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How one NHL game turned Lil Nas X into a hockey fan

BOSTON – Lil Nas X cheesed for a selfie with the Stanley Cup, rocked an outdoor throng 20,000-plus deep at Boston’s City Hall Plaza with the No. 1 hit in the country eight weeks running while wearing a personalized Bruins sweater and one of the more outlandish pair of cowboy boots you’ll ever see, then galloped off-stage giddy and aglow.

“I’ve never been too big on sports, but for the Bruins, we’re going all the way. Let’s do it. Yeah!” the 20-year-old country/trap sensation beamed backstage.

“My favourite sport, if I had choose, as of right now, it has to be hockey, y’know? Let’s do it.”

Despite growing up in Atlanta, former home to the Thrashers, the artist born Montero Hill had never attended a hockey game until Monday’s Stanley Cup Final opener, and yet the Bruins’ newest fan was still accurate in his pre-game prediction. What did he expect?

“Intense hockey playing,” Lil Nas X bubbled. “It’s going to be sick.”

That the artist with the hottest song in the country was selected to open the Stanley Cup Final in an untraditional concert venue about two Zdeno Chara slappers away from TD Garden was significant and by design.

In December 2015, the NHL hired nine-time Emmy Award–winning executive producer Steve Mayer to take over the scope and sounds of its major events, all-star games, outdoor spectacles and Cup Finals.

And Mayer has made it his mission to think bigger and bolder. He wants a splash.

“We need to be a little more current. I love AC/DC, but ‘Black in Black’ every single night… we have to look at what’s the new wave of music and make it a little more hipper,” Mayer recently explained on the NHL’s Executive Suite podcast. “Every event needs to be just that — an event.

“Yes, it is a championship, but did you feel like it was any different than the game you watched two weeks ago? I want people when they watch one of our events to go, ‘Wow, inside, outside, look at all these people.’”

Police had to stop the flood of giddy Bostonians to the stage as the sun set on Memorial Day for the free Cup hype concert by Lil Nas and country star Chase Rice, whose “Eyes on You” has been on the Billboard chart for 13 weeks and who would later chug a full beer during a mid-game Jumbotron cameo.

The scene outside did not go unnoticed by the players themselves.

“As a fan, just being part of that would be amazing,” Jake DeBrusk said Tuesday, still wearing his earflap toque from the Winter Classic in late May. “Seeing the city buzzing like that, it sets the tone for watching on TV the game that’s gonna come. You saw it yesterday. I saw some of it on the Bruins’ Instagram story and thought, ‘Wow, just packed out there. It’s a jungle.’ Cool to see.”

Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is an unescapable phenomenon.

“I’m not a country guy, so I didn’t like the song originally, and the boys were playing it just to piss me off. But then it really grew on me,” DeBrusk smiles. “It’s got a great beat. People love it. When we play it in our warmups here, people are buzzing. Great tune.”

So to not only have Lil Nas perform but sign hockey-loving kids’ foreheads (among other special requests) and tweet out his exploits to 842,000 his followers isn’t just good fun. It’s good business.

Lil Nas X, for instance, helped plug his forthcoming EP, 7, by selecting a Bruins jersey with that number. Rice has 1.09 million followers. It’s a play to snatch the casual fan.

“We’re looking for bigger, grander, better, and it doesn’t really matter the genre. We’re really into the popularity of artists because we are seeing the effects of their world, their followers,” Mayer said.

“They are the biggest influencers out there, so if you can somehow grab their influencers because of them performing at an NHL event, that’s so incredibly valuable to us.”

Mayer’s first big win at the NHL level was the display in Nashville at the ’16 Cup Final, when puck-loving mega stars like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood and the sights of Broadway created a unique and beautiful sports/entertainment marriage.

Yes, country music and hockey can mix well.

“I think so,” Lil Nas says. “One hundred per cent.”

When Mayer saw the often-stoic athletes light up upon seeing Snoop Dogg walk into their dressing room at the 2017 All-Star Game in L.A., and P.K. Subban join the rapper onstage, he knew he had to build on that relationship.

The YouTube educational series Hockey 101 with Snoop Dogg was born. The clips went viral, as did Snoop’s drop-in this season to the Kings play-by-play booth.

“Those are the moments in sports, people — I don’t care whether you’re a basketball fan or a football fan — you watch that. That’s when we’re winning in the NHL,” Mayer said.

“This is all about how you cut through the clutter, how you make people go, ‘Oh! Look at the scene in Nashville. Wow, look, Carrie Underwood is singing the national anthem.’”

Unprompted, DeBrusk mentions last year’s Panic at the Disco! performance on a raft at the Las Vegas Bellagio fountains. And folks in D.C. were awestruck that Sting and Shaggy performed on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, loudly reminding a football, baseball, basketball and political town that hockey was touching down.

Sure, the NHL may never have the pop-culture cache of the NBA. You won’t see Drake giving Craig Berube a shoulder massage during a timeout anytime soon.

But by thinking big and taking risks, Mayer’s team can grow the sport’s following. Heck, all Lil Nas X needed was one night, one song, one game.

He’s a Bruins fan now, converted overnight.

“All the way,” he says. “I’m gonna be at every game from now on.”

Music to Mayer’s ears.

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Written by Sportsnet

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