Hockey fans — and music fans — in Saint John, N.B., are probably quite familiar with Dan Joyce Sr.’s voice.
The part-time crooner, who has run an auto repair shop in the city for the past 44 years, has sung the anthem at every level of local hockey ranging from Timbits to the QMJHL‘s Saint John Sea Dogs.
But this past weekend, he took to the ultimate stage: singing the national anthem before an NHL game for his beloved Calgary Flames.
“It was the thrill of a lifetime for me and I’ll never forget it,” Joyce Sr. recalled during a Zoom call with his son, Dan Joyce Jr.
Joyce Sr. admits he’s known for singing, whether those listening want to hear it or not.
“I sing at work every day, I’ve always sung at work, I sing around the house and my employees of course they have to listen to me because I’m going to pay them at the end of the week,” he said.
He entered the foray of anthem singing a couple of decades ago, when a local radio prank tricked him into auditioning to sing for the Saint John Flames — the defunct AHL farm team of the Calgary Flames.
He says he took the joke in stride, despite some ribbing from his friends and customers, but then the real call came.
“The next week, the (Saint John) Flames did call me and asked me if I’d come down and do a game. I said, ‘I’d love to do that,’” he said.
Cautious that they were playing another joke on him, he recalls telling them he was only three minutes away and would drive straight down to meet them for an audition.
“I got to do a Flames game on a Wednesday night, huge storm, and we packed the building,” he said.
Since then, Joyce Sr. has shared his love of music — whether it be country, rock or easy listening — at weddings, benefit concerts and even funerals.
But last year, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, which threatened to sideline his passion for singing.
“There was no guarantee that I could actually be able to sing again or whatever. They couldn’t guarantee that. They said it looks pretty good but we can’t guarantee anything and I was worried about that,” he said.
What followed has been chemotherapy and radiation, time off work and yes, a break from performing.
That’s when his son, Joyce Jr., got an idea.
He “cold called” the Calgary Flames with an e-mail, sharing his father’s love for the old Saint John Flames team, which the family used to have season tickets for.
“That’s kind of where I grew up, around the rink and those are some of my earliest memories – those Saint John Flames games,” Joyce Jr. said.
To his surprise, the team responded. It turned out the annual NHL Hockey Fights Cancer Night was coming up.
So, Joyce Sr. was invited to record the Canadian anthem and have it played before puck drop on this past Saturday’s matchup between Calgary and Montreal.
“Sometimes the stars just align. I’m not sure if we weren’t in a pandemic if he would have been able to make it out to Calgary to kind of do it, so it worked out that we could do it virtually,” Joyce Jr. said.
His father lights up as he describes the flurry of activity that led to his NHL debut.
First, they had to obtain country singer George Canyon’s permission, because he had the contract to sing the anthem.
Then, the family contacted TD Station arena in Saint John to ask if they could record the performance at ice level.
“The first (date) I picked, that day, I had a heavy day at the hospital, so I was pretty beat. I couldn’t do it. So I called them back and said, ‘I can’t come down to do it. I’ve got nothing left today.’ And they said, ‘Whatever time we told you, we’ll work around it,’“ Joyce Sr. said.
On the day he did record the anthem, he says he was touched by the effort put in by staff.
“All the lights were on and there was a fresh coat of ice,” he recalled.
The family then kept the performance under wraps because, quite frankly, with the COVID-19 situation, they didn’t know if the game would even go ahead at one point.
By the time his anthem debut aired, Joyce Sr. was already a local hero — receiving well wishes from friends old and new.
“It was absolutely unbelievable. It was awesome. I really enjoyed it but more than that, I enjoyed the fact that my kids, my lovely wife, my three sisters all came down. And one of my older sisters who gets so excited about everything she was just on cloud nine for days and it was just so fun to watch,” he said.
Within 10 minutes, he also received a call from a new fan: Canyon.
The two talked about singing, and how Joyce Sr. had been to his concerts.
“And he said, ‘Next year, when things open up and you’re feeling better,’ when I’ve had my surgery and everything, he said, ‘We’d love to have you come out to Calgary and do it again at the Saddledome right at the ice surface.’ And I said, ‘You only have to say it once to me and I’ll be there next year, I’ll tell you.’”
Clearly still beaming from the experience, Joyce Sr. says he credits his son for organizing the opportunity, his wife for taking care of his garage while he’s off work and the Saint John Regional Hospital’s oncology department for their care.
He has surgery scheduled in six weeks as part of his treatment. In the meantime, he says he feels revived — and has even performed again recently.
It’s the kind of energy his son is happy to see.
“Being the hard worker that he is, he’s kind of the definition of hard work and perseverance,” said Joyce Jr.
“He hasn’t really missed a day of work in 44 years, so for him to be out of work right now, he’s very down in the dumps and I thought this would be kind of a great thing to put a jolt into his system.”
“And it did. It did,” Joyce Sr. interjected, nodding his head and grinning widely.