New York Rangers teammates Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash filled their bags with hockey gear for their visit to the Sochi Olympics. Ray Castoldi, who also plays at Madison Square Garden, packed his keyboard.
Castoldi, 51, who has been performing at the organ since 1991 for Rangers games and wrote the song “Slapshot” that he uses to celebrate goals by the National Hockey League team, is in Russia to play tunes at men’s hockey games during the Olympics.
He is one of two NHL organists -- along with Dieter Ruehle of the Los Angeles Kings -- spending his time during the league’s Olympic break with many NHL players in Sochi.
“I’ve actually spent the last few days memorizing some Russian folk melodies,” Castoldi said in an interview in his glass-enclosed booth high atop the Bolshoy Ice Dome as the Swedish team -- which includes Rangers goalie Lundqvist and left wing Carl Hagelin -- practiced on the ice below.
Castoldi will perform on the keyboard and as DJ for all the men’s games during the 12-day tournament that begins today. Some of the songs will be the same as those he performs at Madison Square Garden, including “Hava Nagila” and the chicken dance - - both of which are on the International Olympic Committee’s officially approved playlist.
The 1960s song “Those Were the Days” is also in, since it is based on a romantic Russian song from the 1920s.
He won’t be playing “Slapshot” or any songs that seem to favor one of the competing teams -- such as “O Canada” or “God Bless America.” And the only time he’d get to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” is if the U.S. wins the gold medal.
“It’s very weird to start the game without the national anthem being played,” he said.
Castoldi, who worked as a DJ at the National Football League’s Super Bowl a day before leaving for Sochi, is working in his third Olympics after the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and the 2006 Turin Games.
He also works National Basketball Association games for the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden and at about 20 New York Mets games each summer at Citi Field for the Major League Baseball team.
Castoldi is a Madison Square Garden Co. employee, getting an annual salary as well as extra pay per game. He has a contract for the Olympics that includes a flat fee and covers travel costs as well as room and board in Sochi. He declined to say how much he gets paid by MSG or at the Olympics.
“He has the unique ability to sense the flow of the game and the feel of the crowd and come up with the right musical selection for every situation,” said Michael Guth, executive vice president of marketing at MSG Sports.
Castoldi, a Connecticut native who studied keyboard at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, said he was happy to leave behind the sub-freezing temperatures and piles of snow in New York to visit balmy Sochi, where it hit 61 degrees (16 Celsius) two days ago.
Castoldi said he finds it amusing that he was brought over to play the organ in a nation steeped in classical traditions and intensely proud of musical giants such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, a pianist and composer who died in 1943.
“I’m just thrilled and thankful to be part of this,” he said. “I don’t think my talents would match up with Rachmaninoff, but he never played at Rangers games.”
Castoldi said he often reacts to the Olympic crowds, which bring cowbells and drums to games. Some fans are so loud on their own that he doesn’t need to boost the energy level by playing the universally understood “DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-CHARGE!”
Castoldi’s first game in the Olympic tournament is tonight when the Czech Republic plays Sweden. Ruehle, who is playing at women’s games, already has performed several times in Sochi.
At a women’s game between Russia and Germany three days ago, Ruehle played ascending scales at the beginning of each period to build up the crowd’s energy. As cheerleaders waved pom-poms and flags fluttered for both teams, Ruehle played chords and video screens flashed “Make Some Noise” in Russian.
Ruehle, 45, also performed at today’s preliminary-round game between the U.S. and Canadian women, who are expected to meet again in the gold-medal game. Ruehle warmed up the crowd before the game with “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.
Ruehle, who has been playing at Kings games for 18 seasons and has been the NBA Los Angeles Lakers’ organist for 13 years, said the Olympics are different because he cannot favor either team.
“At Kings games, we do not celebrate goals for both teams that are playing each night,” he said in an e-mail interview. “But here at the Olympics, obviously we do treat both teams as home teams with goal celebrations for both.”
With two minutes left in the game, which Russia won 4-1, Ruehle played “The Final Countdown,” a 1986 song by the Swedish band Europe.
Castoldi plans to play “Wipeout,” a 1963 song by the Surfaris, when the crowd does the wave. For big games, such as Russia versus the U.S., he’ll bring out some Metallica.
The Olympic atmosphere, with its mix of nationalism and local color, is enhanced by the fact -- unlike the NHL season -- that it’s a short tournament leading to single-elimination playoffs.
“I love hockey and there’s nothing like the Olympic tournament,” Castoldi said. “Every game is huge. This just gets electric that much more quickly. And every nation brings its own stamp.”