When the Music City was granted a National Hockey League franchise in 1997, I thought it would be as out of place as Garth Brooks and Nelly performing a duet at the Grand Ole Opry.
I thought cars would fly, shoe laces would tie themselves and the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before hockey would find a deep fan base in Tennessee.
It just didn’t feel right to think of a winter sport capturing the imagination of country boys and girls accustomed to first downs, touchdowns and cleats, not face-offs, line changes and skates.
This is football country, after all, with the Titans and Vols taking up all the oxygen in the room. A future with hockey tickets selling like a Brooks album seemed out of the question.
Within a few seasons, I thought the Predators would find the fan base harder to crack than the glass surrounding NHL rinks. I figured they’d relocate by now, like the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
As another hockey season opens, though, the Predators have proven me wrong. Their fan base is knowledgeable and proud, whether they’re from the hills of Tennessee or transplants from the General Motors plants in Detroit to Spring Hill.
The Predators have become a model franchise, helping make hockey Nashville’s favorite sports pastime. It’s so ingrained, the 2016 NHL All-Star Game will be played Jan. 31 at Bridgestone Arena, a major coup for the city. If you don’t have tickets already, they’ll be hard to find.
The Predators lack tradition and a Stanley Cup championship. Those take time, but the Predators are expected to contend for the title this season.
If you thought fans were passionate about the Titans drafting quarterback Marcus Mariotta, make the short drive from Columbia to Bridgestone Arena and watch hockey fans dive into their obsession.
They stand for two and a half hours. They yell and scream, watching a tiny puck flying down the ice, with lots of players with toothless smiles chasing after it. There’s so little scoring, it reminds me of soccer sometimes. That’s not meant as an insult.
The lack of scoring is actually a good thing for the Predators. They have one of the NHL’s best defensive teams and will make the playoffs because of it.
It’s hard to score on the Predators, who have started the season 6-1-1 after Saturday night’s overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s hard not to love the Preds now,” season-ticket holder John Sarons, 32, of Greenbrier said. “They have gotten to the point where they’re fundamentally sound everywhere. They’ve always been good on defense. Now they’ve got young players who can score and create excitement.”
Much of the Predators success comes from strong marketing and dedication from the team’s ownership and General Manager David Poile, who’s in his 18th season with Nashville. He has been active in building the Predators into a championship contender, one player at a time.
With second-year coach Peter Laviolette bringing a change of style and philosophy, focused on a quicker pace and constant attacking, the Predators give fans plenty of reasons to cheer.
The Predators have a blend of veterans and fresh faces. Filip Forsberg, 20, led the team in scoring last season as a rookie with 63 points and will have plenty of help from forwards Colin Wilson (20 goals, 22 assists last season) and Craig Smith (23 goals, 21 assists).
Goalie Pekka Rinne, 32, and defenseman Shea Webber, 30, are playing the best hockey of their careers, in my opinion. Centers Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro, both 35, are team leaders and fixtures.
If center Cody Hodson flourishes during his fresh start in Nashville, after struggling last season in Buffalo, if newcomer Viktor Arvidsson has half the season Forberg had as a rookie and if newly signed defenseman Barret Jackman can add toughness on defense, the Predators might be hoisting a championship banner to the ceiling of Bridgestone Arena.
Weber missed the playoffs last season with a dislocated kneecap. Fans think their riveting series with the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup, would have gone the other way with Weber in the lineup. The Hawks won that series 4-2, with two victories covering in overtime.
“If they stay healthy, they’ve got a legitimate shot this season,” said Predators fan Jay McCoy from outside Murfreesboro. “That will keep fans interested and coming to watch them play.”
Nashville has sold out 16 consecutive regular-season games. They had a record attendance of 691,028 last season, averaging 16,854 per game at 17,113-seat Bridgestone Arena.
Surveying the sea of fans from atop the arena, it’s still difficult for me to believe. I’ve always known Nashville had the potential to grow into more of a musical destination, with more clubs and restaurants opening every month. But I could not imagine it with hockey as its centerpiece from October until April.
I once wrote on Facebook that I liked everything except hockey, soccer and spoiled milk. Like others living in Tennessee, I’ve changed my mind about hockey.
I doubt we’ll see many country-hip-hop collaborations in the Grand Ole Opry circle. I’m guessing cars will not fly off the GM assembly line in my lifetime. But a hockey championship, with fans who love it as much as any in Detroit, Pittsburgh or Montreal? That’s not a vision of the future in Nashville. It’s already here.
Welcome to Smashville.
James Bennett is editor of The Daily Herald. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JamesBennettCDH.
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