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Anthem singer fires up Mellon crowd

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By John Grupp
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Penguins national anthem fan favorite Jeff Jimerson couldn't say — or even sing — whether he's a good-luck charm for his NHL team.

"I don't know if it's true," he said, "but I think I get them off to the right start. I get them pumped up."

Jimerson will perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" in front of sold-out Mellon Arena tonight, when the Penguins host the Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with hopes the golden-throated Franklin Park man is once again the team's lucky charm.

The Pens, who trail the Capitals 2-0 in the best-of-seven semifinals, have won 11 of their past 14 home playoff games, as Jimerson gets the crowd going.

While his record isn't as glowing as Kate Smith's "God Bless America" at the Philadelphia Spectrum in the 1970s, the crowd at Mellon Arena seems to get an extra buzz when Jimerson takes the microphone.

"Every time they announce his name, the place erupts," said season-ticket holder Ray Rost, 35, of the South Side. "Whenever the crowd sees him, they get fired up."

While the perception is the Penguins fare better when Jimerson performs, the numbers are mixed. Since last year, the Penguins have a .694 winning percentage (34-15-6) when Jimerson sings and a .718 clip (28-11-2) when someone else takes the stage.

Still, the Penguins won their first nine home playoff games last season, all with Jimerson kicking things off.

"There is nothing like playoff time," he said. "For the most part, I'm pretty uptight and a nervous wreck. I just don't want to screw it up."

Jimerson is admittedly superstitious and follows the same routine before each game. He takes a sip of bottled water at the 30-second break before the anthem, he carries three $20 bills, and nothing else, in his front pocket. He always warms up three times - at his home, in his car and backstage at the arena after the first Zamboni leaves the ice.

Jimerson sang his first national anthem at a Penguins game in December 1990. Because he was a newcomer, he didn't get the call for that year's Stanley Cup finals or in 1991-92, when an 11-year-old named Christina Aguilera performed both games during the sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Jimerson, a full-time singer/musician who performs with the band Airborne, has been the Penguins' regular national anthem singer since the mid-1990s.

Jimerson knows the game is always bigger than the performance. One example was B.E. Taylor's sprawling rendition before the 1991 Game 1 Stanley Cup finals with the Minnesota North Stars. After the Pens lost, 5-4, fans blamed Taylor for killing the atmosphere in the arena with his drawn-out anthem.

"He's a real good friend of mine, and it's a shame that happened," Jimerson said. "If anything, I sped up too much early on. I've learned to relax a little bit. People come to watch hockey, not me. That's the way I approach it."

Jimerson admits he will dig deeper, give a little bit more, depending on the magnitude of the game. He is at his choked-up best in the Stanley Cup playoffs or the regular-season finale, when the Penguins honored three fallen Pittsburgh Police officers.

"That puts a whole new spin on it," Jimerson said. "You have the color guard and there are 17,000 screaming people and you ask for a moment of silence. You could hear a pin drop. That was emotional."

As for tonight's pivotal Game 3 against the Capitals, Jimerson promises to set the tone for the evening.

"They will," he said, "be jacked up."

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