Calgary

The man behind the Calgary Flames organ since 1988

Willy Joosen, a well-known jazz pianist in Calgary, tells us why he gets fired up each time the Flames take the ice.

Well-known jazz pianist Willy Joosen tells us why he gets fired up each time the Flames take the ice

The man behind the Calgary Flames organ

6 years ago
Duration 1:00
Willy Joosen has been pumping up fans since 1988

He's about to turn 61 in March.

And for the last 29 of those years, Willy Joosen has been sitting behind the organ when the Flames play the 'Dome.

"We won the cup my first year," he said proudly, referring to the 1989 playoff run where Calgary took down the Montreal Canadiens to snag the NHL's ultimate prize.

There's a feeling the melodic hooks booming throughout the arena help the team succeed, something Joosen says coaches have mentioned in the past.

When he's not playing organ for the Flames, Willy Joosen also plays piano at different shows and theatre performances around Calgary. (Mike Symington/CBC)

"It's such a cool gig," he said from behind the Korg Triton organ that often prompts enthusiastic "Go, Flames, Go" chants from roughly 20,000 fans.

"Yeah, it's cheerleading. And hopefully me leading with the right song."

The gig was passed to the longtime pianist when the Flames still played in the Stampede Corral.

"I got to play one period in the Corral. Boy, that is unreal.…That is a perfect venue. So tight and crowded and people on either side of you," he said.

A panel of "hugely-marked up" Plexiglas was the only thing stopping pucks from striking, but it was tough to see the game.

"It's that or get beaned a thousand times a game," laughed Joosen.

Early musical roots

Born in Holland, his dad played euphonium and tuba in the symphony when he came to Canada.

Joosen came over when he was one year old, but his parents always spoke Dutch in the home.

"Kindergarten ... it was like I hit a wall. Nobody could understand me and I couldn't understand them. Mom says I just zipped up for a year and came out English after that."

Calgary Flames organ player Willy Joosen has seen the Saddledome undergo many changes since starting with the team in 1988. (Mike Symington/CBC)

He went to Currie Elementary and started taking music lessons around the age of six, but gravitated towards the piano.

He liked doing things his way, but was taught the classics — like Bach.

"It's always been a passion," said Joosen. 

He liked to entertain his pals with the Charlie Brown Christmas song. The best advice he ever received was from
a jazz pianist, who played with greats like Chet Baker and told him that it's all about synchronizing strong beats and tones.

Joosen grew up in Calgary, and ended up gigging at Oliver's Old Bailey downtown above Lucifer's. He would play Moon River while disco pumped under the floor below. 

He would play in hotel lobbies or theatre projects, like ATP's Sweeney Todd or Leader of the Pack at Stage West. He also just signed up to perform in the Stampede Grandstand Show.

"And right after that, summer of '88, I got the call," said Joosen, adding it was the right place, right time.

Keeping with the times

Inspiration struck in 1993. A visiting organist, who got booed because he was from San Jose, taught him to keep a binder and search for new songs.

Now he keeps his song list current, as do many other organ players that are part of the NHL circuit. They've kept in contact over the years, sharing songs that tend to be real crowd pleasers.

Harvey the Hound also plays a part in ramping up the crowd, sometimes helping the crowd chant "Go, Flames, Go." (Mike Symington/CBC)

He also keeps current with help from his sub, Warren Tse, who plays organ for the Hitmen.

The goal is a good call and response, but that means rearranging songs on the fly. He played the Game of Thrones theme on a request after watching a quick YouTube video. 

"You never know how long a whistle breaks or how often," said Joosen. "So you find the hook and get some participation going."

Over the years Joosen has seen many changes: new seating in the Saddledome, the organ moving around the arena and producers who work behind the scenes for a smooth game.

"I really love it," he said. 

Joosen was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 1995 and went through treatment. While the chemotherapy drugs affected his energy, he always asked himself, "What else are you going to do?"

He has no plans to retire and gets into a pre-game groove about 90 minutes before the puck drops.

The best part of the job? Keeping 20,000 people focused on the game, he says. 

The worst part — losing. Because after all, he was a Flames fan years before he sat behind the organ.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Warren Tse as Willy Joosen's son, not sub.
    Feb 06, 2017 11:45 AM MT

With files from Mike Symington

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