Jake Schroeder prefers to perform a fairly straightforward version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” His typical rendition is a cappella. And while he has no problem hitting the high notes, he eschews any unnecessary vocal gymnastics.

“I want everyone to be able to sing along with it,” Schroeder says. “It’s all our song. It can bring us together in pain. And sometimes it brings us together in anger. It also brings us together in a positive way—we are all in this together. It’s not my song, though. I just get to be the messenger, which I really enjoy.”

For 20-plus seasons and more than 1,000 games, Schroeder has done just that as the regular national anthem singer for the Colorado Avalanche. Following the current Avs playoff run, however, the 54-year-old is set to retire from the volunteer gig, which he says changed his life in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he started it a quarter century ago.

Schroeder grew up in the Boulder area, where he was part of the high school choir and an a capella group. When the Avs first came to town in the mid-90s, he was singing in a rock band and bartending at the ChopHouse downtown. During that time, the Denver Nuggets would have him fill in as the national anthem singer if someone was sick or had to reschedule at the last minute.

Schroeder got to know many of the Avs players, including Eric LaCroix, while bartending at the ChopHouse, some of whom would see his band perform. When the team began looking for a full-time anthem singer for the 1997-’98 season, Schroeder’s previous experience performing the “Star Spangled Banner” at McNichols Arena, and his relationship with members of the team, made him a good fit for the role. (It is common for teams in the NHL to have a dedicated national anthem singer, according to Schroeder. Rene Rancourt, for example, held the role for the Boston Bruins for more than 40 years.)

When he took the gig, Schroeder had some understanding of the power of the national anthem: Growing up, the only time he ever saw his father cry was at a performance of the “Star Spangled Banner.” During the Vietnam War, his father was stationed at an Air Force base in Okinawa, Japan. At the end of many days, the anthem would play while bodies of soldiers that had died were unloaded from C-130 airplanes and moved to refrigerated aircraft to be transported home. The song reminded his father of the sacrifices made by his fellow serviceman. “I didn’t know that full story until he was dying [of cancer}, and I asked him,” Schroeder says.

Despite his father’s connection to the patriotic tune, Schroeder came to realize that everyone’s relationship to the song is not the same—and people’s feelings about it can change based on the situation. “I have had to sing it after some really awful stuff, like 9/11 and the [mass shooting at] Columbine High School,” he says. “We’re confronting some difficult social issues in this country, and I certainly understand how [the song] can mean different things to different people. People can feel a little jaded with all the sadness. It’s maybe a different thing when you’re a kid and they are singing the anthem.”

His role with the Avs, however, helped him create relationships with some of the players that ultimately led him to a passion for helping people. During his first few years in the role, Shjon Podein invited him to a golf tournament in Rochester, Minnesota, that was a fundraiser for kids with ataxia-telangiectasia, a rare disease that affects the nervous system. Schroeder realized he had the power to support people in facing difficult circumstances “Being around [the players],” Schroeder says, “helped me pick up this DNA that makes you want to do things for other people.”

Throughout the 2000s, Schroeder channeled that desire by having his band host benefit concerts for community members in need, like a local waitress who was struggling to afford cancer treatments. A few years after the band folded in 2012, his urge to support people led him to volunteer to take underserved kids, police officers, and veterans to visit D-Day sites in Normandy. That first trip served as the impetus for Schroeder to create D-Day Leadership Academy, a local nonprofit that educates underserved kids about the sacrifices soldiers made during World War II and helps them raise funds for a trip to Normandy. “I’ve got a couple decades left,” he says, “where I can give 100 percent of my working energy to helping these kids get over there and learn some valuable lessons.”

As far as singing the anthem at Avs games goes, it is unclear who will replace Schroeder on a full-time basis, though he says he may drop in for a few guest appearances when called upon. As he heads into the next chapter of his life, though, he remains grateful for the experiences the role provided him. “If I could provide anybody some happiness or something positive to think back on with my singing, I think that’s great,” he says. “That makes it worth it.”

(Read more: A Bandwagon Fan’s Guide to Cheering on the Colorado Avalanche)

Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.