To all those people who said last summer that the idea of NHL hockey in Nashville sounded strange, the verdict is in. You were right.
It was wonderfully strange.
Saturday’s inaugural game for the city’s new sports franchise, the Predators, was attended not only by 17,000 curious ticket-buyers, but by some curious happenings, too. They made for an evening inside the Arena that at once seemed giddy and, even to the players and coaches who’d long been preparing for the moment, a little unreal.
Who’da thunk, after all, that you could stage a hockey game and a love-in would break out?
It’s not every day that crowds line up several hours before a sporting event to greet athletes as they enter. But that’s the reception fans provided for the Predators, who were chauffeured in limousines to the Arena and strolled in on a red carpet, like movie stars at a Hollywood premiere.
Nor does a coach often find it necessary to give a pre-game un-pep talk. But that was the strategy of the Predators’ Barry Trotz, fearing that his young players would be so juiced that they wouldn’t perform well. “The guys were on cloud nine,” the rookie coach explained afterward. “I said, ‘Please don’t let the energy overtake you.’ ”
On the subject of strange doings, when was the last time you heard a professional team owner in any sport receive a roaring cheer from a crowd? But that’s the sound that filled Craig Leipold’s ears when he stepped onto the ice before the game. The crowd lustily cheered NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, too. And Mayor Phil Bredesen. And the Predators players and coaches and trainers, the new team mascot, and the fireworks during the national anthem. They particularly cheered two punch-slinging fights (one aspect of the game they could all appreciate without having attended one of the Predators’ Hockey 101 classes). There wasn’t much the fans didn’t cheer, except for the visiting Florida Panthers and the officials, who whistled Nashville for 13 penalties.
They even roared appreciatively after the Predators finally succumbed 1-0, thereby contributing to another curiosity: a loss that counts as an unqualified success.
For the occasion, the Predators arrived armed with plenty of hype and flourish, including a laser show, free commemorative pucks, and a sabre-toothed tunnel through which the home team stepped onto the ice. But the organization really didn’t need all the dazzle to capture an audience. The players did fine on their own.
Except for the least important yardstick for the long term (winning the game), the Predators seemingly could do no wrong Saturday. They drew cheers whenever they mounted a rush. Penalties were the refs’ fault. No one could be heard second-guessing the coach. In fact, Leipold, signaling a radical departure from the Steinbrenner School of Team Ownership, told Trotz how pleased he was with his team’s performance after the coach’s post-game press conference.
Of course, the Predators enjoy several advantages when it comes to garnering fan support.
Since everyone expects an expansion team to lose abundantly, there’s no particular pressure to win. Instead of drafting veterans to increase short-term success, the Predators’ management opted for promising but inexperienced young players who could solidify into the nucleus of a consistent contender down the road.
For this season, Trotz hopes simply that the team will be competitive. If they win 25 games, that’s a bonus.
It also helps that, to many Nashvillians raised on football and basketball, hockey remains a little quaint, like the clipped O’s of the Canadian players. Fans here may feel like the parents of a spacebound astronaut: they don’t much understand the intricacies of their child’s work, but they’re proud to be watching the launch.
Don’t underestimate the value of such parental feelings. Unlike the Oilers, who came to Nashville through an arranged marriage, the Predators were born here. (Folks even got to help name the baby.)
Those who attended the game Saturday could savor a proprietary sense of being present at the creation, of being the Founding Fansand the Predators could position themselves, with a certain legitimacy that extended beyond the hype, as Nashville’s team.
Here’s the really weird/wonderful thing. For whatever reasons fans seemed to embrace their new hockey teamcivic pride, love of the sport, or excitement over a new municipal toythe players appeared to reciprocate the feelings.
After Saturday’s game, many of them spoke as if they were playing for the city itself, not merely as highly paid nomads. To hear them, it was difficult to believe they were not being sincere.
“Our locker room was dead silent when we didn’t get a point for the people of Nashville,” said Trotz.
Echoed Tom Fitzgerald, the team’s captain: “This has been a long time coming for the people of Nashville. It’s indescribable to realize what you mean to some people. It goes beyond the ice. It’s about striking a bond with the community.”
Even the brawling was on the city’s behalf. Patrick Cote, who earned two major penalties for fighting, wasn’t just earning a reputation as the team’s enforcer, said his mates; he was serving notice that no opponent was going to come into Nashville and push people around. (Ain’t nothin’ about THAT aspect of hockey that Southern folks can’t appreciate.)
“Will Nashville support two pro sports franchises?” asked a visiting sportswriter from Bristol. “That’s the 200-and-some-odd-million-dollar question,” he was told.
It’s too early, of course, to gauge what will happen to the sellout crowds once the novelty of NHL hockey wears off, or whether fans will remain as patiently resistant to short-term thinking as the team’s management. Whatever other conclusions you draw, though, it’s fair to say this much after one game: These folks know how to put on a pretty fair coming-out party.
How It Looks From The La-Z-Boy
Oilers 20, Bengals 14
Georgia 42, Vanderbilt 7
Florida 24, Auburn 9
LSU 30, Kentucky 26
Arkansas 37, South Carolina 14
Alabama 26, East Carolina 13
Mississippi State 38,
East Tennessee State 14
UCLA 41, Oregon 31