All-Star Weekend to show Nashville's hockey passion

Thursday, 01.28.2016 / 11:15 AM
Robby Stanley  - Correspondent

NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators know they play in a nontraditional hockey market, but they wouldn't have it any other way.

The passion for hockey always has been there in Nashville, and it will be on display at the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) and at different events during All-Star Weekend.

Nashville has had a hockey fandom even if the popularity and a deep understanding of the history of the game wasn't always prevalent.

When the Predators came into the NHL as an expansion franchise before the 1998-99 season, die-hard fans immediately gravitated toward them.

As new fans were trying to learn about hockey, they brought an energy level to the game akin to a college football atmosphere. The crowd would stand and cheer when the Predators would cross the center red line with the puck, and Bridgestone Arena became known as one of the loudest buildings in the League.

It took some time for hockey to fully catch on in Nashville. The game has been played for decades in the city, beginning with the Nashville Dixie Flyers of the Eastern Hockey League in the 1960s. But the Predators were the first big shot to really grow the game in Tennessee.

"My first few years there hockey wasn't all that popular," said New Jersey Devils forward Jordin Tootoo, who spent eight seasons with the Predators. "But over the years it has evolved into a good market and it's a great city to play in. Obviously spending a lot of years there, the fans are loud and excited every time there's a hockey game so I think it's really come full circle."

Like most expansion sports teams, the Predators hit a few bumps during the early years. It took them six seasons to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time, and they had to find unique ways to get people into the building and create new fans. But those early seasons laid the foundation for their current success.

"It takes time to grow any sport," Tootoo said. "And I think when you have a good setting, Nashville is a hotspot for a lot of tourists, and I think when those tourists come out they really jump on the bandwagon. I think it's been great for the city and the state of Tennessee."

The bond between the Predators and the Nashville community always has been special because the team had to get into the community to build a fan base. Current and former players say they have an appreciation of the passion for hockey there.

"It was incredible," former Predators goaltender and current Predators radio analyst Chris Mason said. "It's a genuine passion that the fans in Nashville have and the excitement at the games. And their just undying support of this team and this organization over the years has meant so much.

"That's one of the biggest reasons that it's a success. It is the reason that it's a success. Nashville made it a priority Day 1 to really get out into the community, really have their players accessible, really go out and meet the fan base and let them know that they understand how important they are to the team. I think the players in turn have greater appreciation for the fans they're playing in front of and got to meet them on a personal level.

"To this day I see fans all the time from when I played here. I go up and I get to chat with them. And it's just like you're talking to an old friend because you've been around them for so long. It's really a unique, special relationship that this team has with the city."

During the summer of 2007 the future of the team in Nashville was in question. However, fans rallied around the franchise and a new local ownership group stepped in and made a long-term commitment to Nashville. The Predators have been on solid ground ever since.

The ownership group, led by chairman Tom Cigarran, has helped build a strong foundation off the ice with sponsorships and committing to long-term contracts with key players, including defenseman Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne.

The Predators compete for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs almost every season and that success on the ice has led to a big growth in the fan base during the past 10 years. That growth has been reflected in the attendance numbers.

"It's similar to [how] Nashville has changed in just five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years," Predators CEO Sean Henry said. "The team is the same. We still have the same incredible scouting department, the best general manager in sports [David Poile], different coach but one of the most respected coaches [Peter Laviolette] in the League. We have players that are involved in the community just as much as they always were; maybe a little bit more.

"I think the biggest difference is it's a given we're going to sell out every game now. And when we don't, the three, four or five games we won't sell out this year, it's more of a, 'Ah, that stinks.' Our fans' expectations have changed, our employees' expectations have changed, and that's a great thing."

Before the Predators arrived in Nashville, youth hockey wasn't much of a factor in the city. There were two ice rinks and not a lot of participants. Now Nashville has a rapidly growing youth hockey program and six rinks in the area.

"I remember a spot when I was first here in the early years watching youth hockey," Mason said. "This is my kind of telltale of the advancement of hockey in Nashville; you'd have kids out there wearing football helmets with no knee pads or any of the proper equipment. Now they're running programs that are competing with the top hockey markets in the United States."

Now Nashville is the center of the hockey world as it hosts NHL All-Star Weekend. The Predators and the city of Nashville are hoping to put on one of the best All-Star Games in history.

"It's awesome," Henry said. "Roughly 10,000 of our season-ticket holders will be in the building. The other tickets will be made up of visitors from around the globe, around the League, and they're going to be able to see what a great city it is, what a great hockey city it is, what a great sports city it is. Even better than that, they're going to be able to experience what Nashville is, and that is we host big events well."

Hosting All-Star Weekend is the culmination of hard work almost 20 years in the making. Nashville has become a thriving hockey market, and Predators fans and the organization have a chance to show that to the world.

"It's special and just a feather in the cap, I think, to the people in the community and the Predators organization to have made it this far and to be a successful hockey market in Tennessee," Mason said. "Now they get the reward of hosting the All-Star Game, which I know is just going to be an amazing production. That's just what the city of Nashville does."

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