From the music booth, a DJ is born


(This article was originally published on Oct. 7, 2020.)

From the moment the doors open until the last fan leaves the building after a well contested BCHL game, the game-day disc jockey plays an integral role in creating a great atmosphere for players and fans. I have been in the role of DJ for 15 out of the Coquitlam Express’ 20 seasons of existence.

Following my last article profiling the James brothers and their photo skills, a number of people mentioned to me that my story is worth telling. In Tomorrow Never Dies, James Bond says to his nemesis Elliot Carver that the job of the press is to “give people what they want”. You have been warned.

In the beginning

My true roots in game-day DJ-ing actually started in the mid-1990s when I lived in Alberta’s cold north, Grande Prairie. Some high school friends and I played music for the North Stars, which was the junior team that played out of Johnny MacDonald Arena. If I only knew then what I know now.

I will mention at this point that a lot of this article deals with how the DJ job has changed in the last 25 years. Back then, we used an audio cassette ghetto blaster connected to the arena’s sound system through the 3.5 mm headphone jack. Pre-game prep involved setting our combined tape collections to just the right spot on all the songs we wanted to play during the game, which was a truly tedious process.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy this experience very much and was happy to leave the volunteer role after only a couple of games.

Fast forward about seven years. I moved to the Lower Mainland on my birthday in 2001. My now-wife, Tracy, had just accepted a job as the role of Community Relations Director with the Coquitlam Express following their first season. Realizing I wouldn’t see her virtually every weekend while she was working at Express games, I decided it may be in my best interest to volunteer and help out in any way I could.

Something special begins in Coquitlam

My first volunteer position with the Express was actually in the role of game day host or security as it was aptly miscalled back then. Former Express Owner and President Darcy Rota and I would go into the arena prior to the doors opening and ensure it was fully empty before cracking the doors for that evening’s Express tilt.

The very first game-day DJ with for the Express was none other than 2011 BCHL broadcaster of the year and current play-by-play announcer Eddie Gregory.

Near the end of my first year with the Express, he couldn’t make it to a game and Tracy suggested since I loved music so much, I should give the DJ role a try. Eddie trained me for a grand total of one game and I was off to the races.

Back then, the music booth in Coquitlam was in the foyer of the arena in what is now the volunteer’s room. Music was played out of a single tray compact disc player in a sound tower that still had the precursor cassette player and AM/FM radio tuner.

The view from this room was horrible, due to fans obstructing the view and a yellow protective rail. Visibility was limited from the visitor’s blue line to the glass behind the net, but we made do.

My first season as the full-time Express DJ began the following year when Eddie started his broadcast career. The team bought a revolutionary five-disc carousel CD player in the offseason and the new tool instantly made my job easier. A CD with the goal music was left in the sound tower’s single CD tray and life was good.

This setup served me well until 2004-05, which was the season before the team moved to Burnaby, and I bought my first laptop to play music from. That changed everything. Gone were the days of skipping CD tracks and changing CDs in players, nevermind the fear of running out of music during a game. With my vast music collection ripped onto the hard drive of the laptop, life just got considerably easier.

The Burnaby years

Following the team’s relocation to Burnaby to start the 2005-06 season, I really began to hit my stride and the DJ I am today really started to take shape. It was around 2006-07 when then-Express assistant coach Adam Hayduk introduced me to Simon Fraser University men’s hockey president and general manager Jeff Dubois.

Both were impressed with the music played at Burnaby Express games and thought that I would fit into the college hockey game well and thus my career with SFU Hockey began. Of note, SFU was also the first team to pay me for my services.

Things went well for a couple of seasons as I was balancing my Express schedule with the SFU Hockey schedule, but soon I started to dream of playing music for a much larger audience.

Jump ahead to 2009 and with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics approaching, I knew that the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants DJ, Josh Barkoff, was likely destined to do something music-wise for the Games. I had met Josh professionally before and started to buzz a bit in his ear my interest in learning game-day music for the Giants at the Pacific Coliseum.

Josh took me up on my offer and over the next two seasons, I had the opportunity to DJ about eight Giants games, a few at the fabled Rink on Renfrew and a couple out at the brand new Langley Events Centre, while Rogers Arena was used to host the Olympic hockey games.

Josh was instrumental in introducing me to the world of music editing and the world of Winamp as my base software music program. It was with the Giants where I met and had the opportunity to work with, legendary Vancouver Canucks public address announcer John Ashbridge, a true divinity when it comes to game-day.

A dream comes true

Not long after my career with the Giants began, I received a telephone call from the newly formed Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League. They wanted to know if I was interested in commuting out to Abbotsford to play music for the Heat, which happened to be the farm team of my beloved Calgary Flames.

To say I was thrilled is the understatement of the century. Here I was being asked to DJ hockey games for my NHL team’s farm club. Without travelling directly to Calgary to the Saddledome. this was going to be the closest representation of the real thing for me.

I played music at about a dozen Heat games in a two-year period. These games in the Fraser Valley stand out to me as the highest level of hockey games I have ever played music at and serve as a definite career highlight.

Following the Express’s departure from Burnaby after the 2009-10 campaign, I took a bit of a hiatus from the BCHL to pursue other opportunities. In the summer of 2010, tired of the long breaks between hockey seasons, I pursued an opportunity in the Western Lacrosse Association for the Burnaby Lakers. Finally, I found a sport similar to hockey where my music skills fit the narrative of the game.

It was during the 2014-15 BCHL season when an old friend came calling. The Coquitlam Express needed a DJ to fill in for some games after Christmas in the second half of the season. Unlike in the past, the team was now paying its DJs.

This was also the first year of the new ownership group as Rota went out on top after the 2014 Fred Page Cup win and sold the team. Also new to me was the additional opportunity to play music during the media timeouts. Also of note was the new location of the media booth, at centre ice on the concourse, and despite some visual impairments from structural steel, a much better place to watch the game and work from.

DJ becomes music coordinator

It was during the 2015-16 season when I assumed the title of music coordinator for the Express and began to work a bit closer with the game operations team and management group in an attempt to grow the fan base.

Previously I had carte blanche with anything music-wise, but this freedom was coming to an end and changing. It is worth mentioning here that change is something that I have experienced a ton of over my career and thrive on. New ideas, innovation, and trying new things have always been a forte of mine.

In continuing with the theme of changing the way I deliver music to fans, my long-time faithful companion Winamp was retired. Following in the footsteps of BCHLNetwork managing editor Brian Wiebe, who moonlights playing music for the Port Moody Panthers of the Pacific Junior Hockey League, I started to use Play It Cartwall as my main music player for hockey games. With several different columns and colour choices for music carts, my laptop on game night began to look a lot more professional.

I plugged along with the Express for a few more seasons playing an integral role in their game night production team. Following the 2018-19 season, I stepped away from the club to pursue different opportunities that presented themselves to me.

I always wanted to DJ games in an arena five minutes from my house, and the reigning PJHL champion North Vancouver Wolf Pack happened to fit the bill in that regard.

With the 2020-21 BCHL season approaching, I again am feeling the tug and lure of the Coquitlam Express. I really have missed the team and the great game-night experience there. But most of all I have missed the people and the fans. They are always the ones who I want to please the most, ever since I became a DJ more than 20 years ago.