NASHVILLE, TN -- Set on a concert series stage erected on Demonbreun Street across from the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum and surrounded by buildings and land that were nothing more than parking lots when the Nashville Predators opened for business 18 years ago, the NHL and the city of Nashville officially kicked off 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend on Thursday in a manner befitting the style and culture in this city.
The festivities kicked off with a guitar being handed out as a gift, a free live concert from a local band that's made it big and one of country music's biggest stars on stage to introduce them.
"What an incredible setup, what an incredible beginning to All-Star Weekend," said NHL Commissioner Bettman, who received the guitar from Nashville Mayor Megan Barry. "The planning that the city of Nashville with the Predators and the local organizing committee and Bridgestone have done is nothing short of phenomenal. People are going to be thrilled to be part of this weekend."
The event was billed as the official opening ceremony for Bridgestone Winter Park, which is located in Music City Walk of Fame Park across the street from Bridgestone Arena. It will serve as a sort of home base for entertainment for the weekend, complete with live music, a skating rink, fire pits to make s'mores, food trucks and other vendors.
The band Big and Rich, a Nashville original, was the first of 10 musical acts that will play at the IntelliCentrics Outdoor Concert Series throughout the weekend. They were introduced to the stage by Vince Gill, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a Predators season-ticket holder since the team's inception.
Predators general manager David Poile and assistant coach Phil Housley, along with Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, were in the crowd. Gallant will coach the Atlantic Division in the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday.
"This is awesome," Gallant said, "especially if you're like me and you like country music."
Commissioner Bettman said the expected economic impact of All-Star Weekend in Nashville is $20 million.
"You look back five or six years when the team was struggling, is it going to stay in Nashville, people were worried about their jobs," Predators chairman and governor Tom Cigarran said. "It's gone from that to expecting 37 sellouts this year and the League trusted us with an All-Star Game, which is a huge leap of trust. The fan base keeps growing, we have a good young team, so things are good."
It took 15 months of planning by the Nashville Sports Council and Local Organizing Committee to make Winter Park possible.
Scott Ramsey, CEO of the Nashville Sports Council, said events of this size and scope typically require more time to plan, but the NHL didn't award the All-Star Game to Nashville until Oct. 17, 2014. By comparison, the Nashville Sports Council had six years to plan for the 2014 NCAA Women's Final Four.
The Nashville Sports Council raised $2.6 million of mostly local money in a capital campaign to fund Winter Park and to ensure that all the concerts were free.
"We knew we wanted to do something really big and really unique, and the planning cycle in that is a little longer than a year normally," Ramsey said. "And, to be able to raise the money locally, which is really a civic give in one corporate budget cycle, is really difficult. Those two elements were challenging, but the community rallied around it, understood the showcase opportunity for the city, and I couldn't be more happy with where we've come and more thankful for all of our local partners."
Commissioner Bettman indicated that he had no doubt that Nashville could pull it off.
"This is a city that knows how to deal with entertainment and entertainers, and this is a city that knows all about hospitality," he said. "For us to come here, this hits their sweet spot."
It also gives Cigarran and opportunity to keep his word to the commissioner.
"When we got awarded the All-Star Game, I said publicly to Gary and to others that this was going to be the best All-Star Game in the history of the National Hockey League," Cigarran said. "It's been going for 100 years and we've only been in it for 18, but this is going to be the best one ever and I would hate to be the city that has to follow us."
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer