Courtesy Las Vegas Wranglers
Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 | 2:38 p.m.
I was summoned to hear Paul Villaluz's national anthem audition at the Orleans Arena sometime in 2003. Leaving behind frenzied activities held captive in the windowless Las Vegas Wranglers offices wedged beneath the arena's eastern concrete risers, I walked briskly to the top of section 101. I looked down at Villaluz, gave a thumbs up, and he performed "The Star Spangled Banner" to an empty 7,000 seat arena.
With the first-ever Wranglers hockey game on a three-man rush to the goal, we were constructing a fabric of constant visible and invisible threads that would build a nightly fan experience. The performance of the national anthem is a first impression, and we wanted the song done as originally written, and if possible, by a performer that could become a tradition.
Villaluz completed his hold of the word "free" and I applauded. I believe I shouted something over-the-top positive, though I can't recall what exactly. I went to meet him, and told him he had the non-paying job. Then I asked him if he had a tuxedo for every time he would sing. He did.
Villaluz has kept count. He was the Wranglers' official anthem singer for 229 games and I'm certain if he said it, he's right. After all, he readily knows that the team's winning percentage for the nights he performed the anthem is .640. He tells me he has it broken down by seasons at home, if I'm interested.
This is how much cares about it.
It is said that the only constant is change, and so people have to go away. Villaluz moved, just weeks ago, to another time zone. Sadly, it's a distance that makes his commute to Wranglers games impossible.
In most any pursuit, things rarely just fall into place and stick. Early decisions often are overturned with new adjustments. But this one, Villaluz, stuck because what fans saw in the public was what we saw behind the scenes.
Personally, Villaluz became a welcomed sight for sore eyes. No matter the challenges of any day that led to a 7:05 p.m. puck drop, there was peace in our Groundhog Day when Villaluz walked down the player hallway with his tuxedo's garment bag flung over his shoulder before a game. Then there was the simple pick-me-up of a passing "hello" or a silly 30-word joke behind the curtain while he awaited his cue. Our paths would cross ever so often after he had changed into his Wranglers jersey to grab his seat and enjoy what had drawn him to the team in the first place:
"It always rankles me when I hear people say there's no pro hockey in town," Villaluz told me by phone this morning when I called to tell him thanks for all of those years. "Politicians always say there are no pro sports in town. Give me a break."
He is one of us.
He reminisced that just before his anthem cue players would let him know if his bow tie was a little crooked. Or that some of the guys would remind him of current winning streaks that mirrored his performing streaks. These are little moments that we don't see, because they are his moments, and they are all really kind of cool.
And then, he went onto to tell me this: He always felt he represented the Wranglers because fans knew who he was and they treated him so well, and so, he was measured in his fandom. And though the organization never asked, he was careful to not be the fan that could impede the enjoyment of the game for others, though he assured me through wickedly funny anecdotes he was completely capable.
Sometimes it takes just a little awareness and not a lot of work to be good. Villaluz is most certainly aware. As well as appreciative, appropriate, funny, friendly, modest, and perhaps the best representation for which any professional sports team could hope.
In Villaluz fashion, he pivoted my thank you call into his thank you call, and provided a message of support and celebration for an achievement of a tenth season in what some could characterize as a caustic market for professional stick-and-ball sports.
And so, to prevent another gracious Villaluz pivot, I will put into a blog post what every arena public address man would say after Villaluz's utterly professional, humble and appropriate performance of the national anthem before 229 Las Vegas Wranglers' games.
Thank you, Paul.
Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.