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."
What a difference a year makes. During the 2010-11 season, there were 16 regular season sellouts — the most since the second year of the franchise — and the team sold out all six home playoff games. Just one year ago, by contrast, there were only four sellouts. Just one year ago, Predators news was relegated to the middle pages of the sports section — and on bad days, the front page of the business section.
So the Preds' Ahab-like quest for the Stanley Cup is all it took to fire up a lukewarm franchise, right? Undoubtedly, winning a play-off series helped. But ask the chairman of the team's ownership group what was different this year, and he's unequivocal.
"The difference from prior years to this year came on the business side: Jeff Cogen and Sean Henry," Tom Cigarran says.
CEO Cogen and COO Henry joined the team last summer from Dallas and Tampa, respectively — cities where hockey is as counterintuitive as baked Alaska in a taco truck. To peddle pucks in those atypical hockey towns, they'd had to think outside the net — and from the beginning, they served notice things would be different.
First off, in their strategy to thaw the city's hearts and minds, they put an end to the suspicion that nagged every season. Read our lips, they said: The Predators will not relocate. "You'll never hear that," Cogen said in an October interview. Predators fans could now embrace the team, secure in knowing the front office wouldn't start every season threatening to shimmy out the window in the dead of night.
Asked after the season's end what cultural shift he'd seen regarding hockey in Nashville, Cogen is almost comically terse.
"We expect to have success. This team is committed to stay in Nashville," Cogen says. "That's the cultural shift."
But there were other shifts behind the scenes that made the Predators' conquest of Nashville possible. Taking no ticketholder for granted, Cogen and Henry implemented a "hand-to-hand combat" method of selling tickets.
This meant follow-up phone calls to people who took part in promotions and contests. You bought one ticket? Why not make it a 10-game package. You bought a package? Why not make it a season ticket. To match the aggressive selling, the new business team reckoned, there'd have to be an upgrade across the board. Thus everything stepped up — the game presentation, the videos, the music, the organ player, the mascot. A Predators game became not just a game, but a combination circus, AC/DC concert and citywide block party.
Crowds responded. Then the city responded. That's when everyone else began to notice. Once the Preds made it past the first round, Dirk Hoag says, that's when the national media perked up. As a result, traffic on his blog set records in February — and again in March, and again in April.
He too credits the front office for the excitement, compared to how the team was treated when he moved here six years ago.
"I'd followed the team and was always impressed with the mentality. ... It surprised me because the team was impressive [on the ice], but there was no buzz," Hoag says. "What a lot of people miss is the good stuff started 12 months ago."
Buddy Oakes, who blogs at Preds on the Glass, has been going to hockey games in Nashville since the late '60s, when the Dixie Flyers played at Municipal Auditorium. He says he's never seen a Nashville hockey team marketed as well as the Predators were this year.
"I think Jeff and Sean made all the difference," Oakes says. "It helps that the product has been consistently good, but they transformed it into something people needed to see. Before, the marketing didn't grab people."
Now the team fills the airwaves with ads that emphasize the crowds as much as the players. It's part of a strategy that gives the city a stake in the team: You "Stand With Us" (as the latest slogan goes), and the team will stick with you.
"It was important to acknowledge how special our crowd is," COO Sean Henry says. "We never liked hearing 'nontraditional market.' It's 'new traditional.' ... We were tired of people saying [Nashvillians] don't know hockey. We have informed and passionate fans."
Do we ever. Wear earplugs and tread lightly as you approach Section 303, which began its infamous history at the very first Preds game. That's when a group of longtime Nashville hockey fans took it upon themselves to turn their section — which happened to be 303 — into the arena's loudest. The rest of the section embraced their mirth-making: chanting, taunting, general mischief. Since then, the Cellblock has become one of the toughest tickets in the arena and has one of the highest percentages of season-ticket holders — not to mention the highest likelihood of megadecibel opposing-team catcall damage.
By late February, the campaign picked up to emphasize Nashville's crowd and Nashville's team, as opposed to a generic "come to a game and get away from it all" message. The team even ran a radio ad including the crowd chanting, "You suck!" — a new tradition that has not always been fully embraced by the organization. If you want Henry to say he's sorry, though, we hope you brought rations for the wait.
"We were at 10, 12, 13 sellouts," Henry says. "All these people were saying this is not a hockey market. We are, and we aren't going to apologize to anyone. We belong. There are no more excuses. ... We aren't hiding from the word 'sucks.' "
"At the same time, I'm becoming more comfortable with who we are," says Cogen, who spearheaded the ad. In somewhat contradictory fashion, it also included a dose of Southern hospitality — audio of the crowd shouting, "Thanks, Paul!" to Preds announcer Paul McCann, as they do every time he declares, "There's one minute remaining in the period."
"The spot was about our fans and our team. It talked about our fans and our team. We decided to reinforce our great fan environment and our team," Cogen says.
Oakes says the team has shrewdly bolstered those ad campaigns with redoubled efforts in social networking. The Predators hired former Tennessean social-media director Eric Shuff in the off-season, and Oakes says that has increased the Predators' day-to-day visibility.
"We've seen a turning point," he says. "Social media have really gotten people to have more ownership, so that the Predators are a major part of their lives."
Brent Dougherty, who regularly monitors Twitter and Facebook to find talking points for his radio show, noticed the phenomena.
"Facebook statuses started to be about the Predators, even from people I didn't think would care about hockey," he says.
But there may be a less tangible reason the Predators finally connected with Nashville. Ask Coach Barry Trotz, and he'll tell you the town embraced the team because it shares the same values. Hockey's blue-collar ethic is immensely appealing in a shaky economy and a pro-sports era of spoiled-baby athletes, zero city loyalty and money-grubbing on all sides.
For a part of the country — the heart of the country — that values hard work far more than a get-rich-quick scheme, it may be that the Predators, with their commitment to developing players from within and their reliance on regular Joes who aren't afraid to get calluses on their hands, reflect the city they represent.
"When you play the way we have, it helps grow the sport," Trotz says. "People respect people that come to work and do it the old-fashioned way."
His thoughts are echoed by Chasity Hindman, who attended her first game this season and has already bought season tickets for the next. She says the team's style of play was as much a selling point as anything else.
"We watched the Preds play with such heart and endurance on television and [with] the excitement from the crowd, we decided to go see in person," Hindman says. "My husband and I were hooked."
So was Alaina Smothers, who, like Hindman, attended her first game this season — a Dec. 18 tilt against the Los Angeles Kings. But Smothers represents what the front office hopes is a trend: newcomers lured as much by the roar of the crowd as the action on the ice.
"Even though the Predators lost 6-1 to the Kings, I had an awesome time," she says. "I was also impressed by the fans. They were yelling nonstop, cheering on their team. When things started going downhill, the majority of people stayed. I'm not used to that. Braves' fans are notorious for being fair-weather fans. It was nice to see other fans as passionate as I am."
Perhaps the best sign for the Predators' long-term health, though, is that they managed to impress the biggest skeptics in hockey: the Canadians who almost liberated the Preds from their stay in Deliverance country. By the time the playoffs rolled around and the north-of-the-border media came into Nashville, Predators fever was catching fire.
And the Canadians noticed. After a decade of bemoaning hockey's foray into this Southern backwater, the Maple Leaf Mafia gave up that storyline and started talking about something else: how Nashville had, in fact, maybe while nobody was looking, actually embraced hockey.
Amanda DiPaolo, a native of New Brunswick, moved to Middle Tennessee to take a teaching job at MTSU in 2008. At the time, her impression of the Predators was an overwhelming "Meh, eh."
"I didn't have [an opinion on the Predators]," DiPaolo says. "I was like most Canadians. My impression was 'Nashville has a hockey team?' Now I get angry at people in Canada: 'These people know hockey!'
"But that was me when I moved here. It took me a year and a half before I could get them to start seeing it my way."
Despite the charmingly sophomoric "You suck!" chants, DiPaolo says she's seen Nashville, even in a short time, mature as a hockey town. It's easy to cheer for a goal or a big hit, but now, the fans know the small things that lead to hockey success.
"When Shea or Ryan gets the stick down to disrupt a shot, that's subtle, but the fans cheer that. That's a sure sign of a mature fan base," she says.
At his end-of-the-year press conference, Trotz (also a Canadian) gushed — as much as the brusque Trotz can — about the fans and the city.
"Our guys came out energized every night. We made a lot of impressions around the league. I got texts from Canada about how great Nashville came across," he said. "We took a big step forward as a team, as a franchise and as a city."
The players — the ones shown on film gaping at the appreciation they got after a season-ending loss — are no less enthusiastic. With his contract expiring — he's now due for a huge payday — Weber dismissed any thoughts he would bolt town. Why should he?
"I've been here my whole career, and this is a place I love," he says. "I love the people of Nashville and I love the city. I think a lot of people recognize how good our fans are, and nationally they got some recognition finally and people realize that it is somewhat of a hockey city."
As for Mike Fisher, who spent his entire career heretofore in puck-crazy Ottawa, he knows what it's like when a city grabs a hold of a team on a playoff push.
"It's tough leaving some place, but seeing the growth and excitement [in Nashville], it's been a really good environment," he says. "It was a blast. There's a lot of exciting things going on."
So what's next? Henry says the team has to grab hold of the hockey hunger — a hunger that kept sports-talk radio on the topic of the Predators days after the season ended.
"Hockey is topical now. People are attuned to it," he says. "So we'll have some things this summer that will have people talking about the Predators."
For one, that's going to be new jerseys, the first major redesign in the sweaters in 13 years. The team is mum on details, but it would take a truly disconnected observer not to notice the sheer amount of effort in getting gold onto fans' backs in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Cigarran and the rest of the ownership group are still seeking a new investor to fill the cash gap left when Boots DelBiaggio went to federal prison. He says he and his cohorts are committed to finding someone from Tennessee, and they'd like to raise $25 million over the next two years.
But on the ice, there's only one goal. "We have a lot of unfinished business," Barry Trotz says, and his captain knows what that means. His words are enough to make the Predators' thousands of new fans wish it snowed in June.
"We can win a Cup in Nashville," Shea Weber says.