The performers were setting up equipment. The players were taking their places, families in tow. They would all begin the parade route soon, but Andrew Brickman’s day was made before the surreal Stanley Cup celebration even started.
He remembers Gabriel Landeskog’s young daughter approaching, the Avalanche team captain accompanying her and calling the group by its name: “Look, it’s the Celly Squad.”
“My heart melted when Landeskog’s kid wanted to play on one of our drums,” Brickman said.
Every musician who has played Section 216 at Ball Arena has experienced some moment of realization when it becomes clear how ubiquitous their ensemble has grown in such a short time. Brickman, the leader of the Celly Squad, was struck by another moment during auditions for this year’s band. The Denver percussion community is small and tight-knit, generally relying on word-of-mouth recommendations. But about 40 people showed up to try out for the Celly Squad before just its second full season playing Avalanche home games. Four season-ticket holders auditioned.
The in-game professional band has been embraced as a staple of the local hockey environment. What started as a Denver Nuggets drumline seven years ago slowly expanded to Avs games after the COVID-19 “bubble” season, and now it joins Vegas among the NHL’s only live drumlines — a rotating cast of about 30 musicians, including guitarists and trombonists.
The musicians all have day jobs. Some are in music education; others have completely unrelated careers. Brickman works for a building commissioning company. His co-band leader, John Strang, is a mechanical design engineer for Ball Aerospace. They show up at Ball Arena after work and adopt the Celly Squad’s boisterous persona, a name and alter ego that sprouted from Brickman’s mind. (“Celly” is hockey slang for a goal celebration.)
They toss sticks to one another mid-song. They play everything from their original cadences to funk guitar-soaked renditions of “Hot in Herre” and “Industry Baby.” They’re sponsored by Bud Light. They have a drummer who wears jorts and a fake mullet to every game.
Local music teacher Michael Brown likes to be known as the one always in aviators. He has spent time at his mirror drumming on the sink, workshopping the performative components of the gig — “Jumping around, doing spins and practicing all these motions. Facial expressions. Trying on different outfits,” he said — because it’s to heck with the rigid style of the college marching bands where many of these drummers learned their craft.
“In-your-face, in a good way,” trumpeter and drummer Sarah Wagner describes it.
Wagner’s moment of realization of the importance of the group came after the band played a homemade arrangement of “Tequila.” The arena organist replicated it. Then the actual song played over the loud-speakers. “The whole time, the crowd got way more excited, more excited,” she remembers. When the Celly Squad played it again, the entire attendance responded to the band’s queue, shouting the titular word in unison.
“I was like, ‘I can die happy,’” Wagner said. “That was such a cool moment.”
The band members’ hockey backgrounds vary. Some are like Wagner, Brickman and Strang, who were all raised Avalanche fans. Strang had signed Peter Forsberg photos on his wall as a child.
Others had never been to a hockey game in their life. Learning to love it is a requirement, though. “It’s part of the criteria of joining,” Brickman said. “We don’t need you to be a super fan. We need you to care about the team.”
When Griffin Pierce auditioned before last season, he was asked about his relationship to the Avalanche. His answer: “I’m really excited to become a huge fan.” Rachel Wood, who joined when the band’s only identity was the Nuggets’ Skyline Drumline, knew nothing about basketball or hockey.
“I never cared about sports growing up,” she said as friend and fellow drummer Ryan Good chipped in: “We’re band kids.”
“But now I love hockey,” she continued, “and it’s super fun to watch.”
Wood, Pierce and Good are all coworkers at a local startup, a microcosm of the tight community within the band. They’re often together daily from 9 to 5 at work, 6 to 10 at the arena and 10 to 12 at Brooklyn’s, the bar across the street.
But when the Avs win, the band performs outside the building before hitting the watering hole. Fans gather around — “mosh pits, conga lines, kids flossing,” Good said half-jokingly — as the Celly Squad finishes the night by playing the cadence they call “London” one more time. It’s an up-tempo tune. The musicians play one another’s drums at one part. And it includes a “Let’s go Avalanche” chant, making it almost the team’s unofficial fight song. “With a really jammin’, almost chaotic ending to the piece,” Brown said.
That energy has made the Celly Squad a tourist attraction in Section 216. Performers were surprised at first when fans would say they bought tickets in the adjacent sections just to be up close to the music. Or when children (like Landeskog’s at the parade) asked for pictures and to play the drums. Or when they were asked to play someone’s wedding.
Now it’s the norm. They’re seen as such an integral part of the Avalanche operation that last year’s drummers were told they would receive Stanley Cup rings.
“I always think to myself, ‘No one would treat me like this at my day job,’” Strang said. “No one knows that I have to wake up tomorrow and do the same commute they have to do and grind through the same problems. It’s like a dual identity thing.”
Strang calls it “Celly Squad Guy.” It’s the Superman to the musicians’ Clark Kent. There is a transformation involved. It’s just more natural than some of them anticipated — even Brown, whose individual mirror practice stemmed from a background as a “serious, in-it-to-win-it” drum major in high school.
“Making myself feel more comfortable really jumping around with a set of drums on,” Brown said. “That switch was a little bit challenging at times, but overall when you’re just hyping the team and (Cale) Makar scores a hat trick, you’re not worried about the rigidness of the way you’re drumming. You’re jamming.”