TORONTO – The trouble with setting a Guinness world record in a mostly empty hockey arena is that no one was around to verify it. Sadly, it won’t make the book.
But Cale Granton can still laugh it off with pride today, knowing in his heart that he accomplished something no live-sports DJ has ever done.
Inside the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoff bubble in August, the DJ played 192 tracks during a single hockey game — the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets’ quintuple-overtime epic — without a single repeat.
It is with palpable zest that Granton recounts this tale (and others) over our morning Zoom chat about what’s it’s like to hold down one of the sweetest jobs in all adulthood: Official disc jockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Dressed in a white Leafs hoodie and sitting in his high-floor condo overlooking Scotiabank Arena, Granton speaks with a contagious enthusiasm about his craft and his connection to the team.
He’s excited to discuss another record he broke, Revive the Rose’s “Bar Down.”
Because Granton spun the little-known Welland, Ont., band’s single during Leafs games this season, NHL 21 plucked the song for the video game’s warm-up soundtrack. Revive the Rose quickly credited Granton with the primary assist.
The relationship Granton has built with the Leafs is a reciprocal one. Granton has freshened up the previously predictable Scotiabank soundtrack on hockey nights in a loud, live way.
In turn, the job has given the DJ 41 annual nights of stadium status; a sweet side gig as the house DJ for Sher Club, Drake’s luxurious in-arena bar, on Raptors game nights; and inspiration for Granton’s own post-game party spots downtown on Saturday nights.
“I get an adrenaline rush from the game,” Granton beams, “and I carry that into the nightclub.”
SPORTSNET.CA: Official DJ for the Toronto Maple Leafs – how do you land a cool job like that?
CALE GRANTON: I actually started at Brock University. I was the DJ for the men's and women's volleyball teams, and the athletic director wrote a letter of recommendation for MLSE, explaining what I added to the program. I started out at Real Sports [MLSE’s large, tricked-out sports bar next to Scotiabank Arena], playing music before and after the game for all the fans that would pre-game and post-game. It was an opportunity for me to play music in a stadium-like setting for at least 1,000 people every night. Eventually some of the important people from MLSE and some players would come over after the game, and they got to know me. I spent three years playing at Real Sports, and then [the Leafs] and decided to have an in-game DJ. I just happened to be that guy who's kind of on the doorstep. Including Brock, I had seven years of sports and music leading me to that moment.
How did your process and mindset change, jumping from clubs and bars to spinning for 20,000 people at a hockey game?
I grew up playing all types of music. I realized, whether it’s a club or a stadium, you’re never going to please every single person, but the key is to please the majority. What’s made me successful as a DJ is my taste. My taste allows me to pick the songs I would like to hear if I was in the stadium. I’m the first team DJ. I actually I went to a game before as just a guest, and the energy and the vibe, I didn't really feel it that much. So when they came to me, I thought of it as an opportunity for me to add to that.
How much input do the players have in your playlist, specifically for warm-ups?
Whenever I bump into them, I ask them what they’re feeling, what’s their song. Lately, they’ve just been saying, “Nah, we like what you’re doing. Just keep it loud.” They trust me to do what I do. I like to play a mix of high-energy electronic music mixed with the newest hip-hop and pop records and mash it up together, especially in the warmup, in a creative way. I find it's my obligation to break new records to people, so I use the warmup to introduce people to new music. It’s my job to recognize a hit.
Give me an example.
This past season, it was Tiesto’s “Wow.” It just came out, I felt it was perfect, I played it, and the next day I was recognized by Tiesto, who commented on my social-media photo. That was a big moment for me — Tiesto, being the biggest DJ in the world, thanking me for playing his song.
How does the volume debate work? Some reporters up in the press box and some fans find it too loud. On the other hand, Auston Matthews noted he’d like it even louder.
My last conversation with Auston was about the volume. He said, “Yeah, man, keep doing what you’re doing. Just turn it up loud.”
Which Leafs are the biggest music heads?
Probably Mitch Marner, who runs the music in the room. Marner’s a music guy. Matthews is a music guy. I’m glad we re-signed Jason Spezza because I always see him bobbing his head during warm-ups. I like to watch the guys during warm-ups and see who’s feeling it and which songs they feel. Marner is always skating around bobbing his head.
Nice. I’ve wondered if DJs from different teams and arenas share tips and tracks. Like, is there a community of sports DJs?
There is a community, and I wasn’t aware of it until I was hired by the NHL to DJ for the Eastern Conference bubble. The Edmonton Oilers’ DJ [Johnny Infamous] reached out because he was doing the Western Conference bubble, and he added me to a chat group of professional sports DJs — NFL, NBA, NHL. It was so cool to connect and meet all these other DJs. They sent me their tracks and warmup mixes from their cities. So, when the Philadelphia Flyers came out for a “home” game, I used the Philly DJ’s mix to give them that home feel.
That's interesting. I was inside for the Eastern playoff games and noticed the warm-up tracks were unique for each team.
It was cool. The NHL connected us all, and I got all these folders of music Dropbox’d to me from each team, but I still had creative freedom to play what I wanted to. I wanted to give a home feel to each game. I told them when they hired me, “I’ll do every game, every team.” I was just so eager to get back to work. We actually did 60-something games in a month and a half in the bubble, and a regular season is only 41 home games. A condensed workload, but I loved every second.
Wait. You did every single game? All those triple-headers?
Our game ops is one of the tops in the NHL. We have Jimmy Holmstrom, who’s been the Leafs organist for 32 years. I look up to him a lot for what he does, and we’ve actually become really good friends. We work together through the game. We’re talking throughout every Leafs game, finding the moments that should be organ moments – to keep the nostalgia of a Canadian hockey game — and also mixing in my new tracks together, to give the night a variety. In the bubble, the workload was so intense, Jimmy and I would alternate days. I would do three games one day; Jimmy would do three the next day. I gave him a bunch of tracks I would normally play, and he gave me his organ tracks, so we could keep it the same. If you were listening at home, you wouldn’t know which one of us was working.
How did Jimmy first react to adding a DJ element to hockey night? The organ is no longer the only star of the show.
He embraced it. We help each other out. There are times when it’s whistle, whistle, whistle — so quick. People actually tell me, “Oh, it must be nice to watch every game.” Actually, more than half of the time, I'm in my laptop getting the next couple songs ready. I have to have so many different songs queued up for different moments. If we score, I need the goal song. If there's a penalty, I have to have the power-play song ready. If a puck flies out of bounds, I need a hype whistle song ready. At all times, I need four different tracks available. I’m trying to stay razor sharp.
I certainly noticed the variety of songs expanded once you joined game operations.
We have the staple songs that we play — Black Box’s “Strike It Up” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” those classic hockey songs. But I always like to keep it fresh so the season ticket-holders, the players, and people there every game have some variety. That keeps me on my toes, searching for records that will fit in-game.
OK, what do you honestly think of the Hall & Oates goal song?
It grew on me. And we scored so many goals that first season, I’d be dancing. It was such a delight to associate that song with the joy of a Maple Leafs goal. I love to play it. I want to play it as much as possible.
What was it like DJing the comeback game, when Toronto scored three late goals to steal Game 4 from Columbus?
Being part of it, and having those songs ready in that moment, and playing what I think will pump up the guys — that was one the coolest things I've ever been part of. I kept my wristband from that night just to remember it. Wow.
Do you remember the songs you chose?
If it's a tight game, I like to keep it intense and dramatic. So, I’ll play songs like [Jorge Quintero’s] “300 Violin Orchestra” and “Thunderstruck” – songs that have a great build and intensity for the players. Someone asked me: “Is it weird playing in the bubble for no fans?” I loved it just as much because I'm actually playing for the players. I’m keeping in mind what the players want to hear to get them pumped up before that puck drops. I'm sweating during that game trying to get the perfect song for that moment. At the end of it, sometimes I feel like I played the game. I feel like I have to go hit the showers. I really put my heart into it every game, every night.
Did you grow up a massive Leafs fan?
I grew up a soccer fan. All my friends played hockey, and my mom was like, “Get some cleats. Go play soccer.” I wasn't much into hockey growing up, but once I became part of the team, I embraced it. I started to enjoy watching it more than basketball. By the second season, there was blue in my veins. Now I'm like the most diehard Leaf fan. I tune into all the away games.
How much thought do you put into soundtracking the action, whether it’s a coach’s challenge or a fight or whatever?
I always try to find new songs that relate to those moments. Like, if the refs are calling up to the box, I’ll play [Drake’s] “Hotline Bling” or something. I like to play Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” if there’s a penalty. I like to keep the fans in tune like that.
OK. You gotta explain what it was like spinning that five-overtime classic between Tampa and the Blue Jackets.
Eight periods of hockey. Someone from the sports DJ community tweeted: “Oh, wow. Props to the DJ for playing all those whistles without any repeats.” After the game, I checked my records. I actually played 192 in-game tracks, not including intermissions. Almost three full hockey games in one game.
That's probably a Guinness world record right there.
My buddies were telling me that. The problem is they have to be there to monitor and verify it. But it probably is a record: Most songs played in a hockey game.
What’s next for you? You're already playing for full stadiums. Do you have a goal beyond Leafs games? Do you mess around with production?
You hit the nail with the hammer. I’ve kinda turned my condo into a studio. I've actually been studying music production by legendary producers like Timberland, Boi 1da and Deadmau5. I realize you can only get so far playing other people's music, so the next step is to create my own. My DJ background is a great foundation for making music because I have a great ear. I've already made edits and remixes, so the next step is to create my own music., and I already have connections with artists.
How do you envision your sound?
My style is an incorporation of all the music I love: hip-hop and house to Latin and reggae music, and now African music, which is prevalent in my current DJ sets.
We don't know when the Leafs will play again, so how are you staying busy?
I’m trying to keep my vibe high every day, working on music. I’ve done some small private events. Just gotta weather the storm and be ready when it comes back because I feel when it does come back, that it's going to be even bigger. I get goosebumps right now thinking about that first Maple Leafs game in a full stadium again, where I get to play that first song. Everyone is going to appreciate being in that stadium so much more when it comes back.
(photos courtesy of Cale Granton)