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Why do we continue to play national anthems before sporting events despite recent mistakes?

If we are ranking the worst renditions of “O Canada” ever performed in the United States, then what John deCausmeaker did on Thursday night in St. Paul doesn’t top the list. That honour would comfortably fall to lounge singer Dennis Casey Park, who managed to warp Canada’s national anthem into a version of “O Christmas Tree” prior to a CFL game in Las Vegas in 1994.

In deCausmeaker’s case, he simply got the lyrics wrong and repeated the phrase “from far and wide” twice in the span of 10 seconds ahead of the Wild-Flames game at Xcel Energy Center. We have an anthem fail in Minnesota tonight ” Robert Munnich (@RingOfFireCGY) December 15, 2023

The remarkable thing is that deCausmeaker’s rendition wasn’t even the worst performance of the Canadian anthem at an NHL game this week. That distinction goes to Sholanty Taylor’s version of “O Canada” from Monday at UBS Arena on Long Island. Taylor’s accelerated and sloppy 59-second version of “O Canada” ahead of the Maple Leafs–Islanders game was regrettable at best. Offensive at worst. Our national anthem performed in under a minute. Oh, and it was butchered. @NYIslanders @MapleLeafs — Steve Woolridge (@CoachWooly) December 12, 2023

And these two anthem abominations continue a trend we’ve seen on multiple occasions in 2023.

Back in March, Ryan Michael James suddenly forgot the words to Canada’s anthem partway through singing ahead of a Maple Leafs-Panthers game in Sunrise, Fla. James later admitted to a Toronto radio station that he was scrambling to learn the lyrics to “O Canada” two hours before his performance, since he was a last-minute replacement.

In November, Buffalo anthem singer Christian Kramer botched the lyrics of “O Canada” midway through the anthem. At one point Kramer sang, “O Canada, we stand our eyes.”

So after four botched Canadian anthems at NHL games in 2023, it’s time to question the practice of performing the anthems ahead of every single sporting event in North America.

Maybe it’s time we saved the anthem for the games and moments that really matter.

The first documented case of an anthem being played prior to a sporting event dates all the way back to May of 1862, when “The Star Spangled Banner” was played prior to a baseball game in Brooklyn, N.Y. The practice then occurred sporadically over the next several decades, with the national anthem being played prior to significant sporting events such as the World Series.

Playing the anthem then gained traction during the Second World War.

As North American professional sports leagues carried on playing during the conflict overseas, teams started playing the national anthem as a symbol of wartime support and patriotism. As the Second World War concluded, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden staunchly believed the tradition should continue.

“The playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff,” Layden said. “We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”

NHL clubs mandated the home team would honour its own country prior to games in 1946. Roughly a decade later, both “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner” were played ahead of NHL games — regardless of where the game was being staged.

However, in 1969, Canadian resistance toward American involvement in the Vietnam War opened the door for the NHL to allow the Maple Leafs and Canadiens to only play “O Canada” before their home games — opting to skip the “Star Spangled Banner.” A vintage CBC broadcast shows a game between Toronto and Boston from Maple Leaf Gardens in November of 1970, in which only an instrumental version of “O Canada” is played prior to the game. The same thing occurs a few weeks later in a game between the Bruins and Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.

But by 1987, the NHL had made it mandatory for both anthems to be played in games involving a Canadian team against an American opponent. In Buffalo, they actually play both the Canadian and American anthem, regardless of the Sabres’ opponent.

This is a uniquely North American phenomenon.

In Europe, national anthems are reserved for major international competitions, or when an urgent or important national situation arises.

Earlier this year, for example, the Premier League asked its clubs to play the UK national anthem before matches to mark the coronation of King Charles III.

When national anthems are played infrequently and saved for special occasions — as the practice is carried out elsewhere in the world — they carry more weight and meaning.

In North America, we’ve diluted the tradition to the point where the anthems are played thousands of times each year, creating awkward and disrespectful moments like the ones outlined above.

The national anthem should be played sparingly and reserved for moments that evoke genuine feelings of national pride.

In 2014, all of Canada was shaken by the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was killed by a gunman at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Days later, fans in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa simultaneously sang the national anthem in a coordinated show of national unity. It was moving, genuine and profound.

That same week in 2014, the Pittsburgh Penguins played “O Canada” prior to a game against the Philadelphia Flyers in a show of solidarity for their northern neighbours.

And we should never lose the ability to experience these heartfelt moments.

But when you shoehorn in anthem singers who don’t even know the lyrics so you can hit your quota of 82 games per year, it makes the whole practice feel disingenuous and performative.

Save the playing of the national anthem for opening night, home games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, international competition (whenever we return to a best-on-best format), and special occasions when warranted.

The best and most stirring rendition of a national anthem ahead of an NHL event arguably took place in January of 1991. Against the backdrop of the Gulf War, Wayne Messmer sang “The Star Spangled Banner” with a raucous crowd at Chicago Stadium ahead of the NHL All-Star Game. It was a goosebump-inducing moment.

Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” the following week at the Super Bowl might be the greatest anthem performance of all time.

Those moments felt genuine, emotional and powerful. It was a confluence of world events and big sporting moments.

That same magic simply won’t exist when the Florida Panthers visit Edmonton this weekend. Or when the Canucks are in Chicago. In these instances, the playing of the national anthem becomes staid and monotonous. And it’s almost an invitation for something to go awry.

In 2021, Dallas Mavericks fans and media went 13 games before realizing the club had ceased playing the national anthem before their home games. It was tangible proof that anthems aren’t as intrinsically woven into North American sports as we may think.

So would hockey fans really notice — or care — if NHL teams followed the same approach on a full-time basis in the future?

(Photo of Sholanty Taylor singing the U.S. national anthem before a New York Islanders game earlier this month: Jay Anderson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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