From the kitchen of her suburban home in Woodbridge, Ont., 15-year-old Martina Ortiz-Luis appears to live an ordinary teenaged life.
She giggles about her love affair with Harry Potter, identifies herself by how close she lives to Canada’s Wonderland, and talks excitedly of her love of music and theatre. She jokes about her friends, retelling stories of things they talked about at school.
But she can also list off her accomplishments. It’s a long list, filled with saids and dones that are far from ordinary for a Grade 10.
Outside, beyond the grey curtains of the sliding glass doors into her backyard, sprawls the busy highway that forced her to push her interview back by a half hour. Inside, she sits on a wooden kitchen chair, her long messy black hair hanging over a brand new Toronto Maple Leafs hoodie. The sweater, worn intentionally for this interview, is marked by its massive new logo.
Out of sight, her parents, James and Merj, linger nearby in case she forgets anything or has any questions. She’s attentive but distracted, frequently turning to them to confirm dates and times of when it was that she started voice training (three years old), or that time she performed at such and such festival or such and such a charity event.
She almost forgot about the audition, the one that led to the growing number of interview requests.
Her dad, a Leafs fan, found out that the team was looking for an anthem singer at the end of July — maybe the beginning of August, she can’t remember — while browsing the team’s website. By the end of August, less than 48 hours before the audition, she remembered to ask him, “Oh, like what’s up with the Leafs?”
“We were like, “oh my God, we need to be there like super early because the auditions open at 8 o’clock,” so we went there at 7 a.m. the next day and there was already a growing line and we went through the audition process and fortunately got the gig,” she says nonchalantly. “There were quite a few people and a lot of them were like, professionals, and some of them have had past relationships with the Leafs.”
For Ortiz-Luis, it comes that naturally. It wasn’t her first time singing O Canada; she had done so before several times, including on Canada Day in Markham, Ont., but she didn’t do much — other than show up — to prepare for her audition.
Born to parents who immigrated from Manila, Philippines, Martina has grown up faster than most her age. By four years old, she had already performed in vocal competitions and at corporate events. As a child, she was enrolled at the Royal Conservatory of Music before moving to the Cardinal Carter Academy of the Arts, both in Toronto. As a pre-teen, she wrote and recorded World Vision’s charity Christmas song. At 12, she hosted a Rogers TV program called Music In My Hood. Last year, she starred in a production of Mary Poppins, playing the lead role of Jane Banks.
Now, still in need of drives to the rink until she can get her own license at 16, Martina’s the first full-time anthem singer in the history of hockey’s biggest franchise, chosen from hundreds of hopefuls on that almost-forgotten summer morning.
In the Leafs’ preseason, ahead of the franchise’s Centennial Season, the team flew the bubbly teenager to Halifax to perform O Canada in front of 11,000 people — the largest crowd she had ever sang to. Then she sang the anthems again in St. Catharines, Ont., before debuting at the Air Canada Centre (ACC) ahead of an exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens. Each time, she received a standing ovation. In one of the later rounds of the audition process, Martina remembers being amazed by the other singers. She was one of the younger hopefuls and everyone else was “so amazing, they were all fantastic.” But when she sings, people listen — surprised by her power and control.
At the Leafs’ first home game of the Centennial Season, she made her regular season debut as the focal point of an hour and a half long pre-game ceremony to celebrate the team’s first one hundred years. It was the first of the more than three dozen times she’d perform O Canada and The Star-Spangled Banner in front of roughly 20,000 people at a sold-out ACC this season.
She’d performed as a contestant on The Voice in the Philippines, where thousands tuned in, but at that home opener, her voice was broadcast on Hockey Night In Canada for the first time to an even bigger audience when Toronto welcomed the Boston Bruins.
At school, she’s already a star. She gushes, talking of strangers, friends and teachers who continue to congratulate her on her new job.
“After I sang lots of people were tweeting at me. Someone sent me a GIF edit of me and Toronto behind me and the CN Tower was blinking,” she says, hands wide and flashing her fingers with a cheek-to-cheek, crooked-toothed grin before flipping her hair excitedly. “They were like ‘you’re going to be a good ambassador of Toronto!’ And people at school were like ‘I saw you in the papers and you were so good on Sportsnet!’ And teachers at school were like ‘really good job, congratulations!’”
Every morning, Martina’s high school plays one of her renditions of O Canada on the PA system.
“My one friend who goes to another school she was like ‘by the time you’re done with this national anthem thing everyone’s going to be sick of your national anthem even though it’s fantastic,’” she says, twisting in her seat, eyes wrinkling from another giggle.
Those around her describe her as an imaginative, fun, mature girl for her age as a person and a vocalist.
“It's hard to believe this sometimes timid but social teen has a voice that big inside of her,” says Michael Peters, Martina’s manager at MDP Music Media, who met her through word from his accountant, a friend of James’. “Her personality transforms on stage into a dynamic and commanding performer.”
And while she’s the Leafs’ first full-time anthem singer, signed to a one-year contract, Martina is following in a long history of accomplished ACC anthem performers, including regulars such as Canadian pop-rock band the Barenaked Ladies and fan-favourite Scotty Newlands.
Newlands, a Second Lieutenant of the Canadian Army, stole the hearts of Canadians with his passionate, prideful renditions of O Canada. He resents when anthemists modify their rendition, or use the anthem to showcase the vocal prowess of the performer while paying little attention to the words he deems to be sacred.
“As an anthemist, I pride myself on delivering a performance as natural, honest and traditional as possible,” Newlands, now the anthem singer for the Toronto Rock, says. “It was an honour to be asked to perform the anthem and I made it my solemn duty and personal obligation to put everything I had and everything I am into a performance which would be truly worthy of our great nation.”
Martina, who grew up a Toronto sports fan, thanks to her dad’s interest, particularly in the Toronto Raptors, is overwhelmed by the chance to perform O Canada and The Star-Spangled Banner at the Leafs’ home games. In Halifax, when she first performed O Canada ahead of a Leafs game, she was comfortable in the moment. But afterwards, she grew extremely nervous.
“I don’t know why, I was just like ‘oh my God, that was the greatest thing I’ve ever done,’” she recalls. “Until of course, you know, I sang at the ACC and that was amazing.”
Her whirlwind has already been full of firsts. When she talks about the first time she met Carlton The Bear (the team’s mascot), or Brendan Shanahan (the team’s general manager), or the “hype squad,” or Danielle Emanuele (the new in-arena host for the Leafs), she smiles and laughs and raises her hands in awe. “It’s just an honour to work with all of them because they really make you feel welcome, and yeah,” she says, rubbing her nose, at a loss for words.
She talks glowingly of the Leafs’ own teenagers, rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who carry the future of the organization on their shoulders, and hopes that she can bring energy to the ACC crowd like they do. She can’t wait for each game, each performance.
“I’m just looking forward to getting everyone pumped, getting the ACC pumped and starting off the season good,” she says.
Newlands remembers every moment of the first time he sang at a regular season Leafs game at the ACC. Like Martina, he thanks theatre training for the “big booming voice” that came out of his small frame.
“The pride you feel from the crowd is nothing short of electric,” he recalls of November 11 (Remembrance Day), 2006 when he was a Private serving in the Canadian Army Reserve. He remembers standing “within mere feet of living legends such as Patrick Roy and Johnny Bower” as well as “some true Canadian war heroes who risked everything for our country.” He remembers the indescribable feeling he felt when then-public address announcer Andy Frost called out his name and rank. He remembers marching forward, mic at the ready, as veterans snapped to attention to salute. Newlands recalls one veteran, who after seeing him perform from ice level, told him he’d salute that rendition every day of his life.
“I may have performed the anthem publicly prior to that but that was this night that changed me forever,” he says.
Back in that ordinary beige-painted kitchen, where common decorative art of chefs and coffee hang from the wall, a life-changing experience of her own awaits Martina this hockey season. And for that girl, the anything-but-ordinary World Vision Youth Ambassador in a Leafs sweater who dreams of becoming a pop or R&B star, a different kind of booming voice and passionate energy will also do the talking.
“I’m really, really excited,” she confidently finished with a quiet laugh, ready for the country to hear her sing again and again… for years to come.