The horn sounds at Bojangles’ Coliseum to signal that the game will start soon. The players line up along both blue lines and look up to the left hand side of the Coliseum where the Canadian and American flags hang from the rafters.
The voice of Charlotte Checkers and Carolina Panthers public address announcer Brian Stickley comes over the speakers to address the crowd. “And now, for the performance of our national anthem...Greazy Keyz!”
A man with long, flowing black hair, a hockey jersey and jet black sunglasses proceeds to glide his fingers of the organ positioned along the corner of the rink. He hits every note of the song with precision and even adds flair to different parts of the song with a few extra notes. He receives a loud round of applause that sets the energy just right in the building to begin a hockey game.
Meet Jason Atkins. He’s the coolest man in the Coliseum during every home game and the Checkers source of in-arena entertainment. Atkins is in his fourth season with the Checkers.
When the Checkers moved back into Bojangles’ Coliseum after spending a few seasons in Time Warner Cable Arena (now Spectrum Center), Atkins wasn’t the first person the Checkers called. COO Tera Black first reached out to keyboardist Jessica Borings to play, but she wasn’t able to commit to all the games during the first season, so Atkins was approached to help with the load. Borings decided not to continue with the Checkers and Keyz moved into the role of primary organist with the team.
Atkins’ nickname or persona of Greazy Keyz came as any nickname does: naturally. “I came up with it about 15 years ago as a clever email handle,” said Atkins. The nickname stuck and Atkins thinks it represents his taste and style of music. In a city that’s hard to stand out in, Atkins gets noticed in bars, at grocery stores and even while walking into a hardware store. “I was walking towards the entrance when a person yelled ‘GREAZY KEYZ’ from his card,” recalled Atkins.
Atkins is a 25-year music veteran who also plays with several Charlotte bands and teaches piano lessons on the side when he’s not scheduled to work Checkers games. He’s also scheduled to play organ for the Charlotte Hornets during their Class Night games to celebrate their 30 seasons as a team. Funk, blues and roots music are his forte. Fans are even treated with a few notes to accompany rap songs over the speaker system.
He took to music at a young age but says he still wants to continue to learn and improve as life goes on. The organ is not his only expertise as Atkins frequently plays the guitar, bass, accordion and harmonica.
It turns out the Checkers and Atkins were meant for one another. The model of organ in Bojangles’ Coliseum is a Hammond C3, Atkins’s favorite instrument. “It’s the pinnacle of keyboard instruments, and the cornerstone keyboard used on every genre of American music since it was invented in the 1940s,” said Atkins.
But despite his early experience as the Checkers organist, Atkins was never really a hockey fan. He only went to a handful of Checkers games before being hired and says he’s not a big sports fan in a city that lives and breathes anything to do with it. Like most hockey fans, all Atkins needed was to see a few more games live and he was hooked. “Being at the games and taking in the energy live in person has really drawn me in and I feel very passionate about our team,” exclaims Atkins. He’s seen many players blossom into full-time NHLers in his tenure. His favorite former Checkers are Brock McGinn, Phil Di Giuseppe, Lucas Wallmark and the now-Oilers forward Valentin Zykov who was claimed off waivers by Edmonton on Friday.
The highlight of his career as organist so far was, of course, the Checkers’ - and the American Hockey League’s - longest game in history. The playoff game last May lasted five overtimes between Charlotte and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Alex Lyon had a 94-save performance and the Checkers lost 2-1 and eventually lost the series.
Atkins was originally scheduled off that night, but once the game reached triple overtime he grabbed his keytar and drove to the Coliseum. “During one of the whistles, I strapped it on and started running around the Coliseum and the crowd went crazy,” said Atkins. It was a unique and eclectic way to pump up a crowd in what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Atkins will set the tune for Checkers fans for the foreseeable future. In what has turned out to be one of the best starts in team history, the hope is Atkins will be playing his way alongside the team to a Calder Cup championship and not playing the blues on the way to a disappointing playoff exit.