Words by Bradley Zorgdrager
On a logical level, hockey and metal make a perfect pair. Both are hard-hitting and, at times, violent. There’s also the fact that hockey players move around by flaying frigid ice with blades of steel. And yet, the worlds stay as separated as two opposing players in their respective penalty boxes.
Longtime hockey staples like Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” are thematically appropriate and may get the blood pumping but still never spraying. In the modern era, rap and music made popular on Tik Tok has even taken over those mainstays, in as big an upset as the National Hockey League has had since the Edmonton Oilers upset the New York Islanders in 1984 to set up their own dynasty run.
That is, until now. Carrie Heisler is trying to take hockey back to rock by taking the (metal) internet by storm with her extreme metal walkout light shows at the Detroit Red Wings’ Little Caesars Arena. Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and teammates have skated onto the ice — again, with literal weapons on their feet — to the shredding solo of Lorna Shore’s viral blackened deathcore hit “To the Hellfire,” the tech death athleticism of Archspire’s “Bleed the Future,” the gargantuan grooves of “Silvera” by titans Gojira and the churning brutality of The Black Dahlia Murder’s “On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood.”
The latter could have spelled the end for the viral videos. Heisler typically looks for instrumental segments, in part because extreme metal doesn’t typically espouse family values lyrically—if the diverse audience typical of such a popular organization could even make out the words from the music’s often obscene vocal stylings.
“The song has like a good 25-30 seconds intro, and then Trevor
A video of that song’s walkout (different night, properly looped, sans-screams) rode the waves of social media hype after being picked up by the likes of Loudwire, Metal Injection and The Pit. Heisler’s work has subsequently been covered by Revolver, The New Fury and, now, Knotfest (with all due respect to her employer, 4Wall Entertainment, we just broke the damn fourth wall!).
“I just kind of started laughing because that was a really weird day in the Red Wings PR room and marketing room. They're probably like what is happening? Why all of a sudden are we getting tagged by hundreds of metalheads on this one specific metal sequence?” recalled Heisler. “Even someone from management of entertainment for the Red Wings, the other day, sent me an article from Revolver and was like quoting it like ‘animalistic brutal screams in the Red Wings arena.’ He was like, ‘There's a lot to unpack with this right now.’”
That kind of hyperbolic fan support comes as no surprise to anyone within the metal community, but for those without, the passion is always a shock. The resounding positive reception, even amongst non-metalheads, is almost definitely why the team keeps letting Heisler ramp up the intensity.
It’s a far cry from where things were when previous lighting designer Chris Wade tried to play a Slipknot song (“Psychosocial”) and was shut down. That lighting designer dreamed up the high-octane walkouts as a way to get players pumped during COVID-19, when a lack of fans sucked the life out of arenas. (Again, metal!) It certainly seemed to work.
While Heisler has not heard from any of the players about it specifically, she’s convinced a roster, and sport, full of European players MUST include a metalhead or two. Anyway, while Wade and co-conspirating audio engineer Brad McGee could get away with Pop Evil or Mötley Crüe, apparently the Nine were just too much. Well, initially. The Red Wings organization would ultimately greenlight it, which Heisler attributes to the organization’s open-mindedness.
“They've been super receptive—obviously very receptive. The Red Wings are very much the type of organization that likes different people working here who have different backgrounds, who bring different things to the table. They're all very like professional, clean-cut people, and they're all amazing and super accepting, but they were just kind of like, alright, we'll give it whirl.”
(In stark contrast, Heisler is covered in tattoos, often has a chain connecting her nose ring to earlobe
Before she got the full-time gig—which amounts to 82 home games between the Red Wings and arenamates the Detroit Pistons of the NBA, plus pre-season games, press days and extracurricular concerts—she’d had some experience as an L2, essentially an assistant to the main lighting designer. Employer Joe Leahy and 4Wall Entertainment hand-selected Heisler, obviously approved by the organizations’ entertainment divisions considering, well, she got the job! When predecessor Wade got a promotion, a planned slow and steady changing of hands became a week-long whirlwind when the former got a promotion right before the season started.
That kind of adversity isn’t something the 22-year-old shies away from. Growing up homeschooled all the way through high school, she didn’t have the typical avenues to make friends. Instead, she would meet friends through martial arts and, eventually, the music community.
Her farm upbringing had her reared on country, southern and hard rock such as Molly Hatchet and AC/DC, and even her dual mother/teacher’s Christian tunes. She’d inherit her grandfather’s records, including Pat Benatar and Led Zeppelin, around the time she heard Ohio metalcore mainstays Miss May I cover rapper Savage’s “Swing.” The coagulation at around 10 years old would lead her to discover Black Sabbath, which started the typical dragon chase of extremity.
“From there it's just kind of evolved from metalcore, which turned into deathcore, then deathcore turned into death metal, and death metal has changed to everything from technical death metal to doom metal to black metal. I really had no influences growing up other than just finding it through the internet.”
As is typical in parents of metalheads, there was no doubt some apprehension to the music—or at least eye rolls when they’d hear it blaring even through a closed door—but it was nothing compared to skepticism what they’d feel when their daughter dropped out of pre-med school to pursue this atypical career path. They weren’t alone, though. Heisler originally pursued audio. It was a natural progression from bass-playing theater kid to running backlines at a new theater with Kelly Kidder. He owns Dickerson Music Company in her hometown of Albion, MI and would take her under his wing for all of the aforementioned sound experiments.
After graduating high school, she’d get an apprenticeship at her college’s theater, insistent that audio was her thing. Mentor Buddha
Her visual streak extends to the colors she picks for the lighting design.
“A lot of times I go off of what the song feels or what the album kind of felt to me. ‘Lost in the Static,’ when I did that one for After the Burial, the bass drum was so quick and everything, so I wanted strobe because I wanted the room to feel more like fire, like a very warm tone. A lot of times I go to cool tones, like your blues and your greens and your purples and stuff like that. When I was designing that one I wanted something a little different. When I did my Black Dahlia one, I wanted to—I mean, it was ‘On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood,’ so I was like, blues and greens to kind of go for an ocean feel.”
The rest is based on feel. She pursues songs that have punchy drum performances, so she can sync the lighting up with it. It’s the kind of thing that makes total sense when she talks about future dream inclusions. Though sometimes her inspiration comes day-of, such as the Lorna Shore one which came up on Spotify on her drive into work, she has some slots blocked off for some necessities such as Carnifex (her sibling’s favorite) and Cattle Decapitation, for whom the LD has tattooed her knuckles with “Prophets of Loss.” She’s working to combine a couple parts of the band’s blazingly intense discography to meet her requirements, and is hopeful to even ramp up to include grindcore—if she can ever find a song that fits the 30-to-50 second time requirement without vocals.
From there, she wants to bring in some Detroit metal, such as recent Nuclear Blast signees SNAFU, to celebrate the area’s metal scene in the same way the Pistons focus on its storied history of rap, hip-hop, Motown and even techno.
Despite the Little Caesars Arena having an insanely cool and unique full-LED ceiling (Heisler thinks it’s the only NHL arena in the US with one, if not all of North America), her goals don’t end in the arena. She really hopes to take her talents on the road with metal bands. If life is as poetic as it sometimes can be, perhaps even one of the ones she’s blared at “the good old hockey game.”
As she regularly says throughout our interview, “Let’s run it!”