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Bob McDonald walks through the bowels of the bustling Capital One Arena, alive with preparations for the last Capitals home game of the regular season. The 49-year-old struts through the tunnel with the swagger of a hockey player, but with slightly more understated confidence.
He’s here to sing the national anthem.
McDonald has been performing with the Caps for 26 years. His journey took him from a recent college graduate who answered an audition call to being presented with a Stanley Cup ring.
Before the Caps face off against the Montreal Canadiens this Thursday night in early April, McDonald and two family friends stroll through the hallways inside the arena. McDonald explains the purpose of each room, most of them guarded by an employee. He knows each staff member in the tunnel by name. Everyone he encounters greets him with a warm smile or hug.
“This is Dennis, he’s worked here since it was the MCI Center,” McDonald says. “Or was it longer than that?”
Dennis turns and says, “Have you heard of the Civil War?”
McDonald has this rapport with everyone he meets tonight. It’s not a show. He’s been singing with the Caps for nearly three decades, and some of the arena employees have worked here just as long.
The Caps made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 1998. They would not return until last year, when they won the Stanley Cup. During that inaugural trip was when McDonald says he became a celebrity in the arena.
“Until the finals, almost every game that I sang in the playoffs, we won,” he says. “Hockey is very superstitious. That’s when it kind of became a thing.”
At that point, the Caps asked McDonald to be their full-time anthem singer. That meant performing at 41 games in the regular season. Being on active duty, McDonald felt the commitment was too much, so he enlisted the help of another chorus member who is now retired from the Army, Caleb Green.
They made a duet version of the national anthem now famous around town. A simple arrangement with the bass voice under the melody that they borrowed from a friend. It is understated, elegant, and wildly popular with the fans.
“They give the song its honor and reverence,” says Eva Ingram, a marshall at the arena. “They know it’s not up for interpretation, not their five minutes of fame. They keep it sacred.”
McDonald rounds a corner and sees a Caps branded ATV. He starts to reminisce about the time he got talked into riding it onto the ice, to sing the national anthem in a full Santa suit.
“No pressure, right? Santa can’t screw up,” he jokes.
This is the McDonald I know—a self-aware and self-deprecating man who appears buttoned up, but doesn’t hesitate to make fun of himself. We’re both members of the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” where he is a vocalist in the Army Chorus, and I work as a staff photographer. Shortly after I moved to D.C. in the spring of 2016, I attended to Caps game. When I looked up, I saw McDonald singing on the Jumbotron. “Hey!” I yelled, “I know that guy!”
I had no idea that McDonald was a celebrity anthem singer, a life he keeps separate from his Army duties, except for the occasional overlap on military appreciation day when the Army gives him permission to perform in uniform and represent the band.
McDonald graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, a serious and exclusive music school, which he attended on scholarship for vocal performance. (McDonald delivers this information in a fake British accent mocking the posh education he received.) He is also a classically trained vocalist, complete with proficiency in foreign languages, including French.
That comes in handy when the Caps play the Canadiens. At home games in Montreal, a bilingual version of “O Canada” is customary. With McDonald’s experience and knowledge of music history and language, he was able to bring that tradition to Washington—but only for the Canadiens.
“Each city in Canada treats the anthem a little differently. You would never sing the French version of “O Canada” in Winnipeg,” he says.
McDonald grew up in Falls Church and started paying attention to the Caps in 1979. He became involved in youth hockey around 10 years old and was hooked from the start. His father was a professional Opera singer though, so music had to be in the mix too. McDonald started playing the violin at age 6 and completed the Suzuki method, a rigorous music education technique that combines performance with philosophy. He credits the violin to training his ear as a vocalist.
In high school, McDonald discovered his voice. He’s a big, barrel chested guy with lots of resonance. It helped that young McDonald thought singing was easier than playing the violin, so he joined the choir and decided to major in music at Oberlin.
“I was a high school boy who could sing, so I got a really good deal,” he says. “It was a great decision and an incredible experience. That’s how it all started for me.”
After college graduation, McDonald saw a call for open auditions to sing the national anthem with his beloved Caps. Paying actual U.S. dollars to sing at a Caps game seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up.
Twenty-seven seasons later, McDonald is still the go-to anthem singer, and a celebrity among hockey fans. When the Caps made the postseason last year, he and Green were asked to sing at all the home games. The NHL has control over pre-game entertainment in the postseason and can have their pick of any recording artist or mega-star. They decided to go with what D.C. fans want.
“It was just a fairytale,” McDonald says of the 2018 Stanley Cup win. “Just to go so long, with great teams, but constant heartbreak. Really people can’t know until you’ve experienced the heartbreak, just how sweet it is.”
That’s what gives him so much hope for this postseason. The pressure is off, now the Caps can just have fun. McDonald and Green will perform the “Star-Spangled Banner” at all home playoff games, and if the Caps make it back to the Stanley Cup Final, the pair will be there too.
At the last home game, pitch pipe in hand, McDonald made his way into a bathroom in search of the best acoustics for a vocal warm up.
“We’ve already got that weight off of our backs from last season, we know we can win it,” he says, before heading out the tunnel. “By we, I mean the team.”
McDonald talks about the Caps like he’s a part of the family. That’s because he is.