March 24, 2016 was a watershed moment for the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. The franchise was in a youth-centric rebuild, complete with requisite experience-gaining losses.
On this night, though, there were signs of a brighter future. The Leafs would push the playoff-bound Anaheim Ducks with a dramatic 6-5 overtime victory at the Scotiabank Arena (then known as Air Canada Centre). Emerging star defender Morgan Rielly had two points, then-rookies Zach Hyman, Garret Sparks and William Nylander earned valuable time, and homegrown forward Nazeem Kadri scored two goals, including the winner.
Best, perhaps, was that the official Leafs goal song at that time – “Feeling Good” by Saskatoon rockers The Sheepdogs – blasted throughout the arena six different times.
In the strange universe where sports and the music that gets played in arenas and stadiums meet, a goal — or touchdown, or home run — hold a special spot. They bind a team’s supporters to a joyous, positive sonic experience that can often stay with fans for years, or even decades. But a “goal” song is just one of many kinds of signature music that gets played at Leafs games. An average Leafs game will have 80 or so whistle-stoppages through its 60 minutes of play, on top of 17-minute breaks between periods, and a 16-minute pre-game warmup. This makes for a lot of music to cue up for the 18,800 fans at each Leafs game, and every song is meticulously curated by team staff.
“Across all of our teams, music is so important,” says Anton Wright, Director of Game Presentation for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE). “We use music to motivate the players, music engages our fans, and it connects to each and every fan. We choose music that we know our players are going to enjoy, and that motivates them, and music for each situation… we want our music to connect to the moment, each and every time.”
Anton, a full-time staff of 25, and game day staff that can reach into the hundreds manage everything that happens in the building (besides the players playing the game), for the various MLSE teams, including the Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto Argos, Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies, and Raptors 905. Central to every one of these games is music.
For Leafs games Wright, and Leafs game day DJ Cale Granton, create pools of songs which can be cued up to match specific in-game events. Besides obvious things like goal and victory songs, there are songs the Leafs use for things like referee reviews, songs to signal the end of intermissions, songs for when opponents get penalties. Throughout a season, songs will get swapped in and out of these situational playlists. If the crowd responds well to a song, it stays. If they don’t, staff look for something else in that spot.
An ever-changing playlist of EDM, hip-hop, and uptempo pop gets played during Leafs warmups, while locals-made-good like Drake and Shawn Mendes, and stadium all-timers like Guns n’ Roses, AC/DC, Pitbull, and Eminem, usually get cued up every game. Then there are the classics. The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” gets played at every Saturday Leafs game. So does Arkells’ “Saturday Night.” And at every Leafs tilt, Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song.” “We play that every single game. It’s a great ritual,” says Wright of Connors’ 1973 ode.
Acts who’ve been played at Scotiabank Arena certainly know their value. Hamilton soul-rockers Arkells have had “Saturday Night,” “Knocking at the Door,” “People’s Champ,” “Oh, The Boss is Coming!,” and a number of other songs played at Leafs and Raptors games. Sports placements are never top-of-mind when trying to write songs, but they’re certainly considered afterwards.
“We’re not ever writing something with the hope that it ends up in a certain spot in culture,” says Arkells lead singer Max Kerman. “But as we’re getting towards the finish line, we’re getting jacked on the song, and we’re playing a song real loud in the studio, the first thing my mind goes to is how it’s going to feel live, and after that it’s, ‘OH! this could be somebody’s first dance song,’ or ‘This could be played at a hockey game,’ or ‘This could be on somebody’s running playlist,’ or something.”
Having a popular sports jam can also sometimes lead to moments of perfect serendipity. The same year that the Leafs were using The Sheepdogs’ “Feeling Good” as their goal song, the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team also used it as their victory song. Sheepdogs lead singer Ewan Currie attended a lot of Jays games, and got to experience some strong mic-drop moments. “I’d be sitting in the stadium, and when they’d record the final out, I’d go, ‘Hit my theme music,’ and of course the song would come on,” says Currie. “That felt pretty good.”
While those moments clearly feel good, they also have business value, not only in royalties, but exposure. “That’s been a very conscious piece of our business,” says Max Kerman. “If the song ends up in a TV show, or on the radio, or in a sports montage, or in the arena, that’s just a great opportunity for new ears, and for new people to hear you.”
USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker) had their 2014 single “Yin Yang” adopted by the Edmonton Oilers, and more recently used by Sportsnet as their official NHL playoff theme song during game broadcasts. If the actual dollar value of such things remains unclear, their strategic value does.
“Placements give new life to music, and it also becomes a current talking point,” says USS DJ Jason “Human Kebab” Parsons. “You definitely notice that streaming numbers go up. Also, going into the 2019 summer festival season, we’ve almost got this universal advertisement before we even play any shows. It definitely lends itself to some bigger opportunities.”
The business benefits are secondary to MLSE, though. Their goal is to create an entertaining experience — one with a specific outcome. “We hope that the music is motivating for our players,” says Wright. “I hope it happens every single game, where we’re doing that for our players, because that’s part of the job… motivating the guys for that big win.”