Blue Jackets season preview: Anthem singer Leo Welsh

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

I wanted to walk into my meeting with Blue Jackets anthem singer and greet him with a rousing, “LEO!” But I didn't.

It wouldn't have been the first time it happened, as you might guess. The longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer has dealt with this quirk of his local celebrity for a few years now, the result of the tradition among fans at games shouting his name after he is introduced.

“I have met every one of the 5,000 people who started it individually,” Welsh joked in a recent interview.

Welsh said he's not sure exactly when the tradition began, but he said he initially tried to squelch it by starting to sing immediately after he was announced. He said his then-boss, Director of Event Management Kimberly Kershaw, told him to wait “just a second to see if we like it,” Welsh recalled. “Of course, she was right.”

A vocal music major at Ohio University, Welsh was living in Columbus and doing some singing for, among others, Opera Columbus, when, in 2003, his wife informed him the Blue Jackets were holding auditions for singers to perform the anthem. The first time he performed the “Star-Spangled Banner” in front of people by himself was for a preseason game in that 2003 season.

“I thought I was auditioning to sing it once, which would have been awesome,” Welsh said.

Welsh and Libby Turnow were selected to be the Jackets' anthem singers, after the team had featured a new singer for its games during its first few seasons. They shared duties until 2006 when Turnow left Columbus for Nashville, and the team asked Welsh if he'd be interested in being the every-game anthem singer.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I keep track of what my [win-loss] record is. So yeah, I'll take every night,'” Welsh said, laughing but not joking. (“My record's getting much better these past few seasons,” he added.)

What has endeared Welsh to Blue Jackets fans — and what scored him the job in the first place — is his straightforward, unadorned approach to performing the anthem.

“I just decided I was going to give them what I enjoy,” Welsh said. “I don't care for adding extra flair. The singers that do that, that's their choice. But the song is written down on paper, [so I] just sing the song like it is on the page, without trying to sound like an opera singer singing the national anthem. There's a middle ground there, and I try to just be a guy with a trained voice singing it.”

Given his low-key approach, you might not be surprised to learn that Welsh was mystified by the flap in Nashville during the Predators' appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals last season, when one of the team's regular anthem singers publicly voiced displeasure when the team invited country music stars to sing the anthem before games.

“I was just pretty shocked that someone would have a stance like that. I work for the Blue Jackets. It's their show. The Jackets can turn the switch whenever they want,” Welsh said. “If they wanted Rascal Flatts to sing opening night I'd be like, ‘OK, they've sold a couple more records than me, I get it. Do I still get my tickets?'”

Welsh also prefers to stay out of the fray regarding recent protests held during the anthem at sporting events.

“I respect people and their honest convictions, but that's not my view at all,” he said. Were a Blue Jackets player to opt to protest in such a manner, Welsh said, “I'll let [Head Coach John Tortorella] handle that. He's well above my pay grade.”

As the Blue Jackets' home opener nears (Friday, Oct. 6 vs. the New York Islanders), Welsh said the atmosphere for opening night is still special. That he's made many friends and met a collection of celebrities and other notable personalities makes the gig fun, but he's ready to sing more often during the NHL playoffs.

“I've got my schedule clear through the end of June,” he said. “And even into the first week of July, should a parade need to be scheduled.”