Toronto was alive with music at the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend – not just on the ice, but all around the city.
As the hockey spectacle returned to the city for the first time since 2000, and to Canada for the first time since 2012, the multiple-day event brought live music from major stars including Justin Bieber, Tate McRae, Nelly Furtado and Diplo. It also included a viral press conference moment by crooner Michael Bublé, hockey players rubbing elbows with celebrities, and a spotlight for up-and-coming Canadian musicians including Loud Luxury, The Glorious Sons, TALK, The Reklaws and Owen Riegling.
As the stars of the game played each other in skills competitions and 3-on-3 hockey, music was an integral component. Each of the four teams chosen by an NHL player was co-captained by a celebrity: Tate McRae, Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé and Will Arnett. They weren’t just there to sit on the bench, but they helped choose each team at the player draft on Thursday night (Feb. 1). Bieber even helped out with the players’ on-ice warm-ups.
“We went all-in [with music] this year,” says Steve Mayer, the NHL’s Chief Content Officer. “We’re so happy that we we have what represents not only the best in the NHL coming here, but in our minds, the best in Canadian music. And being here in Canada with seven Canadian teams, we better know our Canadian music.”
When it comes to music and sports, it’s hard to beat the Super Bowl. The NFL’s halftime show has become one of the top music events of the year, with fans obsessing (and sometimes even betting) about who will get the coveted headlining spot, who the special guests will be and which songs they’ll perform.
Of the “big four” sports leagues, the NHL lags behind the others including the NBA and Major League Baseball in terms of television ratings and attendance – but not in Canada. Here, the National Hockey League is the most popular professional league, according to a 2023 survey by the Angus Reid Institute. Though basketball fever reached a peak in Canada in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors’ first championship, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still a major money-maker in the city and the other Canadian teams are not far behind.
It’s hard to compete with the other major leagues for celebrity and star power – especially now that Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s relationship has turned Kansas City Chiefs into full-on mainstream pop culture events. But hockey culture is so ingrained with some conceptions of Canadian identity that the success of the music integration this year shows how strong the country’s artists are right now.
The headliner of this year’s NHL All-Star Game was one of the biggest artists in the world. Tate McRae peformed between the second and third intermission of the main event on Saturday night (Feb. 3). The Calgary-born singer played “greedy,” her song that’s hit No. 1 on the Billboard Canadian and Global Hot 100, along with “exes” and, for the first time, “run for the hills.” All are from her latest album, Think Later, whose cover features the singer in goalie pads (sure, on the wrong legs).
McRae comes from a hockey family, and the sport’s culture is a major part of her current image. So it felt natural to see her perform on three different stages on the ice in a glittery top with six dancers and the production value you might see at a big award show.
Mayer says the NHL has its own production unit staffed with people from the concert industry, and a team that deals specifically with music clearance. For many artists in Canada, like the Arkells and the Beaches, getting a song played on Hockey Night In Canada is a rite of passage. Rock band The Glorious Sons told Billboard Canada getting their song “Speed of Light” on the broadcast was a point of breakthrough for them.
Mayer says the NHL’s team prides itself on the entertainment they’re able to produce. It pays off when you have a major artist like McRae who is such a proponent of the game. “My family has been really involved with hockey my whole life, but I was always really busy with dance so I honestly couldn’t get too, too into it,” McRae tells Billboard Canada. “And for the past year or two years now, I feel like I’ve fully immersed myself in the hockey world.”
In another interview with Billboard Canada, Michael Bublé says he’s proud seeing what McRae has accomplished and called her before the game. “I told her I was happy for and proud for her,” he says. “And as a Canadian, it made me happy to see another young Canadian breaking through….Honestly, we’re kind of dominating music right now. We are sending a ton of artists out there, and we’ve already got a ton of career artists out there. This little place made a bunch of great ones.”
Bublé went viral in an All-Star press conference by saying he made his All-Star picks while high on mushrooms, a likely joke that was taken seriously by a lot of people online. “That’s what I was sent to do,” he says in a rare moment of seriousness in our conversation, before doing his impression of a rote and cliché-ridden hockey player interview about giving 110%. “I’m an entertainer, man. And the truth is, I’m living my best life. I’m having so much fun.”
Despite his non-stop banter, Bublé took the weekend very seriously. According to Mayer, the league sent him stats and intel so he could choose the best team possible along with captain Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks. (His team didn’t win, though, ultimately losing to hometown hero Auston Matthews’ team co-captained by Bieber). An owner of junior hockey team the Vancouver Giants, he is a massive hockey fan and a friend to many of the players.
So is Bieber, who’s often seen hanging out with Matthews and other Leafs like William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Bieber’s drew house clothing label designed this year’s NHL All-Star sweaters, and that brought a rare cool factor to the league that nearly rivals the collectible special edition jerseys of the NBA.
That factor revved way up on Thursday night (Feb. 1), when Bieber played an invite-only concert at the 2,500-capacity venue History, his first gig in over a year. Diplo, The Kid Laroi and Nelly Furtado also played at concerts over the weekend, but Bieber’s was the one that captured the most headlines and social media attention in a set that spanned his whole career.
“This is a guy who’s 100% totally into the Toronto Maple Leafs,” says Mayer. “Of course we’re going to want to work with him any way we can.”
“There’s a good old saying: rock stars want to be athletes, athletes want to be rock stars,” says Mayer. “And we take advantage of that. When they get here, and they’re amongst these athletes, especially those they really admire, they turn into fans.”
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