There is an iconic snapshot in Nashville Predators lore. It hangs in the foyer of Bridgestone Arena. It's from the summer of 2007, dark days for a team then regarded as little more than a bizarre — and expensive — civic novelty.
Back then, the Preds were in serious danger of moving to Hamilton, Ontario. Very serious danger. A Canadian wheeler-dealer named Jim Balsillie was putting public thumbscrews to then-owner Craig Leipold to sell him the team. Balsillie made no secret that he intended to relocate the Preds to the Great White North — and he made no secret of his disdain for those hillbilly hockey newbies dotting the stands down in Nashville. So what if he sported a wild-eyed expression like the Enzyte pitchman and a name tailor-made for talk-radio abuse? Balsillie meant business.
So there was a rally on the plaza outside Bridgestone Arena, a push to fire up the Music City faithful. Public perception was everything, and the team's future in Nashville — a city that has about as much hockey in its DNA as it has a hankering for caribou — was on the line. The photo shows then-Tennessee first lady Andrea Conte at the rally, holding a sign handed to her by one of the thousands in the crowd. It reads: "Get Your Damn Hands Off My Team."
At the time, that riled-up message represented the attitude of the Predators' fanbase, then little more than a cult of zealous early believers (including Conte). With the team and its die-hards under siege from the traditional markets from day one, the photo sent a message fans could get behind: Like Conte, we may look nice and demure, but when attacked — well, kitty's got claws.
Just weeks ago, though, the photo was joined in Predators lore by an equally iconic film. It's a scene from the minutes after the best season in Predators history came to an end against the Vancouver Canucks on May 9. It captures something seldom seen in professional sports: a capacity crowd giving a standing ovation to a team that just lost its shot at a championship.
The crowd — yes, as always, Andrea Conte included — is on its feet, loudly cheering. The players — emotionally overwhelmed to a man — are on their feet, almost awestruck as they stand by the bench. Like the photo just four years before, the film captures a turning point. But this shows that Nashville, once and for all, has become a hockey town.
How the hell did that happen?
By nearly every measure, the 2010-11 vintage of the Nashville Predators had the most successful season in team history. On the ice, the team reached unforeseen heights — starting with the Preds' very first playoff series win, one of dozens of firsts the 13-year-old franchise achieved this year.
Off the ice, though, the victory might have been even more dramatic. Average paid attendance during the regular season was 15,562 — up 9.1 percent from 2009-10. Comp tickets averaged 655 per game, down 22 percent. Overall attendance was up 9.3 percent, the third-largest increase in the NHL.
Silenced were the usual worries about relocation and the hand-wringing about attendance. As momentum built, the faithful greeted the news — or the lack thereof — with unprecedented mania, solidifying a reputation in the league for volume and enthusiasm.
By the time the Predators' golden (or perhaps more accurately, bronze) season roared to a close, hockey had grabbed hold of Music City, turning the once-apathetic town into throaty, blue-and-gold-clad cheerleaders.
Sure, a playoff run will do that — just ask the Tennessee Titans after their first electrifying season in Nashville. But so will savvy marketing and delivering a sense of ownership to a town thirsty for sporting success. As it turned out, the 2010-11 season was the perfect storm Nashville needed — a collision of luck, savvy marketing, social media, cosmic alignment and a team ready at last to leave claw marks in the ice.
Here, in the words of players, coaches and pundits — and perhaps above all, the loudest, wildest fans ever to catch pucks in their teeth and spit out iPhone covers — is the story of how Music City joined the Ice Age.
You want the short version? First, the Predators' homegrown superstars took a step forward on the ice just as the organization brought in front-office first-liners. Second, The Titans, long the city's pro sports darlings, suffered through a disappointing year. By the time they finished making headlines for all the wrong reasons — missing the playoffs (again), extracurricular mishaps (again), the snit-fit standoff between Vince Young and Jeff Fisher that got them matching collars in Bud Adams' doghouse — the NFL ensnared the team in the sort of off-putting labor dispute that makes fans groan and check out what's on ESPN Ocho.
And there, ready to seize the spotlight, stood the Preds.
Moments from the resulting year are burned into fans' memories as if by sunlight. There is Blake Geoffrion, the Brentwood-reared crown prince of a hockey royal family, scoring an improbable hat trick. There is Sergei Kostitsyn, the misunderstood cast-off from Montreal, scoring two goals against Detroit — including a jaw-dropping one-handed man-down effort that in other cultures would be remembered in folk songs and epic poetry. (And that was on his way to lead the team in goals — despite making nearly $100,000 less than Wade Belak, the ebullient enforcer who eventually made his spot in the press box permanent.) There is the captain, Shea Weber, firing that fearsome slap shot in the waning minutes of a St. Patrick's Day game against Boston that turned the Bruins green.
And that was just in the regular season.
In the playoffs, here came Weber (again) sending Game 5 against the Ducks into overtime with a last-second slap shot (again). On his heels was Jerred Smithson, maybe the grittiest, grindiest guy on a roster full of hard workers. He scored the game winner in overtime, giving Nashville the chance to win its first playoff series.
After they knocked out the Ducks, it was déjà vu in Game 2 of the second round against Vancouver. This time, it was Ryan Suter, Weber's steady righthand man, who scored the last-second goal, while Matt Halischuk — a man who came to Nashville as an afterthought in the trade that sent former captain Jason Arnott to New Jersey — played the part of overtime hero.
Before all that, of course, there was Pekka Rinne — the goalie his coach calls "The Eraser" — making that sprawling save that mocked the laws of physics as much as it gobsmacked the Canucks.
But a sports season is not just a bunch of bright stars; it's also a constellation. Looking back, this season was a series of streaks for the Predators — win five, lose three, then win four and lose two more. Through those ups and downs, though, Weber became a bona fide superstar defenseman, and scorers throughout the league stayed up nights trying to solve the puzzle that is Rinne.
It's easy to look at the Preds now, at the end of their best season yet, and say their rise was a sure thing. But longtime Preds followers saw the signs before the rest of the city. It helps if, like Jeremy Gover, you have a proper vantage point — say, Section 303, the mad-dog Bridgestone Arena fan pit now known throughout North America as the Cellblock.
Gover, who runs the Section303.com blog when he's not in the stands, felt from the beginning that this year's team would be different. Where lazy reporters and other markets saw only the middling franchise of old, Gover and other Preds lifers saw a team filled with hungry young players.
"[Jason] Arnott was traded, Steve Sullivan is in the last year of his contract, J-P Dumont has one year left," Gover says. That's three veteran guys — all of whom had success elsewhere before coming to Nashville — who are either coming to the end of their careers or the likely end of their Nashville tenures.
So instead of the core being older players developed elsewhere, the core became Weber, Suter, Rinne, Patric Hornqvist and a host of other up-and-comers who knew only what Coach Barry Trotz calls "The Predator Way." In the final game of the playoffs, 15 of the 23 players on the roster were Nashville draftees.
"It was a passing of the torch," Gover explains. "All those young guys we've homegrown. This is their team." More to the point, he adds, that gave them a connection to Nashville previous players didn't have. "The market responded," he says.
But something really changed in the city once the Predators signed Mike Fisher. The Predators had been doing well in attendance before that; they had been playing well, too, even as Trotz and general manager David Poile were forced to slot in young players like Geoffrion while the front-liners were sidelined with injuries.
With college football over, and the NFL's return up in the air, sports media were suddenly starved for stories. Here came Nashville with an intriguing trade, just as interest in hockey in Middle Tennessee was picking up. Not only was Fisher a strong player who made for good copy, he and bride Carrie Underwood gave the city its first pro-sports/superstar power couple — a welcome respite from those tape loops of Cameron Diaz nuzzling A-Rod.
"The Fisher trade was a big deal, naturally, when he got traded here," says Dirk Hoag, who runs the popular Predators blog On the Forecheck. When Fisher came to Music City, he says, outsiders' perception of Nashville began to change.
With Fisher on board, the Preds were about to start a thrilling push to the playoffs that would include 12 home games in the last 15. When the team made the post-season, the buzz around the team started to crescendo.
"If you had told me 15 years ago, you're going to have a hockey team and this city's going to fall in love with them, it would have been crazy," says Brent Dougherty, one of three hosts on 104.5 The Zone's 3 Hour Lunch. A fixture of Nashville sports radio since the mid-'90s, Dougherty makes it his business to know what's got local sports fans by the Astroturf at the moment.
"What we try to do is pay attention," he says. "We try to figure out what people are talking about around the water cooler, and the Predators certainly became that. That attention was noticeable. People were talking about this team. People who weren't necessarily hockey fans fell in love with this team. It was a Nashville item. It became a city pride thing."
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