When David Poile began his job as the general manager of the expansion Nashville Predators in the summer of 1997, he knew he wasn't going to be drafting players from the Tennessee area right off the bat.
Nashville was not hockey territory -- the city's hockey history consisted of a few low-level minor-league teams starting with the Nashville Dixie Flyers, a team that played in the old Eastern Hockey League from 1962-71. The Nashville South Stars of the Central Hockey League lasted just one season. 1981-82 as the top farm club of the Minnesota North Stars. The Nashville Knights played in the ECHL between 1989 and 1996.
Poile's task was two-fold: Not only did he have to put a competitive team on the ice, but he had to introduce Nashville and the mid-South region to the game of hockey on both the NHL and youth levels.
It took 13 years, but Poile has finally signed a player from the Nashville area -- Blake Geoffrion, a native of the suburban town of Brentwood, Tenn. But not only is Geoffrion the first Tennessee native to sign with the Preds, he probably has the best hockey lineage in franchise history.
Montreal Canadiens legend and Hall of Famer Howie Morenz. He's also the grandson of Hall of Famer Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, who also played with Montreal along with the New York Rangers. "Boom Boom" also coached the Rangers and the expansion Atlanta Flames. Blake's dad, Danny Geoffrion, also played in the NHL with the Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques.
Poile selected Geoffrion in the second round (No. 56) in the 2006 Entry Draft, but waited until June to sign him. Geoffrion had a big year with the University of Wisconsin in 2009-10, winning the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey's most outstanding player. He scored 28 goals and 22 assists in 40 games and helped Wisconsin reach the NCAA Championship game.
"I thought we would (draft a local player) at some point as we developed the franchise, but that was a little bit sooner than I thought," said Poile, whose NHL career spans four decades. "It is a terrific story, a kid from a non hockey-playing background but certainly a hockey family. It is a good story and should certainly help our hockey franchise."
Poile and the Predators are building hockey in Nashville, where football is king. Between 1971 and 1989, there was only one year of professional hockey in the area and Poile had to start from scratch. Thirteen years after the birth of the Predators, they are still building a hockey foundation.
"It is still certainly a work in progress," Poile said. "We are doing well, but we could do better. We are still trying to promote and sell the game and that is what our job is. Maybe a player like Geoffrion will come in and help get more people interested. (It's similar (to Washington), so maybe I am a little bit of a pioneer here in some of these areas. It is kind of neat to go into an area that hasn't had much of a base for hockey.
"Those of us who have been in it, grew up in it (Polie's father was an NHL player for five of the Original Six teams and was the general manager for expansion teams in Philadelphia and Vancouver), we know how great the game is. It's kind of neat to see how it catches on and how minor hockey grows and then you get players like Blake Geoffrion who eventually plays for your team and some kids will say, 'Maybe I won't play baseball or football, maybe I will try hockey.'
"Football is king, that's OK; we just want our fair share."
Poile and his coach Barry Trotz have been with the Predators virtually since Day One after Craig Leipold got the franchise in 1997. Not many coaches have 13-year NHL careers, and it is highly unusual for one general manager and one coach to stay together for so long.
"He's a good coach, it was a good decision by myself to hire Barry and he has done the rest," Poile said. "He is certainly deserving to be there and he is a huge part of any success we have had."
Trotz has also become a member of the Nashville community -- and though the city is known as the country music capital of the world, Trotz notes that Predators supporters come from of all parts of the entertainment industry.
"I am going to say it is the music capital of the world," he said. "Everybody thinks then only thing that comes out of Nashville is country music. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised. It is one of the entertainment capitals of the world. A lot of the actors live in Tennessee because of the no state income tax. All the best musicians, all the best writers have places in Tennessee and it is really a great place to live.
Trotz has a bunch of friends who have embraced hockey.
"They have, obviously we need more fans, they are passionate," he said. "We are part of community. Nashville is not a big city so we have to keep growing hockey fans one at a time. Hopefully everything will continue to keep growing.
"I had met Garth (Brooks) actually when I was (coaching) in Portland, Maine and kept in contact. I would get them (his band and crew) ice when they played in certain cities. Garth is a big fan of hockey and does a lot of great things through charity through hockey. Those type of guys are great to have in your corner. Scott Hamilton, who is one of my best friends and U.S. Gold Medal (ice skating) and he lives in Nashville. There is John Hiatt and Dierks Bentley; there is a number of people, Vince Gill. They are all big hockey fans; Dierks plays in a men's league, Gretchen Wilson's husband plays in a league, a lot of band members do because they are from all over North America."
Wilson rewrote her 2009 "Work Hard, Play Hard" in time for the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs with references to the Predators and Nashville hockey fans.
Nashville's core industry, county music, has taken to hockey. Nashville has developed a player who might be NHL-ready. The city's hockey history is barely a generation old, and while Nashville fans may have not been accustomed to hockey, it is not a difficult game to comprehend even for those watching it for the first time.
"They are pretty sophisticated, they know when to cheer and when to boo," Poile joked.