Mark Donnelly: Q&A with the slimming anthem singer

On singing for (and with) the hometown crowd,losing weight and the role of a good tailor.

Mark Donnelly: Anthem singer

Born: 02/29/60
Hometown: White Rock, B.C.
Voice: Tenor
NHL Appearances
Last Season: 26
Children: 9
Top Weight: 370 lbs
Current Weight: 197 lbs

Should the Vancouver Canucks again advance to the Stanley Cup final this spring, expect to hear a lot from Mark Donnelly. The singer, conductor, music teacher, recreational hockey player, father of nine and—as of January—real estate agent, is known as Mr. O Canada for his rousing renditions of the national anthem at Rogers Arena, broadcast coast to coast on Hockey Night in Canada. But while you’ll hear more, you’ll see less of him, though. Over the past 18 months, he’s lost a stunning 173 pounds using the controversial hCG diet, which involves hormone injections. But don’t worry: as he explained to Canadian Business managing editor Michael McCullough, it hasn’t affected his booming voice.

How did you become a singer?

My parents always thought music was important. They weren’t particularly musical themselves, but they thought we should all have music lessons. I took piano until Grade 8, then started playing trombone. I thought I was going to become a high-school band teacher until I actually went to UBC to study music, where I had a terrible trombone audition. I kind of fi nagled my way into having a voice audition just to save face. I’d sung the lead in our highschool musicals in Grade 11 and 12. It turned out they needed tenors that year at UBC.

When did you start performing professionally?

After I finished UBC, I auditioned for the Vancouver Chamber Choir and got into that. I sang mostly early music, 16th-century music. I realized I could sing opera. I wouldn’t call myself the best singer in the world, or even the best tenor in Vancouver, but I just stuck with it and tried to be honest every time I performed, which is maybe the most important thing.

How did your relationship with the Canucks come about?

I was in Pennsylvania conducting, and I sang with [the Wilkes- Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL] for a year. The Syracuse Crunch—the Canucks’ farm team— came to town and [former Canucks captain] Stan Smyl was the coach. It was like meeting one of my idols from when I was a kid. The next time they came to town, I already knew I was moving back to Vancouver, and I asked him if I could sing for the Canucks, and he told me who to talk to. That was spring 2000. I wound up doing four games the next season, and gradually did more and more games.

Are you a big Canucks fan?

I’ve been a fan since before they were in the NHL. I still have the Shoppers Drug Mart calendar from their inaugural season. Pat Quinn was on that team.

How do you prepare on game day?

If I’m diligent about it, I do some warm-up in the morning; in the afternoon I like to do some exercise, either on the bike or with kettle bells. My goal is to get to the rink 45 minutes to an hour before the game. I do a little bit of warm-up when I get there— some runs and arpeggios. I’ll watch the Canucks warm up, then I’ll head out to the broadcast trucks for some heavy-duty warm-up, up to a high C; you want to warm up past what you need. And I joke around with the people there. You don’t want to take anything so seriously that it aff ects your performance.

When did the tradition of letting the audience sing a few lines begin?

That started in the playoffs against Detroit in 2002. The first game that I sang they asked me to swing a towel around, which I wasn’t comfortable with. I swung the mic around instead, and then the towel got wrapped around my arm. The next game Brian Keating, who was the associate director for the broadcast, and I started talking, and somehow it came up in that discussion that I should hold the mic up to the crowd. All along, I’ve tried to sing it so it’s easy to sing along to, no speeding up or slowing down—so I held the mic out. There was a little dip in the volume until people realized what was happening, and then it just roared up.

You also got to sing at the 2010 Olympics. What was that experience like?

During the Games, Teck Resources—the official metal supplier— set up a special event at their offices to celebrate the first gold medal on Canadian soil, Alex Bilodeau’s. Everybody who had anything important to do with the Olympics was there, and the Bilodeau family was there. Doing the French part, just belting it out, was a real affirmation of being Canadian. That was the fi rst gold medal. We had no idea it was going to be the start of a record-setting gold medal performance for Canada.

During the past year and a half, you’ve lost a dramatic amount of weight. Are you confident that you can keep it off?

Between the last two rounds of treatment, I hit upon what foods are right for me, and also the kind of exercise and when I do it. I’ve found what works for my body, but everybody’s different. I would like to help more people who are like me. I’m not a nutritionist. But I’ve done something that a lot of people only dream of doing. It’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Still, it must get costly for your wardrobe.

I have a very good tailor who’s had to take in a few things. Before this last round, I knew I was going to lose another 35 to 40 pounds. I had to buy an overcoat, so I bought one that was really tight. Now it fits.

Has losing the weight affected your voice?

Not directly. The only thing it’s really affected is my support. If you have some girth, all you have to do is let your weight go and then pull it back up, and you’ll have the support for singing. This last round I really lost that support. I’ve gone from a 62-inch waist to a 37-inch waist. So I actually have to concentrate more on my breath for singing. I had to think of my abdominal muscles relaxing, and then contracting them and having them push against the diaphragm. I have to think about that more now. Things that I was singing a year ago I have to take fewer breaths on because I can ration my singing breath more easily than I was able to do before. And the fact is, I can sing much longer phrases now than I used to be able to do.

Do you ever get tired of singing “O Canada”?

My dad was from northern Ontario. He always instilled in us a real pride in being Canadian. When I first started singing the anthem, my thoughts were always to sing it in a way that my father would like it to be sung— not just the sound, but also the intention. If you sing anything with intention, it really is hard to get tired of it.