25 years on, infamous O Canada performance remains part of CFL folklore
Botched anthem during Vegas expansion opener brought singer fame, marriage
It has brought Dennis Casey Park plenty of fame and notoriety and even led to him meeting his wife.
Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Park botching "O Canada" before the Las Vegas Posse's first CFL home game July 16, 1994. Park definitely remembers his infamous performance but wasn't aware this was the silver jubilee of his rendition — which was sung to the tune of "O Christmas Tree" — until approached by The Las Vegas Review-Journal, which published a story about it Monday.
"I had no idea because I'm ageless," Park said during a telephone interview from Shanghai. "Yes, I screwed it up in the beginning, but it wasn't a focal point in my life.
"I went back and made it right and I can't thank everyone in Canada enough and tell them how much I appreciated their support. After I did it, I needed their support because it was a big deal to go back up there and make it right. I tell people the story, I've never hidden from it."
WATCH | 25 years ago: Dennis Park butchers O Canada at CFL game in Las Vegas
'Can you do it?'
The expansion Posse opened their first — and only — CFL season with a 32-26 road win over the Sacramento Gold Miners and were scheduled to play their home opener eight days later against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Moments before the opening kickoff, Park — who performed at the 1988 Seoul Olympics — took to centre field with superstar Dionne Warwick to perform the Canadian and American national anthems in 40 C conditions before just 12,213 spectators at 31,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium.
Las Vegas won the game 32-22 en route to a 5-13 finish that year. But the result was completely overshadowed by Park, a performer and producer in Asia who said he'd been approached by the Posse just the day before.
"I'd just returned the day before from Japan where I'd been performing for a few months," Park said. "I got a call initially to sing the anthem and assumed it was "The Star Spangled Banner."
"I was very tired . . . and ended up saying yes. They called back a few hours later and I realized it was 'O Canada' and I said, 'You know guys, I'm not familiar with '[O Canada].' I've heard it a lot but never sung it.' They said, 'Oh, well, you agreed and we put it out in the press that you and Dionne Warwick [would perform national anthems at the game]. Can you do it? Can you do it? Will you do it, please?' "
Undeterred, Park received a tape of the music and the words and got down to work.
'Should I stop and apologize'
"I had it down fairly well or I wouldn't have gone out there," he said.
But moments before Park was to perform, he saw the on-field director signal there was no music. Park knew immediately he was in trouble.
"I'd never done '[O Canada]' before and I needed the music to follow me up," he said. "If the music had played, I would've been fine.
"So I started to sing and the first note came out and then I got an echo right in my ear. I've sung in stadiums all over and it [the echo] hit me and I got off and I was hoping to get back on. It's not a long anthem and I was like, 'Should I stop and apologize,' and by the time I decided something the song was almost over. So I went through it and that was that."
Park, who splits his time between Shanghai and Las Vegas these days, also knew his rendition was nowhere near correct.
"Of course I knew," he said. "I knew that very second and was trying to figure out what to do.
"The big deal was the music and secondly was where I was singing. The echo came right back at me and knocked me off and because I didn't have the music to guide me through I couldn't get back on."
Predictably, Park's performance caused a furor on both sides of the border.
The CFL was deluged with faxes and phone calls from irate Canadians and the office of Prime Minister Jean Chretien sent a letter to the Posse. Owner Nick Mileti responded with a written apology.
Even American Vice-President Al Gore chimed in. During a visit to Ottawa, Gore told reporters, "I was certainly glad to see that the U.S. football players reacted so strongly and better than the singer."
Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who began his illustrious CFL career with Las Vegas, said he learned of the controversy after the game. As an American-based franchise, the Posse had no Canadians but their roster did include established league veterans like linebacker Greg Battle, defensive lineman Jeff Cummins and running back Jon Volpe.
"I didn't know at the time he was making a huge mistake," said Calvillo, pro football's all-time passing leader [79,816 yards] who's about to enter his first season as a Montreal Carabins assistant head coach in the university ranks. "I was just focusing on getting ready to play.
"After the game, I realized what had happened. During the following week, we had a lot of questions regarding the song. It was quite embarrassing for the Las Vegas Posse."
Less than two weeks later, Park earned a shot at redemption. On July 28, he performed "O Canada" perfectly in Hamilton prior to the Tiger-Cats' game against Ottawa. Other flawless performances across the country followed.
"I was happy I was able to correct it," Park said. "But it's not a marker in my life.
"I've actually had many good experiences after that happened."
WATCH | Dennis Park redeems himself singing O Canada:
Like meeting his future wife.
"About three years later I was in Shanghai for meetings to produce and direct a documentary," he said. "I was with a friend and she asked me if she could take me to dinner and I said yes.
"So they sat us with another couple that we didn't know. The guy kept staring at me but each time I looked at him he diverted his eyes.
"Finally I looked at him and he said, 'Excuse me, may I ask you a question?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Are you anthem man?' I said, 'Get out of here. This is my first time in Shanghai, you're Chinese, how do you know this?' He never saw "O Christmas Tree," he saw the good one [in Hamilton]. He said, 'My father works in Toronto and you were on all the TV shows, you're very famous.' I said, 'Yes, I am.' "
The next day, Park said he called the man about seeing more of Shanghai with him and his female companion. After failing to reach the man, Park contacted the woman, who revealed they weren't together and she agreed to go out.
Park and Heng Xu became a couple in 2011 and were married 4 ½ years ago.
"I would've never met her unless I screwed up 'O Canada,' " he said. "But there are more stories."
Like being approached by five Canadians in a taxi one night in Shanghai. Shortly after entering the vehicle to give the driver directions to a club, Park faced the question yet again: 'Are you anthem man?'
"They were all sailors on a Canadian ship docked nearby," he said. "They invited me on to the ship, I was there for like 16 hours.
"I sang 'O Canada,' they raised the flag, I had dinner with the captain. I took pictures and people called their relatives and I talked to them. A lot of stuff with 'O Canada' has happened in China, it's very strange."
So too was being called over by another group of Canadians at an outdoor bar near Park's Shanghai home.
"They also knew me from 'O Canada,' " he said. "They were calling their relatives back home and I was talking to their mother, their sister and uncle.
"I've had a lot of fun with the whole thing. Like I said, it hasn't been a focal point of my life but there's been some very interesting vignettes that have happened off and on. Canadians have been very nice to me and very supportive. I can never say how much I appreciate them."