Nashville Predators: Southern hockey's hot spot

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Too small. Too Southern. In bad times, these are the negatives for Nashville as an NHL market. But in good times, it is the small-town feel and Southern flavor that give the home of the Predators a strong sense of place, and in the best of times, they might even make it special.

These are the best times the Predators have ever had. The ownership situation has stabilized, the fear of relocation has subsided, attendance has increased and the Preds have advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since joining the NHL in 1998. When they take the ice Tuesday night for the first Western Conference semifinal game ever played at Bridgestone Arena, they will be trying to take a 2-1 series lead on the Vancouver Canucks, the best team in the league in the regular season and the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

The hard-core fans have been waiting for this. They feel a connection to a team that has known only one general manager, David Poile, and only one coach, Barry Trotz, a team that has drafted and developed many of its own players, including stars Shea Weber(notes), Ryan Suter(notes) and Pekka Rinne(notes). They feel they have all grown together, broken stereotypes together and earned their place in the hockey world.

“To me, the most satisfying thing is that I know these people, and I’m happy for them,” said Scott Hickman, a Tennessee native and Nashville lawyer with a Southern accent, who has had season tickets from Day 1. “We’d love nothing better than to be accepted and treated as an Original 27 team – that’s what I call us – and let the stories be about our team and our players.”

The casual fans are catching on, too.

After scoring two goals as the Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 in the first round, winger Nick Spaling(notes) – a 22-year-old from a small town in Ontario who “might not be recognized in Ontario,” according to Predators broadcaster Pete Weber – was recognized while buying lunch at a Quiznos, a worker wishing him well in Vancouver.

In between the first and second rounds, Pete Weber was approached by workers and customers while buying plumbing supplies at a Home Depot. They wanted to talk hockey. So did callers on a sports talk radio show when Weber did a segment Friday, the day after the first round of the NFL draft.

“They get me on the air,” Weber said. “They say, ‘Well, we just tried to spend a few minutes talking about the Titans’ No. 1 draft pick, and people started complaining that we weren’t talking about the Predators.’ ”

When the Predators returned from Vancouver about 4:45 p.m. CT on Sunday, after a dramatic double-overtime victory the night before, they were greeted at the airport. Not only was there a horde of media, but there were fans – maybe 150, maybe as many as 300, depending on the estimate – who had been rallied online by Nashville bloggers.

“There was always kind of this underlying emotion, like, ‘Well, it’d be great, but it’s not really going to happen,’ ” said Jeremy Gover, a season-ticket holder who blogs for Section303.com. “So the fact that there’s actually a second round, it kind of shows the fan base that, yeah, we can actually win here. With this coaching staff, with this team and in this market, we can actually win. That’s tremendous to be a part of.”

Walking the streets of Music City on Monday afternoon, you could find hockey amid the honky-tonks. At Rippy’s, a joint next to the arena, a guy with a backward Boston Bruins cap sat at the bar listening to live country music. At Jack’s Bar-be-cue, just across Broadway, the girl serving plates of pork shoulder and beef brisket wore a “Smashville” Predators T-shirt.

“I always say I fight the war of Northern aggression,” Trotz said Monday in a news conference that included many Canadian reporters. “I’m from Winnipeg. They’re going to get a team back.”

But the candidates to be that team are the Phoenix Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers, not the Predators.

“People don’t realize sometimes that this is a good hockey market,” Trotz said, “and the fans are very passionate.”

* * * * *

Nashville has been excited about the Predators before. There was that first playoff series in 2004, when the Predators won their first two home games – beating the Detroit Red Wings, with all their Original Six tradition and championship rings – before succumbing in six games. There was 2006-07, when the Predators picked up superstar Peter Forsberg(notes) before the trade deadline and finished with the third-most points in the league.

But the Predators have had problems. Though Poile and Trotz have earned a reputation for winning with limited resources, making the playoffs six times in the past seven seasons, they hadn’t won in the playoffs until now. The Predators have had trouble filling the rink in the past, and they have made only a modest profit only once in their history, according to a report in the Globe and Mail.

Right after that banner 2006-07 season ended with another first-round loss, owner Craig Leipold decided to sell the team. While he went on to buy the Minnesota Wild, the Predators cut payroll, dumped players and endured turmoil. Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie tried to buy the team and move it to southern Ontario. A group of local investors saved the team, but one owner, William 'Boots' Del Biaggio, ended up in jail for fraud.

Predators chairman Tomas Cigarran and the other investors settled things down. Last summer, they hired two executives with experience in Southern markets and Stanley Cup rings. Chief executive officer Jeff Cogen came from the Dallas Stars, president Sean Henry from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Cogen said they inherited an organization “that needed confidence.” The goal had been to average 14,000 fans to qualify for the NHL’s revenue-sharing program. The fear had been that employees would lose their jobs or maybe have to move to another country to keep them. That had to change.

“We said, ‘The local ownership group is committed,’ ” Cogen said. “ ‘This team is not going anywhere. We are going to fill the building so 14,000 becomes irrelevant. When we fill the building, the local ownership group is going to re-invest that money back into the team, so that this “small market” ’ … ”

Cogen made quote marks with his fingers, emphasizing those were other people’s words, not his. He didn’t finish his sentence. He got right to the point.

“We don’t want to survive in the NHL,” he said. “We want to compete for championships in the NHL.”

Things didn’t go smoothly on the ice at first. The Predators signed free agent Matthew Lombardi(notes) last summer to be their first-line center, but he suffered a concussion in his second game and didn’t return. They were constantly in danger of not even making the playoffs.

Still, with more aggressive marketing, the Predators drew more fans. They finished the season with 94.3 percent attendance, up from about 87 percent each of the past three seasons. They sold out 16 regular-season games, after selling out four last season. They sold out their first three playoff games and expect to sell out the next two.

TV ratings went up, too. The first game against the Canucks drew a 3.6 rating on Versus. The first round of the NFL draft the same night drew a combined 5.1 rating on ESPN and NFL Network. Pete Weber said that “represents huge inroads.” Predators regular-season games averaged a rating of about 0.6 or 0.7.

Cogen declined to say whether the Predators would make a profit this season, but said making the second round “should get us pretty close.” They already have renewed 90 percent of season tickets for next season and hope to increase their base from about 9,400 to more than 10,000.

The added revenue already has paid off. Before the trade deadline, ownership gave Poile permission to replace Lombardi by trading for center Mike Fisher(notes). That helped them make the playoffs, and it came with a bonus of extra buzz.

The Predators insist this was a hockey move. Fisher is an outstanding two-way player who is signed for two more seasons. But he also happens to be married to country singer Carrie Underwood, who happens to live in Nashville. She performed between periods of a game in the first round, not at the request of the Predators but of friend and fellow country star Vince Gill, who occasionally hops on stage with a cover band at Bridgestone Arena.

“It killed our beer sales,” Cogen cracked. “Nobody moved.”

* * * * *

Poile knows expansion. His father, Bud, was the first general manager of both the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks. He started his own career as an administrative assistant with the brand-new Atlanta Flames and worked for the Washington Capitals before he became the first GM in Nashville.

“Maybe I was thinking of my dad,” Poile said. “Maybe this was the Poile niche or something, I don’t know.”

Or maybe it’s just the challenge of starting something from scratch, finishing what you started, adding to hockey history. Poile doesn’t believe you need to have the highest payroll to win in the NHL. But he believes the Predators’ success should give them more resources and credibility to keep the players they already have – like Shea Weber, a pending restricted free agent – and to add more in the future. He believes the Predators can make Nashville known as a hockey town.

“I think our expansion years were fine,” Poile said. “They were normal. I thought we did well for an expansion team. But then we got labeled as a small-market team with a small budget. Would we be able to compete? Would we be able to stay here? That’s not fun on a weekly, monthly basis to go through that.”

But the Predators made it through and have broken through, and now Poile wants another label.

“I want to be competitive,” Poile said. “You want to have a chance to win the Cup every year. As a manager, that’s my job. I want to be able to look at the players every year in training camp and say, ‘We have a chance to win the Stanley Cup this year.’ That’s what I’d like.”

The future looks bright. Poile said the Predators have the fifth-youngest team in the NHL, and if you want a sign that hockey can grow here, take Blake Geoffrion(notes). The great-grandson of Howie Morenz, the grandson of Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion and the son of Danny Geoffrion, the 23-year-old is the first fourth-generation player in the NHL – and the first Tennessean.

He grew up in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, because his father ended up there for a job after his hockey career. He remembers rooting for the Predators since their inception. He remembers the rink being half-full. And now he’s as excited as anyone that the Predators are winning in the playoffs and the rink is sold out and loud – the fans standing and screaming during TV timeouts, twirling their towels. He said he made a comment to David Legwand(notes), the Predators’ first draft pick, who is now his teammate.

“I said, ‘Man, whoever thought Nashville’s hockey would be like this, like it is today?’ ” Geoffrion said. “It’s just crazy to think about.”

Not as crazy as it used to be.

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