Walking back inside Amalie Arena was just the kind of pick-me-up Sonya Bryson-Kirksey needed two weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Still rehabbing from the procedure, she hobbled to the rink in early July to record a couple of takes singing the U.S. and Canadian national anthems.
The red carpet was ready for her, spread out on the ice, and a chair was nearby so she could rest her right knee in-between recordings.
She stood on the carpet, looking out at the empty arena. And after taking a deep breath of cold air, she opened up her vocal cords and sang for the first time in months. It took three takes to perfect.
John Franzone, the Lightning’s vice president of game presentation, thought it was crucial to bring in Bryson-Kirksey and organist Krystof Srebrakowski to record some of their signature sounds ahead of the playoffs.
Since the games would be played without fans and in Canada bubbles, Bryson-Kirksey, 53, had assumed she was done until next season.
“I thought having the anthem singers recorded and piped into home games for the teams was the most classiest thing ever,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “Now, they can hear home even if they can’t see the people, they can hear home and I’d like to think that I’m a part of that.”
The former U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant has sung the national anthem for the Lightning since the 2013-14 season.
Bryson-Kirksey said a couple of years ago she approached Lightning owner Jeff Vinik at the annual Celebration of Arts showcase, which she enters yearly, about singing both the U.S. and Canadian anthems ahead of Lightning games.
Vinik told her that he would prefer her to sing just the U.S. anthem because of the energy she brings to the song. He didn’t want to mess with dividing her between the two anthems.
“When (the fans) see you come on, before they even open their mouth to announce you, they know what’s coming and they get excited, and I like that,” Bryson-Kirksey remembers Vinik telling her.
Earlier this season, Bryson-Kirksey sang the Canadian anthem for the first time. When the team approached her about singing for the bubble, she was excited to do it.
“It’s a beautiful song,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “I’ve always loved it.”
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Watching herself sing on the Lightning broadcast for the first time in the round-robin series against Washington was a nerve-wracking experience, she said.
Bryson-Kirksey watched the game downstairs in her recliner, while her husband, Jimmie Kirksey Jr., watched the game upstairs in his “man cave.” The televisions were so loud Bryson-Kirksey said she could hear herself reverberate throughout their Riverview home.
Franzone is happy she got the national exposure for Game 1 against the Bruins on Sunday night.
“I’m so glad NBC decided to pick it up because there were times during the playoff run where you know they were going to ditch the anthem in favor of commercials. So great to see her get some national due because she nailed it,” he said.
For Bryson-Kirksey, the best part was sharing her talents with a wider group of family and friends.
“That’s what makes me feel good because now my people can see what I do other than by video,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “I was just so tickled. I was sitting there and I literally had butterflies in my stomach and was giggling and smiling all over the place.”
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Franzone said it has been an interesting experience getting to provide content for the games, but not getting to necessarily select what gets used and when.
As the Lightning get deeper into their postseason run, Franzone expects more sounds from Amalie Arena to make their way into game broadcasts. Right now, he said, Toronto is treating all the teams with a broad brush.
Since the playoffs started, Franzone and his team constantly have been creating and sending content to the league and they’re also producing a second-screen experience for fans, which is used during the games in-between periods with host Greg Wolf.
“(It’s) a semblance of normalcy in as much as you can almost recreate (the experience),” Franzone said. “To see Greg behind a microphone, again, with a Lightning jacket with logos all over the place and ThunderBug doing his thing, it just sort of feels like a game night, at least a taste.
“It’s a sample at the end of the Sam’s Club aisle. You’re not getting the whole box, but just a little bite of a pizza bagel.”