When Jim Bowers took the microphone before North Stars hockey games at Met Center, fans knew exactly what was coming.
The opera-singing baritone, who died July 15 at age 84, sang the national anthem for parts of three decades. Hushed fans listened as he began, then rose and roared to his trademark "la-aaand of the freeee-EEEE." No rendition was more stirring than his performance on April 13, 1993, at the club's last home game before the franchise moved to Dallas.
"He did it for fun and love of the game," said Tim Bowers, one of his sons, "and reverence that went along with the anthem."
Bowers' formal dress and demeanor matched that sense of respect. Whether he stood in the penalty box or on the ice, he delivered a consistent performance, then quickly stepped back without fanfare to let the game proceed.
"He was not a showy person. His role was that piece, that's it," said Tim of his father, who also wrote poetry about nature and athletes. "He saw himself as a role player. It was very much about respect for the anthem, then let the players play. They liked that he gave it his all and got out of the way."
Bowers' stature at hockey games was such that when visiting celebrities or others did the anthem in his stead, it didn't seem the same. He sang "O Canada" so often for visiting Canadian teams that American fans accustomed to his voice and delivery learned to sing the words.
Bowers, who played football when he was younger until he injured a knee, knew early on that he had a gift for singing, his son said. He got his start in nightclubs and operas, including performing in New York, Chicago and at the Guthrie Theatre. He sang at a sporting event for the first time at a Twins game at Met Stadium in Bloomington in the late 1960s.
He sang at Fighting Saints hockey games in St. Paul, and Kicks and Strikers soccer games before North Stars co-founder Gordon Ritz invited him to sing at North Stars games. He also sang often for friends' wedding and funerals, including both for Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks.
A native of Peoria, Ill., Bowers attended Bradley University. He and his wife, Marilyn, who were high school sweethearts, later moved to Minnesota and raised six children in the Blaine area. He worked as a food broker and served as a vice president for McGarvey Coffee in the 1970s.
Tim Bowers said his father's health deteriorated in recent years, including a bout with cancer. Through it all, even when his vision grew diminished, his wife remained by his side caring for him. "They would sing together at night," Tim said, his mother starting the tune, his father joining in. "It was really sweet."
At Bowers' last Met Center performance, he was greeted with thunderous applause before and after he sang.
"I'll miss the reverence of the moment of the anthem," Bowers told Star Tribune hockey writer John Gilbert at the time. "People aren't reverent about much these days, but they do get reverent for the anthem."
A funeral service is set for Saturday.