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Behind the music

Musician Mike Kenney is a master puppeteer disguised as an organist

Thursday, 08.01.2009 / 2:26 PM / Features
By Derek Jory
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Behind the music
There’s less than a minute to play in regulation and the Canucks are trailing by a goal with a face-off upcoming in the opposing zone.

Tension is high throughout GM Place, yet for some reason, instead of biting your nails while sweating profusely at the edge of your seat, you’re blissfully clapping your hands and stomping your feet.

Unless Vancouver scores there is no reason to celebrate, but the mood is infectious. Despite the home team in need of a quick goal, everyone seems to be having the time of their lives.

Mike Kenney is one of the people to thank for that.

As the official organist of the Vancouver Canucks, Kenney is like a master puppeteer; he can sway the packed crowd whichever way he likes, all with a few simple keystrokes.

The 39-year-old Ontario born musician has been in this position of power for the past seven seasons, ecstatically playing away from his perch high above the ice.

This may come as a shock to you, but the organ music heard throughout the game does not come bopping out of a CD.

“A lot of people think that it’s a canned recorded organ,” laughed Kenney. “I don’t know whether to take that as a good thing or a bad thing, you can take it anyway you want.”

Kenney landed the Canucks gig back in 2000 through some friends in the music scene. He had to audition for the role but with a background that includes studying music at Humber College before working as a cruise ship pianist for a few years, Kenney was at a distinct advantage over his competition.

He understood the finer points of keyboard instruments and also knew how to please a crowd – two major prerequisites for the job he scored.

“I came in with as much enthusiasm and as many ideas as I could and I guess I was good enough because I got the job and I’ve been here ever since. When people ask I say that I just kind of lucked into it.”

Luck may have helped him get the job, but skill has helped Kenney secure it. He admittedly had a tough go of things in the beginning before getting a feel for what music works in certain situations.

“It’s been a bit of a learning experience over the past seven seasons, I think in the past I tried too much funny stuff in trying to be unique I guess. I’ve found over the years that it’s the traditional things that most of us have heard all our lives that are the things that work best.

“Contemporary music doesn’t sound as good, so the traditional chants, things that get people’s hands clapping, stomping their feet and cheering, those are really the best things to play.”

An example of this includes Hava Nagila, a song that gets the crowd going regardless of the score.

“Occasionally I’ll put in something that might have a bit more gravity to it, something in a minor key, a little piece by (Johann Sebastian) Bach or something from Star Wars if some added intensity is needed.

“I think overall it’s a joyful experience being at a hockey game and the organ should reflect it.”

Kenney is part of the game entertainment crew, a cast of four synced souls whose teamwork creates a memorable event experience for those in attendance.

During a game, Kenney is on a headset with PA announcer John Ashbridge, DJ Dave Levison and coordinator Cam Goudreau, who calls the shots and tells everybody what to do and when to do it.

Still, Kenney follows the game as intensely as anyone else, this ensures that his music reflects the situation.

“There are certain things that you want to play when, for instance, the Canucks are looking at a scoring opportunity with a face-off in the offensive zone. Then The Charge always works.”

The Canucks organist by night, Kenney, who took up the guitar at age 10 and piano in high school, is also heavily involved in music during the day and on non-game days.

He plays in nightclubs, takes part in recording sessions and teaches piano and guitar out of his home. Kenney is also a founding member of The Modelos, a Vancouver rock ‘n’ roll band.

Kenney’s wife, Joyita Rubin, is also in a band. Rubin makes up one-forth of Vancouver’s Onward, Voyageur, a group whose members describe themselves as “Disgruntled, exhausted, aging parents who will only play live sporadically as we can't stay up late anymore.”

Not surprisingly, their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Alberta is starting to plug away at the piano and guitar as she prepares to take over for dad one-day.

That’s assuming Kenney ever gives up the position he loves so dearly.

“It’s a really great job for any organist or keyboardist who loves hockey – when you combine two of your favorite things you’re guaranteed to have a good time.”




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