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Bellevue High freshman Nikhil Bagga earns anthem duty at Winter Classic

Performers of many genres have had a crack at the U.S. and Canadian national anthems before NHL Winter Classics. Bell Biv Devoe, Simple Plan and Zac Brown Band have all put their spins on it.

There’s a massive, homegrown musical catalog to choose from when a big event is set in Seattle, but the league picked an up-and-comer. For the 2024 Winter Classic at T-Mobile Field, 14-year-old Bellevue High freshman Nikhil Bagga will play The Star-Spangled Banner on his guitar.

He’s performed it at both Mariners and Kraken games. The NHL reached out after seeing his stirring version late last season.

This time the crowd will be nearly three times what it was at Climate Pledge Arena. “I’m gonna bring it,” he vowed. “I'm not gonna be nervous. “It's a weird feeling to describe. All the practice that went into it — you're here now. You did the work.”

He’s a student of local legends. He has a quote from Seattle native Jimi Hendrix — whose own rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock is iconic — on the inside of his custom guitar strap: “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” is one of his favorite songs to revisit when he picks up the ax.

On the front of his strap is the Kraken logo, the Winter Classic logo, Bagga’s own logo and the Space Needle. There are also nods to rock inspirations: Hendrix again, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Heart.

Seattle’s own Heart will perform at the first intermission. Sir Mix-a-Lot is set to handle player introductions.

Getting up there in famous company, in front of so many faces, shouldn’t bother Bagga.

“It's kind of like an out-of-body experience, almost,” he said.

He said it was like love at first sight when he picked up a guitar at nine years old and someone taught him a few chords. Bagga released an album, “Leap of Faith,” in 2022. According to his website, Heart drummer Ben Smith was featured on it.

His quick progression separates him from others his guitar coach, Matt Benham, has taught, and a big part of that is elbow grease.

“Nikhil probably plays every chance, every second he can get. That sets him apart for sure,” Benham said.

Benham estimated Bagga has practiced the national anthem thousands of times. Twenty minutes easily becomes an hour when he’s playing.

“It's definitely easy to get lost,” Bagga said.

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