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'Leo' becomes a star in hockey-mad Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The city that gave the world humorist James Thurber, rapper Bow Wow and golfer Jack Nicklaus has another celebrity about to step into the national spotlight.

All together now: LEO!

When the Columbus Blue Jackets host the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday in Game 3 of their NHL first-round series, perhaps the loudest cheer of the night from the capacity crowd jammed into Nationwide Arena will be for a pudgy Opera Columbus singer as he steps onto the ice to sing the National Anthem.

Whenever Leo Welsh, a nursing-home administrator by day, is introduced, almost every person in the crowd shouts, "LEO!"

Then Welsh belts out the "Star Spangled Banner" (and, when a team from north of the border is in town, "O Canada"). He always finishes with a flourish, a left-arm fist pump that would make Tiger Woods envious.

"It's great. It's good to see fans come up with traditions," Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger said of the fans' enthusiastic greeting for Welsh. "Every rink has its own thing and that's kind of become a trademark of ours. It's actually pretty neat."

After years of futility, the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs for the first time in their eight seasons. It wasn't so long ago that Welsh might arguably have been the most popular performer in the arena at most games because the team had never finished with a winning record.

Now there's no question that Rick Nash, Steve Mason and others are the headliners for the successful Blue Jackets. But Welsh still has a cult following.

"My first couple of times I heard it, I was like, 'Wow,"' Blue Jackets forward Raffi Torres said of Welsh's baritone rendition of the anthem. "His job is to come out and get the crowd going right from the start. He's done a great job of that all year."

Welsh has found a measure of fame around the city.

"It's very flattering," he said with a laugh. "I walk into (a grocery store) and people used to look at me and say, 'I think I know who that guy is.' Now they say, 'Hey, LEO! How's it going?"'

He even hears it when he goes home.

"My family thinks it's hilarious," he said. "Any time I walk into my brother's house, they all shout my name."

Welsh grew up on the Ohio River in St. Clairsville and played football and ran track and cross country in high school. But those weren't his favourite extracurricular activities.

"I would have to leave football practice to go to show choir practice, which was not a favourite of my teammates," he said. "Not that I was a very good player anyway, but I think I made the right decision. I'm not a professional football player at this point."

He is a professional singer. While attending Ohio University, he was thinking of becoming a music teacher but changed his mind to study voice. Upon graduation, he got a job and met his wife, Lisa. They added to their family with a son on Feb. 18.

Welsh also hooked up with Opera Columbus and loves to perform, along with singing in his church choir. He said that from time to time, when he nails a Sunday solo, his choir mates will flash him a left-handed fist pump of congratulations.

His wife saw an ad looking for Blue Jackets singers five years ago and told him it was right up his alley. He was one of four finalists who filled in for the previous anthem singer. When she moved away, he took over the job.

And a legend was born.

He is paid in tickets - two of them, in section 117, face value US$79 each. It's one of the best personnel decisions the franchise has ever made.

When the team features him during its Saturday Night Live pre-game show, it shows him hoisting large, cold beer mugs in each hand. The crowd roars.

Philadelphia Flyers games in the 1970s featured Kate Smith singing, "God Bless America." Ronan Tynan made it an art form singing at Yankees Stadium.

Now it's LEO! time in Columbus.

"My life is just crazy," he said with a chuckle. "This has just taken on a life of its own."

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