Those who attend Anaheim Ducks games with any regularity will tell you that there are some things about being at Honda Center for a game that just make the experience feel right.
Like seeing long time Ducks fans, the Tennis Balls, sit in their usual seats behind the goal at the west end of the lower bowl.
Or hearing Public Address Announcer Phil Hulett’s voice introduce the team and call the Anaheim Ducks goals.
And listening to singer Dawn Wright kick things off each night with her very recognizable and powerful rendition of our national anthem.
There’s comfort and familiarity in these things. Without them, the experience feels like it’s missing something. But when they are in place, it’s as if all is right in the hockey world.
While the puck may have dropped on the Anaheim Ducks season the previous Saturday, Friday night was Opening Night, when fans were able to welcome their team back to Honda Center, where things are familiar, and it feels like home.
Before the arena took on that emotional orange glow and the players were announced, I caught up with Dawn Wright as she prepared for her own long overdue return to the Honda Center ice.
I remember the first time I heard Dawn sing at a Ducks game. Introduced as “Dawn Wright from Tustin”, I immediately took note. As someone who shares her hometown, I felt a sort of connection with her. We Tustinites love our little city.
And I was blown away as she sang her unique version of The Star-Spangled Banner. It was absolutely flawless. The girl has some pipes. And I think it’s her version of our national anthem, combined with her stellar vocal skills and her bubbly enthusiasm that have made her a fan favorite at Honda Center.
“No, really?” Wright said when I suggested that those cheers she hears each time her name is announced are specifically for her.
“Oh, yes,” I replied. She was humbled at the thought.
Wright began singing when she joined the choir in junior high. She loved it, and realizing she had some talent, continued singing during her high school years, winning solos and performing in school musicals.
It was in 1994, as a 16-year old, that she got her first “big break” – the chance to sing the national anthem at an Angels game.
“At the time, my mom had a wallpaper hanging business,” recalled Wright. “One of her clients was the Angels radio announcer, (the late) Bob Starr.
“My mom asked him how I could get an opportunity to sing the national anthem at Angel Stadium, and he said all I needed to do was send in a recorded audition on a cassette tape.
“So I got out my boom box, plugged in the microphone, recorded myself singing the anthem acapella and sent it in.”
Soon she was standing near home plate at the Big A, using her big voice to belt out that big song.
In 1997, she got the chance to do the same at a Mighty Ducks game, and it was then that Wright was introduced to the sport of hockey.
“I love it,” said Wright with a big smile.
“You have to watch hockey live and take in the sights and the sounds. It’s about the whole experience, and now (my husband) Scott and I get to bring our six-year old daughter, Emma, to the games. She loves it too. It’s a privilege to be able to experience this as a family.”
Wright, who now resides in Corona and works part time for Orange County based High Society Wedding and Event Planning, keeps her approach to singing the American national anthem very deliberate.
“It’s not an easy song to sing and it’s an important song. I try to keep it moving at a good pace so fans can join in. I love it when they sing along. And no one likes it if it’s too slow.”
She feels that fans appreciate the fact that she doesn’t “mess around with the song” by adding too much of her own interpretation. But she’s made one small and memorable change.
“I think it was in 2003. I was practicing in the car while my dad drove me to Angel Stadium, and he suggested adding the modulation. I used it that day and have used it ever since.”
The modulation she added a decade ago, found at the end of the phrase, “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…”, makes her performance of the anthem unmistakably identifiable. And it never fails to stir up the emotions of the crowd.
A song with a long history of amazing and moving versions found alongside flawed, overdone and even annoying performances, Wright, a true performer, was hard pressed to recall a time where singing the anthem hasn’t gone well for her. Having performed this song hundreds of times, she has a simple but effective approach to her preparation each night.
“My family is a huge support to me. Before I go out to sing, they remind me to remember my intonation and to think of every performance as my first time out there. That’s how I keep my energy up each time. I don’t take any of this for granted.”
And after having to endure the NHL’s several month long lockout, Wright is definitely grateful to be back at Honda Center once again as the primary anthem singer, even if it is for a shortened season.
“I’m so glad Ducks hockey is back. I missed it, much more than I thought I would. I can’t wait to see Teemu and the boys back out on the ice.”
As I took my seat before the start of the Ducks home opener Friday night versus the Vancouver Canucks, I looked to my right and spotted the Tennis Balls, wearing those bright neon jackets of theirs, sitting in their usual seats behind the goal at the west end of the lower bowl.
Then I heard Phil Hulett’s smooth voice come over the arena speakers.
And for the first time this season, Dawn Wright made her way out onto the ice to the cheers of the Ducks faithful. With a smile on her face that lit up the arena, she belted out the Canadian and American national anthems.
She nailed them both, naturally, with a performance that might have been a little more emotional than usual.
Then the puck dropped.
And I smiled to myself.
Finally, all was right in the hockey world.
It felt good to be home.