Angela M. Spagna/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL isn’t known for being incredibly hip when it comes to musical choices, but the leauge nailed it by having Lil Nas X kick off the Stanley Cup Final.

By Charlotte Wilder
May 28, 2019

BOSTON, MA — A dead ringer for Paul Revere—or Samuel Adams, or John Hancock or any one of those famous old Boston dudes who wore high socks, long coats and buckled shoes—is taking a selfie with the Stanley Cup. He’s standing in the wings of a stage that’s been set up in City Hall Plaza, and once he’s satisfied with the picture, he puts his phone in the pocket of his britches. He bounds onto the stage, cheered by the Bruins fans gathered in front of him who all get louder when he raises his arms. It’s very possible that this is the first group of New Englanders since the Boston Tea Party to be so effectively hyped up by a man in Colonial garb.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is set to start in an hour at TD Garden a few blocks away. Boston will face the St. Louis Blues, and the watch party of more than 15,000 people sprawls across the red brick square in front of City Hall. Everyone sang along with and seemed to enjoy the songs that country artist Chase Rice performed a few minutes ago. But Rice is not the main event.

No, the real draw here is Lil Nas X.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Lil Nas X is the 20-year-old phenomenon behind the song “Old Town Road.” The tune went viral (in the true sense of the word, given that no medicine will remove it from your head once it’s lodged there) in early 2019. It broke the record for the most streams in one week and has been on the Billboard Hot 100 for over seven weeks now, even though Billboard wouldn’t recognize it as a country song.

No matter what Billboard says, Lil Nas X certainly looks the part of a country star tonight. He’s sitting in a tent behind the stage wearing intricately embroidered cowboy boots, a white cowboy hat, and a Bruins jersey that has his name written above the number 7. While Rice is a huge hockey fan, this is Lil Nas X’s first rodeo. He’s connected to the NHL because one of his reps reached out to the league a few months ago hoping they’d use “Old Town Road” during games. The song has been a huge hit in arenas ever since.

“This is going to be my first hockey game ever,” Lil Nas X says, adjusting the feedback mic in his ear. “It’s going to be intense. I’ve never been too big on sports, but for the Bruins, we’re going all the way. I want to be at every game from now on.”

The plucky guitar chords start to trickle out of the speakers. It’s Lil Nas X’s cue. He struts up the ramp to the stage and into the limelight, eliciting a roar from the gathered Bostonians that makes it clear they’re as ready for him as they are for the city’s third championship in one year. Rice might’ve warmed them up, but the horses that Lil Nas X has in the back are obviously the main attraction.

In fact, even Rice’s band is freaking out. Chris Loocke, Rice’s guitarist, puts his hands on his head and bounds towards the stage when Lil Nas X starts to sing.

“I’ve been playing ‘Old Town Road’ at shows we do,” Loocke says. “I’m a huge fan. The first time I played it a few weeks ago, Chase had been so busy that he wasn’t listening to the radio much and hadn’t heard it. So he looked back at me and was like, ‘I don’t know the words!’ But I just started playing the chords and the crowd sang the whole thing.”

This crowd here is, too. It’s easy to see why—besides the fact that the melody is delightfully catchy, Lil Nas X is magnetic. The man looks as comfortable on a stage as most people do on a couch. He glides past the Stanley Cup (which has been moved from the wings to the center of the stage) like a hockey player on a breakaway, holding the crowd’s attention with every stride. People hang onto every beat.

Unlike a sports game, however, it’s all over after less than three minutes. “Old Town Road” is Lil Nas X’s only monumental claim to fame right now, so he walks off the stage once he’s done. But he’s effectively jazzed everybody up. As they stream out of the plaza and into the Garden and bars that line Canal Street, one fans says, “He’s the only artist I know who can sing only one song and have everybody just love him.”

During the second period of Game 1, “Old Town Road” plays for the second time, and Lil Nas X appears on the jumbotron. He’s taken his custom jersey off, but he holds it up in front of his face to show where his name is splashed across the back. Everyone in the Garden goes nuts as he shakes his new black and yellow sweater.

The NHL isn’t known for being incredibly hip. The league’s musical choices and promotional efforts can often feel as stuffy and as old as the Founding Fathers. But with Lil Nas X, the NHL nailed it: He’s about as current as you can possibly get. His is a star born of the internet, boosted by TikTok, molded by Twitter. “Old Town Road” is catchy, fun, and electric. It’s everything playoff hockey is when the game is at its best. The song gets the people going.

But Lil Nas X isn’t just for the fans. Players are fired up by his presence, too.

“It’s obviously awesome to get his support and hype us up,” David Pastrňák says after the game. “I love that song.”

Who doesn’t? And if the NHL is smart, they’ll let this blossoming partnership with Lil Nas X ride 'til—in the words of the artist himself—it can't no more.

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