Doug Allen walked into KeyBank Center Tuesday night wearing a warm jacket over his black-and-white tux and an NRA baseball cap over his bald head. He said hello, excused himself to drop the coat and cap in the green room, and headed to the Zamboni entrance that leads to the Buffalo Sabres’ ice surface.
In about 45 minutes, Allen would walk a blue-and-yellow carpet onto the ice and do what he does about three dozen nights a year: sing the national anthem.
Allen, 53, has sung “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Sabres since the early 1990s, and he has been the team’s primary anthem singer since 2005. He cuts a sharp-dressed, goateed-man image and sings a straight-up, no-frills anthem that is instantly recognizable to fans.
They’re calling his name now – “Dougie! Dougie!” – as he chats in the Zamboni bay. On most nights, he’d be bantering with fans, and posing for pictures his with signature index-finger point — the same one he uses to punctuate the final lines of the anthem: “Land of the free, and the home of the brave.”
But tonight, he’s chatting a little more quietly and a lot more intensely. He’s talking about something that’s been on his mind — and President Trump’s mind, Colin Kaepernick’s mind, the NFL’s collective mind and, well … who hasn’t thought about this one?
Allen is talking about professional athletes protesting during the national anthem, a trend that began when Kaepernick took a knee to protest what he called the unfair treatment of black citizens in the United States and that exploded into a national debate when Trump voiced his objection to the practice. And in a broader sense, Allen is talking about what that means – and where people physically and metaphorically stand – in America.
“Obviously, there is all kinds of stuff that goes through your mind,” Allen says. “Some things you can say, and some things you shouldn’t say, because we’re all human.”
Allen makes two things quickly clear: He believes players have a right to protest, and he is pleased that it hasn’t appeared to happen during his own presentations of the anthem. (The anthem protests have been prevalent in the National Football League, but not the National Hockey League.)
“In one sense, they accomplished something by bringing this discussion out,” Allen said. “The discussion has been overshadowed by the kneeling at the football games and the debates that happened about the kneeling …
“They’ve lost the point of the kneel and just caused controversy.”
Though the national anthem is intended to be a uniting symbol, it often is not. The lyrics were written first as a poem in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer. But “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as it was later named, didn’t actually become a national anthem until an act of Congress made it so in 1931.
It took more than a century of debate, consideration and comparisons against rival compositions (“America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle” among them) for the song to become the anthem.
Marc Ferris, author of “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem,” said the song always has had a political tinge to it.
“It’s so amazing to me how the flag is just a piece of cloth, right?” he said. “The song is just a bunch of lyrics and a melody. But the emotions are just tied into it. It’s just amazing. It’s incredible. It’s complicated.”
But even Ferris, who devoted years studying the anthem to write his book, is surprised by the controversy around it.
“Journalists ask me questions (about) the taking of the knee,” he said. “This has been unbelievable. Never could I have foreseen this. Never.”
Allen, who first learned the anthem from his second-grade music teacher when he was growing up in Gowanda, also has studied the story behind the song. When he’s singing on the ice, Allen sometimes envisions what Key observed on the night he wrote the song.
Key was aboard a ship in Baltimore Harbor and watched a battle between the Americans and British during the War of 1812. Much like “a journalist,” to borrow a descriptor used by Ferris, Key wrote what he saw on the back of a letter.
Allen tells the story: “It was an overwhelming situation for us. ... Our cannons were not able to reach out into the bay far enough to do any damage to the British fleet. And yet they could lob bombs onto us. There was a ground battle happening too. Basically, about all we could do is hunker down and hold out.”
To show they would not surrender, the Americans raised a massive flag. The “rocket’s red glare” and those bombs “bursting in air” provided the night-time illumination that Key needed to see that “our flag was still there.”
Allen keeps on by quoting the song: “Oh say, does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”
When Allen sings those final words of the first verse (there actually are four verses, but only the first is typically performed) he thinks of himself as posing a question to everyone in the arena.
“When I sing that section,” he said, “I’m asking them, and myself, ‘Do I still love my country? Is the flag still important? Is this still America that represents freedom and prosperity and all of those things that we love about our country?
“Does the flag still mean that?”
Earlier this year, a sales representative from Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which owns both the Sabres and Buffalo Bills, reached out to Jason Cordova.
A 43-year-old retired Army captain, Cordova is the owner of Finger Food Products, a Niagara Falls company that makes Original Pizza Logs. He does business with both the Bills and Sabres, and the Pegula rep had an attractive hockey opportunity for him. The Sabres have a years-long tradition of inviting veterans to stand on the ice next to Allen as he sings the anthem.
Would Cordova, as a military veteran, like to have Original Pizza Logs sponsor the program?
Cordova’s answer was an immediate yes.
“When I hear the anthem, it’s one of the sweetest sounds in all the world,” said Cordova, who still stands at attention when he hears the anthem, even if it’s audible in the distance from the Niagara Falls Air Base, which is near his business. “It immediately triggers all the thoughts of all the veterans who served before me. It triggers gratitude. Immediately. Without hesitation.”
To Cordova, the flag and the anthem still represent – to mirror Allen’s words – freedom, prosperity, and love for country. For him, like so many veterans, this is deeply rooted. Cordova’s grandfather, Joseph R. Vara, served the duration of World War II in the Army.
Vara was a father figure to Cordova, who grew up four doors from his grandfather’s house in Amherst. Vara once told his grandson that his biggest regret was turning down a field commission to become an officer.
“Papa, I’ll be an officer for you one day,” Cordova told his grandfather. He kept that promise: Cordova became an Army officer in May 1997 — six months after his grandfather died.
“That’s why the anthem and the patriotism, all of that matter,” Cordova said. “Unapologetically.”
Cordova, who provides four 100-level tickets for the veteran honored at each game, was moved by the woman who joined anthem singer Anna Heerdt for the season opener. Allen didn't perform that game; he had a musical rehearsal at his church. The veteran's name is Marian J. Morreale, and she is a 94-year-old Coast Guard veteran whose leg was amputated a year ago. During the anthem, Morreale stood.
“That was one of my most prideful moments during this whole anthem controversy,” Cordova said. “This was still going on; the Bills and other teams were still kneeling, and here is a 94-year-old woman with one leg who stood.
“I support her.”
WWII veteran and amputee Marian Morreale proudly stands for the National Anthem before tonight's Sabres game. Video Courtesy: MSG. #Sabres
Posted by 7 Eyewitness News WKBW on Thursday, October 5, 2017
The anthem protests across sports have slowed somewhat in recent weeks. Allen, like Cordova, would like to see them end altogether.
“I would like to see it stop,” Allen said. “But with the understanding that now, let’s get all you guys together and do something about it.”
Athletes, he points out, have both the money and the platform to effectively band together and create real change.
“Let’s go ahead and do something tangible and work together to address some of those things,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s like to be an African-American in this country. I never will. And so I recognize that I don’t understand what they have experienced. But I also know that in this country, we all have opportunity, we all have the ability to address a need, an issue, whatever, and to try to do something to make it better.”
When Allen ponders what athletes could do by directing their money and influence at a cause, he comes from the opposite perspective. Despite the image cast by his tux and operatic voice, he does not live a high-spending lifestyle. Allen and wife, April, live in a modest home in Hamburg with their three children, ages 20, 17 and 15. They don’t buy cable or satellite television, but rather use an antenna.
Allen works full-time as maintenance manager for the Buffalo City Mission, which provides shelter for the homeless. He’s also the worship director at Fellowship Wesleyan Church in West Seneca.
Ask Allen – who, as the National Rifle Association cap hints, is an avid hunter – about his gun collection, and he jokes, “Mine are very utilitarian. I’m poor — I can’t afford fancy guns!”
But he knows his perspective, just like those athletes, would be valuable. He grasps his name recognition in Western New York, and has occasionally, fleetingly, mulled running for office. Allen is a registered Republican; he believes in lower government spending, tax cuts, and gun owners' rights.
But right now, he has no plans to run. Plus, his gig as the Sabres’ anthem singer gives him the opportunity to promote patriotism to an arena packed with people several nights a month.
In the Zamboni bay on that recent evening, an older man wearing a Vietnam veteran cap approached Allen. The man, Tom Zak, is veteran of both the Navy and Army. He was admiring an American flag pin on Allen’s lapel.
“That’s a Secret Service pin,” Allen told him, noting the agency’s emblem in the middle of the flag.”
“Is that right?” Zak asked.
“It was given to me by a member of the Secret Service many years ago,” Allen said. “He came down and introduced himself while I was in the penalty box and he gave me two of them. I’ve appreciated them ever since.”
Their conversation was soon interrupted by a music booming through the arena sound system. The Sabres and their opponents, the Washington Capitals, were taking the ice. Allen, then, had to take the ice as well. It was then he met the veteran whom he would honor that evening, Brittney Bake, a Navy veteran who served two decades and was deployed four times.
Bake, it turns out, was Zak’s daughter. She was joined by her mother, Sally Zak; her husband, Nathan, who is also a Navy veteran; and their 12-year-old twin sons, Noah and Zak.
Bake, when asked off the ice about the wave of protests, said, “I served 20 years so they have the right to do what they want, but I’ll always stand for the anthem.”
Which is exactly what she did on the ice that evening, with her hand held steady over her heart. When Allen sang the final words of the anthem — Home of the brave – he pointed directly at her. And the crowd roared.