This time of year, 18,000 hockey fans are normally on their feet, hats in hand, screaming “RED” at the top of their lungs at a sold-out Verizon Center.
Sure, citizens arrive en masse to root for their favorite team, the Washington Capitals, but no U.S. sporting event is complete without the beloved tradition of singing the national anthem to start the show.
Master Sergeant Bob McDonald has been singing at Capitals games since the 1992-93 season. While he isn’t the sole singer — he splits regular duties with Master Sergeant Caleb Green – this year would have been his 20th. Like the athletes, broadcasters, journalists, bloggers, front office, rink staff, vendors, scalpers, and others, the anthem singers must also wait on the sidelines for the NHL players’ union and owners to negotiate a new labor deal.
“I do what I always do when one of the sports that I love becomes a source of pain,” McDonald said. “I throw myself into other sports with a vengeance. In 2004 [during the last NHL lockout], the football coach of my childhood, Joe Gibbs, returned to coach my beloved Redskins. That gave me something positive to focus on and I hung on to the Skins as far as I could that fall, and then drowned my sorrows in college basketball.”
McDonald got started singing the anthem at Caps games the way an undrafted prospect might find his way onto a team: He called the Caps and they gave him an audition.
“I had just graduated from Oberlin College with music degrees,” he said. “At the same time, I was a lifelong avid Caps fan. The opportunity to sing the anthem offered a perfect mix of my two passions: music and sports. I was thrilled, and mostly for the tickets I got in exchange for singing. I was your typical college grad with no money.”
Other teams tapped him for singing duties, which includes “God Bless America.” Over the years, he’s appeared at Redskins, Wizards, Mystics, Nationals and Orioles games. McDonald estimates he’s sung at about 250 Caps games, averaging between 10 and 15 a season. He was also part of the now-defunct Redskins Singers, which sang “Hail to the Redskins” during games.
Working in the U.S. Army has its demands, so McDonald’s schedule doesn’t always sync up with Caps games. As an active duty soldier, he sings in the U.S. Army chorus. He also works part-time for Free Run Wine Merchants, a wine distributor for small vineyards from the Pacific Northwest. “One season I had been away with the army quite a bit and missed more games than usual,” McDonald said. “Upon my return, I noticed my name was on the Injured Reserved list posted in the media room at Verizon Center. The status of my return was marked as ‘questionable.’”
That joke flattered McDonald. He’s also earned the respect of some of the players. Former Caps goalie and current associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig, as well as former Washington Post Caps beat reporter Rachel Nichols, have told him that the players like him because he doesn’t sing too slowly, linger around too long, or add additional notes.
McDonald is also no stranger to Caps fans.
“People are so generous when they talk to me about the anthem and I get recognized quite a bit outside of the Verizon Center, usually at other sporting events,” he said. “For instance, at Nats Park last season, a man in front of me kept looking at me, and then after someone else had sung the anthem, he turned around to get my ‘informed opinion.’ This season, one of the bartenders at the park who also works at Verizon bought me a beer. All of this gives me wonderful opportunities to get to know fellow Caps fans I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”