NASHVILLE – Hockey fans are usually like a mood ring.
They reflect the disposition of the game being played, whether that’s elation or tension, back at the players on the ice. A good thing happens, the arena goes nuts, and more good things happen.
Or you get a situation like that annual pit of despair in Washington D.C., where the nervous sense of impending doom on the ice is amplified by fans who are also haunted by a history of devastatingly inventive disappointment. “You feel it in the crowd. It’s in there. You tell me in that Game 7 that you couldn’t feel it,” said Capitals GM Brian MacLellan recently.
The Nashville Predators fans inside and outside of Bridgestone Arena for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, however, were something different. Sure, they’ve had playoff disappoints, but not at a volume where dread trumps enthusiasm for the first Final round game on home ice.
And so Predators fans offered something rarely seen or experienced: They were a mood-altering narcotic, rather than a mood ring; rather than reflect the vibe, they created and sustained their own, and in the process propelled the Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final victory as a franchise.
The best example: That TV timeout after Jake Guentzel converted a fortuitous rebound into the game’s first goal at 2:46 of the first period. Down 2-0 in the series, down 1-0 on home ice, knowing your goalie is struggling and knowing the Penguins are 12-2 when scoring first. What did the Predators fans do? They cheered. Loudly, and then louder than that.
They cheered with purpose, attempting to maintain the sense of jubilation that had blanketed the area since around noon on Saturday. They cheered to lift the players up, change their mood and prevent the Penguins from adding another goal or two in a few-minutes span, like they had in the previous two wins. They got on their feet during a TV timeout and they cheered because they knew, at that moment, their team needed something beyond the norm.
“That doesn’t happen every day,” said defenseman Mattias Ekholm.
No, it doesn’t. None of this does.
Nashville is otherwise known as “NashVegas.”
While there are literal comparison points between the two cities – bountiful entertainment and nightlife, flowing booze and plentiful sin, marinated in kitch – one look around in the hours before Game 3 spoke to the intrinsic shared DNA between the two.
In Vegas, at any given moment, you’re surrounded by any number of groups and individuals, with any number of reasons for being there. And so in NashVegas on Saturday, the area around Bridgestone Arena had Predators fans and Penguins fans, and day drinkers and country music fans there for CMA Fest, and about two dozen bachelorette parties and, most strikingly and somewhat hilariously, “The Walking Dead” fans flooding the streets as they left a nearby zombie convention.
So you had someone carrying a catfish to throw on the ice standing next to someone in a faux wedding dress with plastic cup full of wine next to someone carrying a barbed-wire-wrapped bat they referred to as “Lucille.”
Such is NashVegas.
The confluence of these fans, along with the necessary dedicated space for NHL pregame concerts and events, made the sidewalks of Broadway slightly more crowded than Bourbon Street during peak Mardi Gras. Gold clad, sweaty people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, squeezing through each other to open bar doors, or simply to the next block of them. Around 3 p.m., fans started setting up lawn furniture ahead of Game 3, in order to secure spaces for the outdoor party, taking up even more real estate. At one point I saw a couple notice a woman with a stroller and then acted as her lead blocker through the crowd so she could get to her car, like two fullbacks making room for a running back.
The postgame estimate by Nashville PD was that over 50,000 people converged around the area to experience Game 3. And if you think that party vibe and sanguine support didn’t imprint on the Predators as they arrived for the game, then you haven’t spoke to Frederick Gaudreau.
“You can feel it. The energy is crazy,” said the rookie, who blew the roof off the arena with a second-period goal that gave Nashville the lead and ended up as the game-winner.
After the Predators got through those crowds to arrive at Game 3, they had NHL Network on in their dressing room, watching the carnival of enthusiasm outside. “You see all the shots of what’s going on outside. It’s pretty amazing. Pretty amazing,” said coach Peter Laviolette.
What was happening inside the arena was equally amazing.
“We were aware of how crazy it was outside. You can feel the buzz,” said forward James Neal, who also scored in Game 3. “The atmosphere in the warm-ups and the buildup was unbelievable, right through the whole game.”
They were inspired. But perhaps no one was more inspired, and supported, by these fans than the longest-serving member of the team in Nashville.
You have to understand this about Pekka Rinne: The fans here have a very personal investment in him.
He was once a member of the franchise’s holy trinity of stars, who were basically the team’s identity from a hockey perspective. He was the one to commit to Nashville with a seven-year deal that kicked in back in 2012. The idea was that his contract would solidify the foundation for the future and, in turn, keep the trinity’s other facets – defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber – intact. But Suter left for Minnesota, and life was never really the same again after Weber signed an offer sheet with Philadelphia. The long-serving captain was traded to Montreal for P.K. Subban last summer.
Rinne remained. And this postseason, through three rounds, he was the reason the Predators won the Western Conference. He was the reason they’re here.
Yet he had been mediocre in the first two losses of the series against Pittsburgh, and had never won a start against the Penguins in his career. There was talk that he wouldn’t start Game 3, although coach Peter Laviolette said after the game that his status was never in jeopardy and it was the media who put his status in question, which is what the media does when coaches choose to play reindeer games with the obvious.
Still, Rinne needed a boost. And the fans provided him one before Game 3, cheering him loudly during warmups and then offering the loudest roar of the player introductions when he was announced.
“That was unbelievable,” he said after the game. “Collectively, we came to the locker room, and everybody was kind of telling each other that we’ve never seen anything like that. It was pretty cool. For sure, as players, we are really proud to be part of it, just having our fans get a chance to get recognized. Being on a big stage now. Good showcase for the city of Nashville and for our fans.”
Rinne made 27 saves and was named the first star.
Game 3 was a showcase for what the Predators have built here in Nashville.
On the ice, it’s a team that can carry play for 60 minutes against the defending Stanley Cup champions; one that has constantly surprising scoring depth; and one that can be so adept on defense that it can hold Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a shot on goal, the first time both of them have been held at zero shots in a playoff game.
Off the ice, the Predators showed what the greatest party in the NHL looks like.
“The fans’ support through the playoffs and all year has been great,” said Neal. “Like Pekks said, the hockey world is starting to see it here.”
The goofy traditions like the catfish being tossed on the ice and the celebrities that fire up the “battle siren” during the game and the mascot rappelling from the roof. The hilarious traditions, like trolling the opposing goalie with chants of “it’s all your fault.” The fact that they play DMX’s “Party Up” to pump the crowd before power plays, which is as amazing as when the crowd sang along with Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” in the third period. The fact that they play “Glorious Domination,” the theme song of NXT wrestler Bobby Roode, before the third period as some sort of hockey psalm.
And you know what it all led to on Saturday night, besides a Predators’ win?
Jealously. F.O.M.O. A feeling that the rest of the hockey world was outside the club, standing at the velvet rope, getting a peek inside at the dance floor. I defy you to find one hockey fan that experienced the vibe at Game 3, either on site or though their television, and didn’t yearn to be a part of something this kinetic and exhilarating, provided they weren’t a jilted Penguins loyalist or one of the few remaining dupes who think Nashville is, at best, a minor league hockey town.
“It’s the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” said P.K. Subban, formerly of Bell Centre.
“Our fans don’t get enough credit for knowing the game and knowing hockey. And they do know the game. And they understand the importance of these games. Regardless of what the score is, they’re going to cheer for us, because we work so hard to give them something.”
There was actually a moment when the Predators fans were like a mood ring for their team on the ice: At the end of the game, when the jubilation of the players was mirrored by the celebration in the stands.
They say you always remember your first time, and this was 19 years of constant mockery from the hockey establishment and potential relocation and playoff disappoints in the making. It was a party the city and the franchise had earned, and something they’ll always remember no matter the outcome of the series.
Although P.K. Subban believes it still won’t compare to what’s ahead for the Predators and their fans.
“You thought it was loud today?” he asked.
“I’m sure it’ll be even louder in Game 4.”
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