Remembering organist Neil Copley

The Indiana Pacers announced Monday that organist Neil Copley had passed away on Friday.

Copley played the organ for virtually every pro sports franchise in Indianapolis over the past four decades, including the Racers, Checkers and the IHL, CHL and USHL Ice. His most recent hockey stint was playing at the Ice’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse home games through 2014.

 

Copley also played organ for the Indianapolis Indians at Bush Stadium, doing so until the team discontinued using live organ music. He played for the Pacers from 1980-82, and then returned to the Pacers when the team revived using live organ music in 2008 (more about his Pacers playing from the Indy Star’s remembrance).

If anyone had attended a sporting event in Indianapolis – whether at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, Bush Stadium, Market Square Arena or Bankers Life Fieldhouse – and heard organ music, it more than likely came from Copley. He played behind countless championships with the Checkers, Ice and Indians.

Like many organists, he had a knack for understanding the game and finding the right song to rev the crowd up at the right time. Every Ice game – through several iterations of the team – just about every stoppage in play was punctuated with a call to the crowd to chant along “Go Ice!”

Copley also had a sense of humor, which one might catch if you listened closely. During the last several years with the Ice, nearly every stoppage featured an advertisement for the team sponsor, and often, Copley played along with a fitting song. A law firm might bring about a subtle note or two from the “Jaws” theme. With an ad for an eye doctor, “I Can See Clearly Now” might join in.

As a child, Copley’s organ made the experience for my introduction to hockey. It was all part of the package. This awesomely fast sport with great skill, huge hits and incredible-looking guys standing in front of the nets on each end, the bright white ice, the beautiful blue-and-orange checkered flag jerseys (and invariably, the green-and-gold of the opponents, since the Checkers always seemed to be playing Salt Lake), that was all part of the atmosphere. But what tied it all together was Copley’s always-peppy, always-perfect organ music that would have the crowd clapping and joining along at virtually every stoppage.

Through years of change in local hockey, his music was the constant.

Copley often arrived just before the puck dropped and the first time we’d hear him was when the teams came out for the opening face-off, which always included his  baseball-style organ buildup through the puck drop – but he was definitely heard. He was definitely distinctive. One of the rare times I remember seeing him at a game was when he popped into the old wood-paneled upstairs media room at an Ice game at the Coliseum, carrying a blue duffel bag with the Checkers logo stitched in it. To me, it was comforting to see that continuity between the franchises.

I had the good fortune to work with Copley for the last couple of years he played for the Ice as one of the team’s public address announcers. He was always lively on our intercom as we orchestrated what was going to happen at each break (and occasionally, a request was given and played). That will certainly be missed. When I was younger, I loved his left-handed roll underneath the public address announcements of Checkers goals and assists, with a flourish after each name. I always loved it.

On the spur of the moment, mid-game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, someone suggested on the intercom to play an organ flourish after each name in a goal announcement. I couldn’t jump in enough with approval – if Neil wants to do it, I think we should. It’ll add some oomph. Neil said “I’ll do it.” Another response: “are we allowed to do this?” (the USHL – like all hockey leagues – has rules that do not allow music to be played over the PA when the puck is in play). I hopped back on and said “they do it in the NHL, I can’t think it wouldn’t be allowed here.” A couple minutes later, the Ice score, the off-ice officials phone down the goal-scorer and assists, and I key the intercom to alert the staff that I’m about to announce the goal, and add in, “Neil, you ready?” Neil, dryly, replies, “I’ve been doing this for years. You go ahead when you’re ready and I’ll pick up.” Seconds later, I pause after the goal scorer, Neil pops two chords, and it was perfect … and a part of every home game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse from then on.

Just like any game he played at. There was so much Neil Copley added to the atmosphere, whether it be playing under a Pacers offensive possession, mid-rally at Bush Stadium or after a goal at a hockey game.

Rest in peace, Neil. Our thoughts and prayers go to you, your family and your friends. You’ll be missed.