As a native Minnesotan, I grew up in hockey country and loved the Minnesota North Stars before they were uprooted to Dallas in the early 1990s. When I moved to Nashville in 1999 to work for the Titans, the Predators were an infant NHL franchise.
I supported the other major pro sports team in town by attending Preds games, but I was shocked when I saw half-filled arenas and heard the PA announcer say “icing” and “offsides” because the newbie hockey fans didn’t know the rules. I wondered whether an NHL team could make it in the football-crazy south and in a Nashville market dominated by the Titans and SEC football.
In 2005, I began doing consulting work for the Predators in marketing and PR as they came out of the NHL lockout. I had been with the Titans during the Super Bowl era when we sold every ticket, suite and jersey, and when sponsors lined up to support the team. At the time, it was much more challenging to sell hockey in Nashville.
It was frustrating to see 9,000 or so fans at mid-week games, and usually, the only sellouts were on Saturday nights when the Red Wings came to town. Detroit’s red jerseys would make up the majority of the crowd on those nights. Then, in 2007, the Predators almost were sold and moved to Canada, but a local ownership group stepped up to rescue the team.
Fast forward to today. The Nashville Predators are Western Conference champions after eliminating top-seeded Chicago, then St. Louis and most recently Anaheim.
The organization has worked hard on and off the ice to build the buzz, and the Nashville/Middle Tennessee market has gone Predators-crazy. This season has been completely sold out, and national analysts are hailing Bridgestone Arena as the loudest venue in the NHL.
The Predators’ presence and success has fueled a boom in youth hockey leagues, high school hockey and adult leagues in Middle Tennessee. More ice arenas are being built to meet the demand.
Preds stars such as potential playoff MVP-to-be goalie Pekka Rinne, all-star defensemen P.K. Subban and Roman Josi and top goal scorer Filip Forsberg are now household names in a city accustomed to worshipping Eddie George, Steve McNair, Jevon Kearse, Marcus Mariota and other Titan greats past and present.
As a long-time sports exec, I’m a big admirer of Preds general manager David Poile, who I’ve gotten to know well over the years. He’s the only GM in team history and has built this exciting squad through solid drafting and a series of bold trades.
Rinne was an eighth-round pick in 2004 who grew up in the organization, as did Josi as a second-rounder in 2008. Another fan favorite, 31 goal scorer Viktor Arvidson, was drafted in the 2014 fourth round. Colton Sissons, the Game 6 hero with a hat trick against the Ducks, was a second-round selection in 2012. And there are first-rounders such as stalwart defenseman Ryan Ellis. They all worked their up from minor league affiliate Milwaukee to the big club.
Meanwhile, Poile stole Forsberg in a trade with the Capitals for an aging Marty Erat. The GM shocked everyone with the gutsy move to acquire the mobile Subban in exchange for another all-star and team captain in Shea Weber. Other major trades brought key contributors Ryan Johansen (now unfortunately out for the playoffs after thigh surgery), James Neal and current captain Mike Fisher.
There also was the difficult decision Poile made to part ways with long-time successful coach Barry Trotz and hire Peter Laviolette, who is more offensive oriented, particularly with injecting his talented defensemen into the attack. Laviolette has been pushing all the right buttons in his adjustments this postseason as injuries have mounted.
This whole Preds-mania in Smashville (as the team nicknamed the city) has been amazing to watch unfold. I’ve been a Preds fan since I moved to Nashville (along with being a supporter of the Wild in my home town), so I was cheering with everyone else in town after Sissons scored the series clincher over the nasty Ducks.
Subban’s take on the great fan support: “There’s not a city in the league that has anything on Nashville.”
This is coming from a Toronto native who played his first seven NHL seasons for the iconic Montreal Canadiens.
Downtown Nashville has become a Predators-obsessed place to be on playoff days and nights, with watch parties outside the arena and in the Music City Walk of Fame Park across the street. Then there’s the screaming 17,000-plus fans lucky enough to be in the arena. Before playoff games begin, they are thrilled by the stream of A-list music or sports stars, including Fisher’s wife Carrie Underwood, who either sing the national anthem or wave the honorary rally towel.
The Predators have been a playoff regular, but this Western Conference title is their first of any kind, as they’ve never won their division. The Preds entered the playoffs as the last seed in the West and were coming off an inconsistent regular season. The Blackhawks were picked by 47 of 50 national analysts to beat the Preds in Round 1. The ensuing sweep of Chicago startled the hockey world and was the catalyst in expanding the beast that is the Nashville fan base.
It reminds me of the love affair with the Titans during the Super Bowl run in 1999. Thousands of fans greeted us at the airport and stadium after road playoff wins in Indianapolis and Jacksonville. This Preds team was congratulated by a huge crowd at the airport when they returned from the Western Finals Game 5 win in Anaheim.
We all know everyone loves a winner, but during the formative years, it was hard to see this level of support ever coming to fruition for the Predators. Media analysts like to call the NHL a “niche sport” that can’t generate big TV ratings or the huge rights fees other major pro sports leagues can command (led of course by the NFL).
Well, the Predators have been getting close to football-like double digit TV ratings in the Nashville market during this playoff run. And the local fervor will only get stronger with the Stanley Cup Final up next.
No matter the outcome in the final series, the Predators have already made an indelible mark on Nashville’s sports history. The resiliency of this team is impressive with wins over Anaheim in the final two games of the series after losing Johansen and Fisher to injuries.
Titans OTAs and minicamps used to be a big deal in May and June, but no one’s talking about Tennessee’s pro football team this month … other than saluting Marcus Mariota and his offensive linemen for being the chief rally towel wavers at the Game 3 win over the Ducks.
And one of the best things: The PA announcer no longer has to announce icing or offsides. The fan base now knows the rules well.
At least I don’t think he has to announce the calls. It’s too loud in the building to know for sure.
Jeff Diamond is the former president of the Titans and the former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.