Hockey jobs: Stars' musical director Michael Gruber gets crowd amped
Maybe you can't skate. Or you have cement hands. Or the hockey sense of a mule.
Whatever the case, you've given up on playing in the NHL. But that doesn't mean you have to give up on your hockey dreams. Plenty of fans have transitioned from being on-ice failures to off-ice successes performing a variety of tasks in and around the league. And in this occasional series, we're going to introduce you to some of them.
First up, Michael Gruber. The 30-year-old Dallas native is about to enter his third season in his part-time role as Music Director for the Stars. It's his job to play the songs that pump up the crowd at the American Airlines Center. It's a pretty sweet gig, and he took a unique route to get there.
SI: How'd you land the job?
Gruber: Before the Stars gig, I worked at Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket here in Dallas as a board operator. I ran the commercials and, more important, the drops. It was an absolute blast and I had the time of my life, but the pay just wasn't there. So I moved on in 2012, tried to finish out my college degree at the University of North Texas and then got two opportunities I couldn't turn down. I got a freelance job running audio for Fox Sports Southwest and then the Stars gig.
This one came about because of my friendship with many Stars employees as a result of The Ticket being their flagship station since 2008, and especially because of my friendship with Stars PA man Jeff K. He worked at The Ticket's sister station, The Bone, back when I first started up there. We became good friends and kept in touch after he moved on. When the Stars DJ position became open prior to the 2013 season, he suggested my name. Everyone seemed agreeable to it though I'd never run live sporting events before and had iffy hockey knowledge. I had a quick lunch with game presentation director Jason Danby and was hired within about a week of that. Danby was already in the process of pushing things in a weirder, sillier, more fun direction, so bringing me in to run the music/drops has been a pretty nice fit.
You're obviously not working with two turntables and a microphone. What do you use to make the magic happen?
I use a program called Click Effects Pro Audio. It allows me to categorize all of my audio so I can quickly find something for a fight, an intense moment, or something funny. For example, I played "I Believe I Can Fly" when [Florida's] Alex Petrovic went to check Vern Fiddler but missed him and went flying over the boards. The program works really well and it is versatile enough to allow me to customize it how I want.
Walk us through a typical game day. Is there a lot of prep involved?
I generally get to the arena two and a half to three hours before a game starts. I bring in whatever music/drops might fit for the opponent that night, or if something is in the news that could be relevant. [For instance], we had a couple small earthquakes before a game last year so I had songs like "I Feel The Earth Move" by Carole King cued up.
Let's talk about the playlist. Do you have complete autonomy over what gets played? Do you take requests from fans or players?
I don't use a set playlist, though I do try to keep a rotation of two to three games before using the same song again. It doesn't always work that way, but that's the goal.
Outside of things like the music played when the doors open, and during warm-ups and when the teams comes back on the ice before periods, everything is improvised. I'm set up in the walkway in the lower bowl, so fans can come up to me throughout the game and request songs [and] I take Twitter requests from people watching at home as well. I also get a lot of input from Danby, Jeff K., and anyone else on [the production] headset. I'm lucky to have a lot of very supportive people and try to make it almost a communal, inclusive thing. My job is to try to entertain the fans without detracting from enjoying the action on the ice, and fans getting to hear their requests just makes it that much more personal.
The players, they make pretty minimal requests. So far I've only really gotten a list of about 10 songs before the start of each of the last two seasons they want to hear during warm-ups. Otherwise they can't hear the music too well once the game is going on, so I've never heard much opinion on it other than [they want it] louder. I figure as long as I play music that helps to accentuate the moment, the players will hear the crowd going nuts and feed off that so the fans' opinion matters more to me.
Every market is going to be a bit different in terms of what gets a crowd going. Generally speaking, what works best in Dallas?
Well, heavy metal plays pretty well in any arena and Dallas is definitely no exception so there's a pretty strong dose of that. And while I don't listen to much of it at home, I've also found techno/EDM sounds really good through the AAC speakers. Lots of bass!
You've built up a rep for working in some pretty inventive choices. Not just deep cuts like Blue Oyster Cult's “Black Blade” but some really unique stuff like movie scores and even classic video game soundtracks. What's the thinking there and why does it work?
It's all about creating an atmosphere and trying to be as unique as possible within the parameters of a major-league game presentation. Deep cuts are fun just for the reaction of, "Did you just play ___?" and seeing how many people figure it out. Movie scores are great because they set a mood pretty easily. The "300" soundtrack has some epic stuff, so I love playing stuff like that [coming] out of our pump-up videos. If I pick the right one, it can send chills down the spine. And then I like to play 1980s and 1990s video game music because it can create a sense of nostalgia that maybe helps the game experience stick with fans for a little longer.
Is there anything you won't play?
My overall answer is pretty much no. But obviously some songs just don't fit a hockey situation well enough to even consider bringing in. I try to play as wide a range as possible because there isn't just the heavy metal lover in the crowds. We have kids and teens in the arena who might not be totally into hockey yet, so maybe I throw in some Pitbull or Kesha or something to get them dancing and smiling. Playing a variety of stuff just makes it tougher to really pin the presentation down as over-serving one group and under-serving another. We want everyone to go home feeling like they got something enjoyable out of it.
What makes a good goal song?
Well, I'm lucky that we have an amazing song written by a legendary Dallas band, Pantera, so I didn't have to rack my brain too hard when I was asked my ideas of a new goal song. "Puck Off" just hits every check mark in a goal song. It's energetic, it's got a crowd prompt [calling out] the team name, and it lets you head-bang during that guitar riff. I honestly have no idea what I would have gone with otherwise and thankfully I didn't even have to consider it.
What's the best perk of the job?
Getting to interact with hockey fans. I followed the Stars growing up here in Dallas and always enjoyed hockey when I watched, but it was admittedly a lower priority [sport]. Now that I'm so immersed in the game it's just such a blast talking hockey with Dallas Stars fans. They're so die-hard and have so much passion that it inspires me to not rest on my laurels. I want to give them my best every night and hopefully I come closer to delivering more often than not because they deserve it.
There are only 30 jobs like yours out there, but if someone wanted to follow in your footsteps what would you recommend?
Well, pretty much everything I've done... I would tell anyone else to do the opposite because I've had a lot of dumb luck and timing in my favor. I started at The Ticket as a 16-year-old intern, which you can't do anymore. I became full-time in a major market, admittedly as a lowly board-op, at 21, left at 26 and then got this job because of my connections. I'm 30 and still don't have my degree. I really can't explain it all. I'm just a very lucky exception. So with that said, it's all about getting your foot in the door. Once you're in, work your butt off and don't burn bridges. You never know who could be the one to extend a hand when you think you'll never get your shot.
The only reason I worked in radio was because The Ticket guys made me laugh harder than anything else ever had and I wanted to be a part of it. I wouldn't have gotten into radio otherwise. I never thought I'd work as a DJ for a professional sports team, especially hockey, and now I'm having the time of my life with it. So don't assume that where you start is where you're going to actually end up. Sports media is a weird, weird field. But if you have the passion and stick with it, you have a chance to have a lot of fun.
Alright, last question:Club DJs are legendary for raking in the big bucks and being irresistible to the ladies. How's being an arena DJ working out for you?
Oh man, I can't even begin to describe how epic and brotastic it is! I have three mansions, a line of lovely ladies out each of those doors, and a vault full of gold coins that I swim in every night. Life is good as a hockey DJ! #Blessed
Actually, none of that is true. I just had Ramen for lunch.
Follow Gruber on Twitter for Chili's dining tips, moth jokes and to make your game night requests.