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Q&A - George Canyon

George Canyon on hockey, his career and being the Flames anthem singer

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

The dying embers of O Canada have only just finished and George Canyon takes that familiar black cowboy hat off his heart and smiles broadly.

Entering his third full season as the regular anthem singer at Flames' home games, the Maritime-born Canyon has over the years become one of the most recognizable country singers in Canada.

In addition to a dandy set of pipes, he's dabbled in acting and continues to play rec shinny.

Post-anthems recently, the multi-Juno Award/CCMA winner sauntered over to the Ed Whalen Media Centre to talk NHL dreams, professional favorites, the buzz of that first playoff date at the 'Dome back in the spring of 2015 and the enduring magic of the game.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: You're a Nova Scotia kid who moved west. So, hockey, nothing else, right?

CANYON: Hockey was life. I remember we used to play at the rink all winter and ball hockey on the street all summer. I don't know if kids still do this but we would actually physically call the game when we got the ball or the puck. It was the weirdest thing … 'Bobby Orr's got the puck! He shoots! He scores!' So great.

I grew up as a Montreal fan, a Toronto fan, a Detroit fan. The Original Six were, and probably still are, very special to people. Especially in the Maritimes, the oldest part of Canada.

When I was kid, Guy Lafleur was my guy. Guy and Ken Dryden, Steve Shutt. Before my time, but Rocket Richard, of course. And when I got older, Gretzky. Gretzky carried the weight of hockey popularity on his shoulders. You said 'hockey' and people immediately thought Wayne Gretzky. Isn't that something? A lot of responsibility to bear.

So hockey was It, you know. I wanted to be in the NHL.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: How far did you play competitively?

CANYON: I went to St. Francis Xavier University and they actually asked me to play for the team there but I couldn't because I was taking pre-med and I had to concentrate on that. So I didn't play. Now, I kinda wish I would have. That's a regret.

But I still get out on the ice twice a week. And in a lot of other charity tournament and things. Still love to play.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: Finishing second at the 2004 Nashville Star 2 show, how did that impact your life?

CANYON: Well, it did change it quite a bit. I'd been in the business, technically, since '89-90. So for me, when I went into all that it was with a grain of salt. That 'get into everybody's living rooms' moment, as we say, is always important. Seeing what happened in Canada with that show still overwhelms to me. The support I got from the entire country. When I look back on it, and that was a while ago, it's still amazing to think about.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: We touched on favourite players. How about favourite singers.

CANYON: Johnny Cash. Randy Travis. Waylon Jennings. Willie Nelson. Merle Haggard. George Jones. Dolly Parton. There's a huge list. And that's just in country. I grew up on all sorts of music. Rock and Celtic and folk and Stan Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot.

As a kid I didn't look at genres of music. If I liked it, I liked it, and I played it.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: Concerts that remain especially memorable.

CANYON: Playing the Grand Ol' Opry. You never forget that. That's a very special thing to be able to do. But really it's about the fans. Those are the shows I remember, when something special happened with the fans. That's why I'm there. Why I'm doing this. When I Want You To Live came out and I'm such a huge military supporter, we had fans in this one theatre just stand up when I sang it. I was like 'What?' But it was their anthem, for their son or their husband that had died in Afghanistan. I'll never forget that. I've done lots of shows for kids with cerebral palsy and to see what music does for them, opens them up.

I truly believe we take music for granted. We were talking the other day and someone raised the question: What if there was no music? Music ended. No more music to listen to. At all. What would happen to the world? Honestly, none of us could answer. We seriously could not think of what a world would be like without music. Even the ability to hum. Think about that.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: You've collected two Junos and eight Canadian Country Music awards. Any of them more special than the others?

CANYON: Any award is a celebration of the team I have around me. I honestly don't, and will never, take credit for those kinds of things. I have this incredible group around me, starting with my wife, who's my best friend but also my business partner. She has such an incredible consumer ear and eye and I've leaned on her more and more as the years go by. My manager's like a little brother to me, Jim Cressman. A local guy. We've been buddies for, gosh, 20 years. So it's a very tight-knit team.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: What about the acting side of your career? Some Trailer Park Boys episodes, Heartland, a few movies …

CANYON: I like it. It's hard to do a lot of, though, and I've had to turn down roles when we're touring. Music comes first. I like doing Christmas movies. I just got a call call, one of the Christmas movies I was in - One Starry Christmas - I played a principal, was just on.

I don't watch them.

I do like to see the kill scenes in the cowboy movies because those guys in special effects are just amazing. They have these squibs on you and then they fire them and every explodes. I love that stuff.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: You'd guested singing the anthem at Flames games occasionally before taking on the role full-time. How did the permanent gig come about?

CANYON: Well, we've been very cognitive of our brand. I've turned down quite a few sponsorships over the years that I felt would jeopardize the brand I had. You take 26 years to build a brand and you don't want to mess with it.

But the Flames and the NHL, that brand is synonymous with family. So when they approached my management with the idea it was a no-brainer. And to be in my third season with them … honestly, I thought I'd get one season in. It's been such a great thing for my family, too, to be able to come and support the team. A dream, really.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: Among the games as anthem singer, any one that stands out?

CANYON: The first playoff game (spring of 2015). It blew my mind. I've been lucky enough to tour with guys like Tim McGraw, so I've seen an arena going crazy, felt that kind of energy. But not like a playoff game.

The ice was vibrating. How's that even possible?

It was the most incredible thing I've ever been a part of, in terms of a live event. I want to do it again, so we need to make the playoffs.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: You say you still play a couple times a week. Are you a bruising left winger, a puck-moving defenceman?

CANYON: No, I'm a left winger.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: Any current player we could compare you to?

CANYON: No. Nobody. Nobody emanates my style.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: How then to best describe that unique style?

CANYON: Slow and methodical.

Hockey fans - and I'm guilty of it, too - you're watching the team, you're right there, with them, and you're like 'C'mon. Skate harder!' You're passionate but you're not grasping just how fast they're going or how skilled these players really are.

So I have this idea to take four or five guys - I get to be one of them - celebrities who play hockey. And have them come to camp over a three-day or so period and have them physically try out for the Calgary Flames. Going through the same drills, everything, so that fans can see just how special these kids really are. Because, to be honest, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone - we forget these kids are savants. This isn't John Doe hockey. They're built for this game. And I think we need to celebrate that more.

We'd only survive about one of the three days, I'm sure, but I'm working on that. It's my only way to be on the skates, on that ice, and not singing.

CALGARYFLAMES.COM: Clearly, you're infatuated with hockey.

CANYON: Well, it's poetry. It's the perfect song. It's hard to equate what I see. But it's like … Holy crap. That's what it is: Holy crap. Just stand back watch what these guys are doing.

The moves, the gracefulness. I guess because I play it helps put it in perspective. But even if you didn't ..

I remember as a kid we had to take figure skating during minor hockey. And we're like: 'What are we doing this for?' But after we'd gone through the lessons, we got it.

The agility on top of the puck handling. There's so many levels within the game of hockey you can watch during a game. Don't watch the puck. Don't watch the hits. Just watch, say, what their feet are doing. Zone in on that. It's … fantastic.

You know what's great about hockey? It's a dream - no matter race, creed or color - that everyone can have: To someday make the NHL. Nobody can say: 'Sorry, you're not allowed to have this dream.'

It's not a matter of 'Well, did you grow up in the right family?' or 'Who does your dad know?' It's not. There's an unknown kid somewhere right now, too many to count, who's in the basement of his home shooting the puck at piece of plywood, busting up his mom and dad's drywall. But he'll wind up playing in the NHL.

I had that dream. Most kids do, at some point in their lives.

And so whether you actually play or not, that dream is there. Available. For everyone. That's what I love about this game.

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