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ENCORE

BY CAIT MACPHAIL

"R

ight from the beginning, I went in not intending to fill his shoes, because he had already created his legacy. I went in wanting to honour what he had done and create my own shoes."

Robert Clark is a born and raised Edmontonian. The sounds of "the classics" would fill his Sherwood Park home growing up as his father played his Hooked on Classic vinyl on the family record player - a time when Clark's burgeoning love of classical music was setting him on a path.

Clark had no idea where a vocal talent, one which he discovered in high school, could take him. But his love of singing and a penchant for acting would eventually bring him to a bit of a conclusion when he reached post-secondary.

Opera.

"It was a perfect marriage between classical music and acting," said Clark.

It was with Edmonton Opera that Clark settled into a niche that would open even more unique doors down the road.

It was also while he was touring with Edmonton Opera that Clark would meet a local legend and Opera standout in his own right. After a performance of Italian Opera "I Pagliacci," where Clark was tasked with the role of Beppe the clown, he was approached after the show by then Edmonton Oilers anthem singer Paul Lorieau. Still in full clown makeup and regalia, Clark posed for a photo with Lorieau backstage of the Jubilee Auditorium - one which Clark treasures to this day.

Over forty years earlier, Beppe the clown was Lorieau's first role with Edmonton Opera. 

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Photo provided by Robert Clark

That snapshot of the two tenors side-by-side in 2011 would come to signify more than one full-circle and circuitous story.

Cut to April 2017.

A long-awaited return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs had set the city of Edmonton aflame once again. Flashes of the Oilers last playoff run over a decade earlier were rekindled in the minds of an entire metropolis as fans eagerly waited for not only the hockey, but for the atmosphere that engulfed the city any time the team took the ice-an atmosphere that held thick in the air after a victory, spilling out onto the streets.

When anyone who was invested in the unlikely playoff run of the 2006 Edmonton Oilers allows themselves to pick away at the emotional scars of a Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss, there were moments throughout that Spring - even away from on-ice play - that transcended and elevated the experience of any fan lucky enough to be there for it.

One of the most impactful of those came from long-time Oilers anthem singer Paul Lorieau.

The Oilers were in the midst of a magical eighth-seed underdog playoff run and were facing the fifth-seed squad out of San Jose in the second round.

The Oilers combatted the Sharks in San Jose for Games 1 and 2 and then headed back to Edmonton trailing 2-0 in the series. After scattered boos during the Canadian Anthem in California, the Rexall Place faithful responded by belting out the Star Spangled Banner ahead of Game 3. The building was so electric, by the time it came time for O' Canada, Lorieau sung only two lines before spontaneously holding the mic up for the entire building to finish the rest -something he continued for the remainder of those playoffs & that has been replicated in other arenas since - but had not been repeated on Oilers ice since those 2006 playoffs by Lorieau himself.

When the Oilers clinched a playoff berth for the first time in over 10 years on March 20, 2017, the planning could really begin. The Oilers, as an organization, could hone in on the logistics of how to capture the magic of a return to the playoffs in a new building, with a new team in a new era.

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Before the regular season had even wrapped up, players around the Oilers locker room were well aware of just how crazy things might get inside the confines of Rogers Place when their blades touched ice for playoff hockey after a decade-long drought.

"This whole town is going to be bumpin,'" said defenceman Oscar Klefbom ahead of the first playoff game at Rogers Place.

"When we clinched against LA, those last couple minutes, it gives me goose bumps thinking about it."

The city, fans and players were all ready for the return of post-season. Clark was no exception.

In-game production is a big part of fostering a unique atmosphere and capturing the palpable energy. The anthem came to the forefront of Game 1 pre-game production. Clark wasn't sure what to expect, but had a feeling they might be going off-script.

"They brought me in the Sunday before and said, 'here's our idea,'" described Clark.

"All I could think is, 'this is the most perfect idea ever. This is exactly what we need to do.'"

Fans might have had inkling that the Oilers had something special up their sleeve for the anthem. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to not only nod to the legacy of the late Lorieau, who passed in 2013, but for a thunderous post-season entrance for a playoff-starved fanbase.

The lights went dim after some some pre-game pumper videos wrapped up - parts of which included flashes of a crazed Rexall Place in 2006.

Player intros were done and attention was drawn to centre ice, where recording artist Brett Kissell was introduced to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Fans remarked they thought maybe playoffs meant a departure from Clark's anthem rendition, as some expected Kissell to continue with O' Canada.

Then the in-bowl PA announcer introduced Clark.

"And now to perform the Canadian National Anthem amongst the Orange Crush, please join the singing voice of your Edmonton Oilers, Robert Clark."

alt textPhotos by Getty Images and Andy Devlin

Buried in a moving mass of orange, you almost couldn't make out the one with a microphone at first. In the middle of a contingent of fans in the upper bowl, the iconic first note of O' Canada rang out deep from within the tenor's chest.

You could call it a surprise, but it seemed Clark's next move was part of a script written over 10 years ago, begging for an encore.

He held the mic up after the first line of the anthem, and a passionate, prideful and powerful Rogers Place crowd finished the rest in perfect unison - almost like they'd been waiting for their cue again.

"I don't even know if they knew I was going to hold the mic up. I did not expect that level of participation, that level of excitement and pride," said Clark.

"I don't think I came down off that high for days."

After that first performance, the game production crew knew they wanted to keep the theme alive, switching Clark's location a few times but always placing him in the trenches, donned in an orange jersey, amongst the Orange Crush faithful that brought more enthusiasm and pride into a building that was already bursting at the seams.

"We knew we wanted to honour the tradition, but also let our fans really be a part of it by letting them carry it," said Oilers Director of Event Presentation, Rich Meyers.

After some test runs, the game presentation crew made the decision.

"We just went for it for Game 1," said Meyers.

An undeniable Edmonton anthem tradition kicked open the door on a new era of Oilers playoff hockey. Meyers said his phone was filled with messages from other game presentation staff after the game. The League had taken notice.

Clark notes that while being placed in the crowd was unique, the holding up of the mic was more about carrying on a legacy.

"To be able to make it my own was kind of cool, but holding up the mic was all about honouring Lorieau."

Just like Clark had suited up for the role of Beppe the clown in "I Paggliaci" years earlier for Edmonton Opera, he had once again filled the role of his predecessor Lorieau, and had done so more than admirably.

It was a fitting encore for not only what has become an Edmonton anthem tradition, but for a long-awaited return to Oilers post-season contention.

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Each and every Sunday during the season we dig deeper into Oilers storylines with our long-form features. This week's story recounts narratives of former Oilers jerseys throughout the franchise's history.

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