their big hit "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not" is now the soundtrack for the kiss cam at Predators games.
Reports are also filtering in to their camp that the song is taking over kiss cams in other arenas across North America.
"That's why we got into this business, to take over the kiss cam franchise," Keifer Thompson said, laughing heartily.
While Thompson Square, who will announce a new tour in the next few weeks, are new to Calgary and outdoor hockey, Canadian anthem singer Paul Brandt is intimately familiar with the city and its hockey team.
Brandt was born in Calgary and grew up in Airdrie, a northern suburb before moving to Nashville to chase his musical dreams. Now he once again lives in Calgary, relocating to the base of the Canadian Rockies to be near family and friends.
Brandt will sing "O Canada" in front of many of those friends, as well as his father, two brothers-in-law and the family priest, who will leave mid-game to officiate a service at the church.
"I hope he thaws out by then," Brandt said, joking.
Sunday's performance will complete the circle for Brandt, who started singing the Canadian anthem at a baseball stadium just down the road from McMahon Stadium.
"I started singing anthems at the Calgary Cannons games when they were a Triple-A (baseball franchise)," Brandt said. "I would trade my musical talents for a couple of tickets and free hot dogs."
Brandt also grew up cheering for the Flames and was a teenager during the team's two runs to the Stanley Cup Final, including the historic win against Montreal in 1989.
"We didn't even have a TV until I was 13 and it was a little black-and-white thing that my parents kept in a closet. The only time it came out was for Hockey Night in Canada," he said.
With his celebrity -- he is the most awarded Male Canadian Country Artist in history -- Brandt has become friendly with many of the players from that 1989 squad, counting Lanny McDonald and Jim Peplinski among his friends years after considering them his heroes.
"I still remember Lanny lifting that Cup," Brandt said, smiling wistfully as the image once again filled his mind. "That is a huge memory for me."
Now, opening the Heritage Classic with the Canadian national anthem will be another huge hockey memory for Brandt, who flew in Saturday from a television project in Mexico to be here.
"To be able to do this at something as meaningful as the Heritage Classic and for it to be a part of our national pride is a great thing," Brandt said. "I was honored to be asked to do it."
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Managing Editor