Cavernous TD Garden was empty, the ice gone, underfoot now just a long slab of concrete. In the darkness, a spotlight and a microphone.
One by one, they approached, collected themselves and let fly:
“Ooooohhhh, say can you SEEEEEEE...”
Thank you, that was great, a woman said as each finished a rendition of the national anthem, hoping for a regular gig at Bruins games. Next.
For some 40 years, one man was known for singing the anthem for the Bruins, the black-and-gold-tuxedoed, fist-pumping Rene Rancourt. By the time he retired at the end of last season, nearing 80, Rancourt was as much a part of Boston’s sporting landscape as Heartbreak Hill or the Green Monster.
His departure brought a tidal wave of applicants to take his place. More than 600 hopefuls sent video auditions to the Bruins. By Wednesday night, the field had been whittled to 52 finalists, and they lined up for their one chance to prove they could step into his shoes. And as the candidates came forward, they did so with the knowledge they had to find a way to win fans’ hearts from a man singularly beloved.
“Obviously,” said Shanna Jackman, who once recorded music in Nashville and now is a public safety dispatcher in Uxbridge, “Rene is a legend.”
Among the hopefuls Wednesday were several amateur musicians and a local morning radio host. A voice coach, and a pair of friends who had been performing together since high school. There was a 10-year-old girl from New Hampshire, and not one but two math teachers, and a woman who’d left her 2½-week-old baby at home in Springfield just to be here.
Each waited nervously — at least one ducked into a nearby bathroom to warm up her vocal cords — for a turn at the microphone.
One of the first to perform was Amy-Jayne McCabe, a Medford mother of two who, like plenty of others, wasn’t sure she could even remember anybody singing the anthem at Bruins games before Rancourt.
A native of Rutland, Vt., McCabe had grown up with music and toured for a while with the USO. She’d once sung the national anthem at a Nashville Predators game and had always hoped to deliver it at a Boston sports event. But after becoming a mother — she has a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter — life just sort of put that plan on pause.
“I always said I’d do it, and I never did,” she says. “And 16 years later, here I am.”
Singing the anthem for sporting events doesn’t bring much in the way of riches — sometimes a couple free tickets, or what a Bruins official called a “very small stipend’’ — and it’s not generally a track to stardom; the best chance to become famous singing the anthem, one performer pointed out, was by flubbing it badly.
But there is some not-quite-explainable draw, standing in front of a packed stadium or arena, belting out the land of the free.
“When you’re singing, and you feel the energy of the crowd, there’s just nothing like it,” said Jackman.
On Wednesday, they arrived at a makeshift stage, each bringing a subtle twist to one of the country’s most recognizable songs.
Chris Cote, 54, a courier and musician from Watertown, was relatively new to the anthem but found the setting familiar.
“It’s not the first time I’ve performed in this room,” he said. “My band, The Upper Crust, opened for Aerosmith a couple nights, years ago.”
For others, the heft of Rancourt’s legend — and the pressure to provide a unique flair — seemed considerable.
“I think I got a little carried away,” fretted Jerry Kates, a math teacher at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, in the moments after he’d concluded a particularly lively rendition.
“My wife had said to me, ‘Don’t be so dramatic.’ But I get carried away.”
On it went, one performance after another. All seemed to do well in their own way. The Bruins say they won’t try to find just one person to replace Rancourt, at least not right away, but rather a stable of people who are available to sing.
As the evening wore on, the room emptied out and, finally, only one singer remained.
Whitney Doucet, a 27-year-old voice teacher and musician from Fitchburg, had the honor of being the night’s final performer, and after delivering a polished rendition —
“Now,” she said, as a crew of workers deconstructed the makeshift stage behind her, “we wait and cross our fingers.”
As for the man who started it all?
Reached by phone this week while vacationing in Albany, N.Y., Rancourt jokingly expressed relief that the Bruins hadn’t asked him to serve as a judge for the audition — seeing the nervous performers would have made him nervous by proxy, he said — while adding that he’s preparing for some mixed emotions as the NHL season nears.
“I know down the line when the games are actually back on, when it’s in-season, it’s going to affect me, especially when I turn on the TV and John Doe or Jane Doe is singing,” he said.
But he also had a message for his would-be replacements.
“I wish them longevity,” he said. “May the better singer win.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.