By Luke Fox | Illustrations by Caitlin Taguibao
By Luke Fox | Illustrations by Caitlin Taguibao
They are the unsung — and sometimes unwilling — heroes who set the tone before every big game. But how does an NHL player become his team's dressing room DJ?

Jay Beagle is standing in the Vancouver Canucks dressing room and firm in his stance. “J.T. Miller. One hundred per cent,” the veteran asserts. “Oh, yeah.”

Beagle, 35, has just been asked to name the best dressing-room disc jockey in the league — a key, if unsung, role on any hockey team worth a jukebox quarter. “J.T. does a good job. When it’s Christmastime, he busts out the Christmas carols. I mean, his music is like more old-school rock. Classic rock. Nineties rock. That’s kind of what I grew up listening to,” Beagle elaborates. “There’s not too much rap. I do not like rap music. That’s just the way I’ve always been. I don’t like rap music.”

An invisible dagger pierces his interviewer’s heart. Beagle does not know he’s speaking to a diehard hip-hop head. But music can be at once personal and universal — that’s the beauty.

“I like country and classic rock, and I’m actually into Christian music right now, gospel music,” says Beagle. The savvy depth centre picks up on his questioner’s quizzical look. “Seriously.”

Oh, and one more thing: Beagle likes his pre-game tunes loud. Like, cranked-to-11 loud. So, the first day Miller, a new Canuck last season, seized control of the club’s stereo, Beagle barked at him: “Put some hair on that.”

And he did.

“So, it was good,” Beagle smiles.

Miller — first-time DJ, long-time listener — says he was randomly chosen to select the Canucks soundtrack but learned well from Louis Domingue’s expertise in Tampa Bay prior to getting traded in the summer of 2019. Tunes set a tone.

“It just helps get you in the right frame of mind. It makes you feel good. Makes you wake up,” Miller explains. “We get it really loud in here, so it’s always good songs played loud. Loud as it goes. Loud rock. Loud techno. Gets you going.”

The winger describes his taste as “laid-back” and mingles his personally curated playlists with some preprogrammed mixes via Spotify. He’s unafraid to go seasonal or full-blown country, a curveball for some of his European teammates. “I’m not used to that, but I’m starting to like it more,” star centre Elias Pettersson says. “Country music is big here compared to Sweden.”

“You take the iPod from someone who's playing really bad music. I don't want to name any names.”

Miller is not a tyrant, though. After the team’s 5:30 pre-game meeting, he’s known to let someone else (Jordie Benn, Jake Virtanen) plug in the aux cord and ramp up the BPMs ahead of puck drop. “I got the pump-up songs too, but guys like a little more techno-y sound these days,” Miller says. “We got a pretty open locker with the music, but guys seem to be happy with the laid-back music I’ve been playing. I’m just playing what I normally listen to, and everybody seems to like it.”

Last winter the Canucks opted for The Cranberries’ 1994 alt-folk-rock Irish protest jam “Zombie” for their celebratory win song. An unlikely selection. “We played it at our Halloween party on team night, and we all were jamming and singing to it pretty good. Like, That’s going to be our win song,” Miller says. “And so it was.”

According to the U.S. National Centre for Health Research, listening to music while engaging in sport can increase your stamina and thrust you into a better mood. A 2006 study by English psychologists Judy Edworthy and Hannah Waring that examined the effect of music on the selection of treadmill speed found that while listening to fast-paced tunes, participants upped both their pace and distance travelled without becoming more tired. In 2010, a study by sports psychologist C.I. Karageorghis concluded that music improves athletic performance by either delaying fatigue or increasing work capacity. Karageorghis wrote that the effects of music lead to “higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity, or strength.” And a 2012 Oxford study revealed that participants who listened to music they deemed “pleasing” benefitted from a boost in serotonin, the feel-good hormone — or, as a sampled Will Ferrell blurts in the middle of a Jay-Z and Kanye West song: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative… gets the people going!”

The right song at the right moment absolutely gets us going. Which is why the 2019 St. Louis Blues grabbed hold of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and rode that glimmering 1982 disco ball of power synths all the way to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. And why the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward-thinking head coach Sheldon Keefe hasn’t hesitated to keep the beats pumping after gym work is finished.

On occasion last season Keefe tapped a team employee to blast music during practice, ready to cut the volume if the coach needed to address the group or explain the next drill. “For me, it’s the tempo and the energy,” Keefe explains. “Especially on days [when] you’re coming back from a game, it may be tough to put your gear on and get some work in. Just raising the energy level, not unlike what you’d do in the gym.

“The other part of it is, we don’t play in quiet environments,” he continues. “Even though the music doesn’t play during the game, there’s other elements that make it loud — during play, stoppages, TV timeouts — and you have to learn to communicate within that.”

Leafs centre Auston Matthews, an NBA fan, likes the pulse during practice. The more music, the merrier. “I know basketball plays music during the games,” Matthews says. “I don’t know how that would really work in the NHL — stuff’s moving so fast and you’re kind of contained in this rink and stuff — but it is nice to have the music bumping in practice.”

Given the power of music to uplift and inspire, finding the right guy to operate the play button in the locker room is crucial. It’d be a stretch to say it can mean the difference between a win and a loss, but the energy a team brings into the opening frame can go a long way toward determining a game’s outcome. Some clubs opt for DJ-by-committee; others have entrusted longstanding playlist kings. But no team prepares for that opening faceoff in silence. And heading into 2021, a number of NHL powerhouses will need to anoint new dressing room disc jocks.

DJ Kevin Shattenkirk, who inked a new deal in Anaheim, may have only spent one season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the playmaking defenceman’s influence reverberated off the ice. Not unlike Miller in Vancouver, Shattenkirk’s musical tastes helped him quickly integrate.

“He’s very good,” Victor Hedman approves. “He’s old-school sometimes, depends what kind of mood he’s in. He feels the room well, finds out what guys want.”

Shattenkirk credits noted lover of good times Pat Maroon with assisting his selections. “When you feel like you have some good jams in your stable, you wanna let the boys hear it,” explains Shattenkirk, stressing the need to keep your playlists fresh. “That’s important. You got to make sure that you switch it up from time to time, but a lot of times it’s a lot of rap, a lot of house music. And in the morning, you set up some rock and Zen out a little bit.”

But how did Shattenkirk actually get his finger on the play button? How does the new guy strut in and snatch such an important gig? Well, sometimes the answer’s complicated, but sometimes it’s simple. “You take the iPod from someone who’s playing really bad music,” Shattenkirk quips. “I don’t want to name any names.”
When Torey Krug — the little guy in charge of the tall speakers — manned the tunes for the 2020 Presidents’ Trophy–winning Bruins, he blasted explicit versions of big, boasty, early-2000s frathouse rap anthems like 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” Linkin Park and Jay-Z’s “Numb/Encore,” and fellow Michigander Eminem’s “Not Afraid.”

“Classic college kid, right?” chirps David Pastrnak.

Prior to signing with the Blues, Krug was always open to requests — but your track had to be Krug-approved if it was to be added to his go-to playlist.

When the Colorado Avalanche traded Nikita Zadorov to the Chicago Blackhawks in October, they didn’t just lose their nastiest hitter. They also gave away a crateful of aggressive Euro beats that charged up perennial MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon nicely. “He just took control, and he plays good music, so we like it,” MacKinnon says. “He’s got all these DJ mixes, so doesn’t have to pick a new song all the time. it’s kind of like a big flow. He plays a good variety. A lot of like Russian techno, but it’s actually pretty good.”

Which begs the age-old question: Is Russian techno better for your hockey than Russian rap? The answer lies in the ear of the beholder.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

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Beagle shakes his head when he thinks back to the sounds of his 2018 Washington Capitals Cup run, which were controlled by captain Alex Ovechkin — a onetime rap star in his homeland. “Listen, we had Russian rap and Russian all sorts of stuff going on, and we still won a lot of games,” Beagle says. “I could never understand it. His music was… not for me. And I heard it for a while.”

In Beagle’s opinion, things improved when Tom Wilson squeezed some time in the booth. “Every time we would lose, it would switch,” Beagle says.

That’s how the Columbus Blue Jackets rolled last season, too. French-Canadian Pierre-Luc Dubois, EDM-loving Swede Emil Bemstrom (big on Calvin Harris and Avicii) and Latvian Elvis Merzlikins were all part of their DJ rotation, the length of their residencies often determined by the scoreboard. “It really depends on how hot we are at the time,” explains Seth Jones, whose club was enjoying a six-game win streak when he was interviewed. “It’s kind of on and off for us, it’s kind of a feel thing. One guy doesn’t want to anymore, but we keep telling Bemstrom to do it because we keep winning right now.”

The Winnipeg Jets also rely on teamwork, though of a different sort. Andrew Copp soundtracks practice days and gym work on game days, skewing country. Copp then passes the baton to Mathieu Perreault to hammer the EDM before puck drop. “It’s kind of funny to see what style of music every guy has,” Mark Scheifele says. “When you want to get really pumped up, Matty Perreault does it. When you want to be in a relaxing practice mode, Copper does a great job with that.”

A young group like the Ottawa Senators leans on its young leaders, Thomas Chabot and Colin White, to ease into the day with rap music and gradually ramp up to techno, while established veteran teams come with established DJs. Brian Dumoulin was drafted by the Penguins in 2009; his Spotify account rules all. (“He’s been doing it for years now, so he’s really good at it,” goalie Tristan Jarry says.) And it makes sense that the Dallas Stars, one of the oldest rooms in the league, leave the duties to 34-year-old Blake Comeau. “We’re a bit of an older team, so not too many new styles of music coming in,” says goalie Ben Bishop. Comeau-cued classics like John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” and Queen’s “Under Pressure” blare as we speak at Bishop’s stall. “He takes suggestions, and he doesn’t take it to heart if he’s chirped.”

Music lover Tyler Seguin gives Comeau a five-star rating. “Fantastic. He’s got it all. He’s got some oldies to start off with, and then he gets to rap and hip-hop and the beats going earlier for the younger guys. I control the music for warm-ups on the ice [inside American Airlines Center]. But Blake’s very good at what he does,” Seguin says. “It’s important. I mean, everyone’s relying on you — one guy. It’s changed over the years, but Blake has taken hold of it last couple years, and he’s good.”

Good, but not the best Bishop has ever had. That honour goes to deep-cut NHLer Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who had a 46-game cup-of-coffee career alongside Bishop in Tampa Bay. “Oh yeah,” Bishop says, lighting up. “P.C. always had the newest songs, always on top of it. He was really good. That year [2013–14], they even got a speaker made for the road. Like, we had this huge speaker that traveled in a case and stuff, so the music was, like, twice as loud.”

Toronto’s Matthews — a hip-hop head whose tastes run from DaBaby and Lil Baby to Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole — prefers the on-ice warm-up tunes, run by DJ Cale Granton, cranked, and the Maple Leafs arranged for a state-of-the-art sound system to propel the sound down toward the players. “At least the music’s a little bit louder. Last year it was super quiet,” Matthews says. “People were complaining that it was too loud, but we’re the ones playing, so I think they bumped it up a little bit. And we’ve been able to request songs, so it’s been a lot better this year.”

“They're looking for any reason to chirp you at any given moment. So, it's almost an audition.”

Times (and genres) have changed in Toronto.

Back in Doug Gilmour’s heyday, the Hall of Famer recalls guys bringing in mixtapes to load into the boombox. During his early-’90s Maple Leafs campaigns, Gilmour and the boys would let the whole GTA in on their pre-game pump-up. They’d turn the dial to Q107, the local rock station, and plant a bug in radio DJ-slash-sports junkie Joey Vendetta’s ear. “Knowing he would be working 4 to 7 p.m. or whatever it was, we’d give him a heads-up beforehand. We’d say, ‘Hey, play some good music for us, whether it’s Metallica, Pearl Jam.’”

Regardless of the decade, volume matters. The beats must transcend the noisy hum of game night — the filing in of fans, the stretching of tape, the sharpening of skates, the persistent chatter. “Heavy loud,” stresses former NHLer Anthony Stewart, outlining tips and tricks for aspiring dressing-room DJs. “Loud, loud, loud.”

Stewart honed his locker room DJ skills in junior with the Kingston Frontenacs. Thanks to Stewart, that outfit rushed onto the ice to the old Blades of Steel Nintendo theme, which bled into “heavy, heavy ’90s raps.” Stewart chuckles in retrospect: “The scouts are coming into Kingston listening to our pregame music on the ice, like, ‘What’s going on with these guys? These guys are maniacs!’”

Drafted in the first round in 2003 by Florida, Stewart studied from then-team DJ Greg Campbell, picking the veteran’s brain on which songs to play. When Stewart joined the Atlanta Thrashers, in 2010, and Carolina Hurricanes, in 2011, he took ownership of and pride in the role. (Hurricanes DJ Erik Cole joined Montreal as a free agent that summer, taking his Sirus XM subscription with him.) “The key to being a good DJ is knowing the room. You can’t just play what you like. I’m a big hip-hop guy, but you can’t just play hip-hop. Because the one thing about hockey players, they love to chirp. They’re looking for any reason to chirp you at any given moment. So, it’s almost an audition process where you’ve got to cater to everybody, or they’re going to get you out of there fairly quickly,” Stewart says. “If you play too much dance music, they say, ‘Oh, this isn’t Electric Circus!’ There’s too much country? ‘Oh. I didn’t know we’re in the Deep South!’ ”

Anthony Duclair confirms the chirping: “If you’re putting a bad song on, you know you’re gonna hear it from the boys. Sometimes even when it’s a good song, you’ll hear it from the boys.”

Before practice or a game, as teammates are filtering in and out of the room to stretch or tape sticks, Stewart advises pre-programming a minimum of 20 minutes. Think six or seven tunes ahead. Because if you leave to kick the soccer ball around and the air goes dead, someone else will jack the aux. “You have to make a playlist,” Stewart advises. “My [go-to] playlist I still have now, it’s on Spotify. It’s called CHFI FM 98, which was not too hard, not too soft. All the soft-rock songs in the morning — the boys love that.”

“If you're putting a bad song on, you know you’re gonna hear it from the boys. Sometimes even when it's a good song, you’ll hear it from the boys.”

But don’t just lazily run back the same joints. Add one or two new tunes per week. Mix the classic with the current, Stewart advises. “My favourite playlist was one I got from Greg Campbell, the DJ Danny D mix they used to have on Z103.5 FM in Toronto,” he says. “If I knew I was gonna be gone longer than 15 minutes out of the room, I would just put that playlist on, and the boys would love it. Especially the European players.”

Stewart fondly recalls some heated pre-NHL camp speaker battles involving himself, brother Chris Stewart, Devante Smith-Pelly, Wayne Simmonds, Seguin and Michael del Zotto — a.k.a., DJ MDZ — during summer workout sessions guided by Toronto-based trainer Matt Nichol. A core group of players wanted hard beats and rhymes all day long, “but Del Zotto, who’s a DJ, would be playing his new mixes and some heavy, heavy dance,” Stewart says. “So we literally had to have a concession where it was, ‘Okay, you play two songs, this guy plays two songs.’ You’re there for two hours, almost worrying more about the music than your workout.”

For a select few, however, silence can be golden.

Colby Armstrong had spent his life in loud locker rooms, but it took until his final NHL season, with the 2012–13 Montreal Canadiens, to see a non-DJ assume the control their starting goalie did. “I was sort of amazed to see that Carey Price would switch up the tunes or shut the music off at a certain time before the game to dial it in sometimes,” Armstrong chuckles. “Never saw a goalie ever do that. Most sit in their own world. He is chill, though. Didn’t matter. Just got up, handled the DJ duties at times, and it was nothing.”

In Philadelphia, it is everything. Jakub Voracek is entering his 10th season with the Flyers, and it is with dusty, reluctant fingers that he’s loosening his control of the play button. “I absolutely hate modern music,” Voracek told Spittin’ Chiclets in November 2019. The 31-year-old Czech loves him some Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Led Zeppelin. Proficient in air guitar, Voracek caught AC/DC live in Berlin (“With Brian Johnson!”) and has seen Springsteen 15 times, twice on Broadway. “I play my rock ’n’ roll after meetings, and I blast it all the way up,” Voracek said. He estimates that 70 out of 82 games the final song he fires up is Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” “The live version, MTV Plugged — that one’s the best version.”

“If you’re the guy doing the music, you’re screwed. You’re always in the wrong.”

When prized free agent Kevin Hayes showed up at camp in 2019 and turned up the hip-hop in Philly’s room, Voracek checked him. “That’s not going to fly here, buddy. Get that shit outta here,” Voracek blocked. “He’s got about 500 less games than me, so he’s got nothing on me.”

Still, Hayes persisted, and carved out a time slot. “He gets on from 5 p.m. to 5:15 before the PK meeting, and that’s it,” Voracek said. “I’m not even invited to the PK meeting.”

The voice of experience isn’t always — or even usually — the voice of the people. Travis Konecny, 23, prefers the upbeat house selections of Scott Laughton, who gets some spins before Voracek takes over. “Voracek loves his Bruce Springsteen, like, all the older music,” Konecny says. “That’s kind of when the majority of the guys are out of the locker room. We’re playing soccer and getting warmed up, so he has some time.”

The trade of Nazem Kadri and departure of Jake Gardiner in 2019 served as a double-whammy for the Maple Leafs’ DJ responsibilities. Gardiner was the mellow game-day skate jock and Kadri the hard beats game-time guy. To fill that vacuum, the team forced Mitch Marner into the role, essentially throwing him to the wolves. “It’s been hit-and-miss,” Matthews said after practice one day last season, Marner within earshot. “If you’re the guy doing the music, you’re screwed. You’re always in the wrong. Either the music’s not playing, the Bluetooth’s not working, or it’s a bad song… it’s like a no-win situation. But somebody’s gotta do it.”

Matthews turned to Marner with a sly grin: “You just throw on the top charts and let it run?”

This was not entirely a compliment.

“Top charts into hip-hop,” Marner shot back, chest puffed. “Absolute bangers.”

Marner was asked for examples of songs that work with the group. “Nothing works. They always criticize,” he said, defeated. “No matter what song gets played, everyone hates it.

“I got screamed at to grab my phone and play music, so whatever. I just put on a radio station on my app and tell everyone to suck it up. I’m barely in the room until 26 minutes [before puck drop]. I don’t take requests. I don’t care,” explained Marner, the reluctant selector.

“I’m not too picky with my music. On a long bus ride, I can sit on my phone and play music and just chill.”

Photo Credits

Illustrations by Caitlin Taguibao