NASHVILLE -- Luke Bryan squeezed through the crowd on the third floor of Tootsies World Famous Orchid Lounge. He walked onto the rooftop deck, stepped up on stage and peered over the edge.
To his right was Bridgestone Arena. Below was Lower Broadway and tens of thousands of fans here for the final day of the CMA Music Festival and Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins.
At that moment Sunday, the top of Tootsies was the top of the world in country music and hockey. He raised his arms, flexed his muscles and pumped his fists. The fans cheered and chanted from the honkytonks across the street, "Let's go, Preds!"
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm6: Bryan talks buzz in Nashville
"You all ready to get the Preds rockin' tonight?" Bryan yelled.
Bryan played a five-song set, the last leading into the NBC broadcast of the game. It was an incredible scene, a mixing of two worlds, a metaphor for how far the Predators have come since they joined the NHL in 1998.
"It's surreal," Bryan said. "Certainly one of those moments I'll never forget. Hopefully we'll be in this situation many more times in the next few years."
This is an artist who has sold more than 10 million albums, who sang the national anthem at Super Bowl LI in Houston and at Game 3 of Western Conference First Round this year.
On Wednesday, he attended the CMT Music Awards in Nashville, where he won CMT Performance of the Year with Jason Derulo. On Thursday, he performed at the CMA Music Festival in Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans. Then he got on his bus and went to Little Rock and Tulsa and … back to Nashville for this.
"When the call came in that NBC wanted to do this thing, I was like, 'Hey, I got to pull out any stop I can to get some tickets,' " Bryan said with a laugh. "I said, 'I don't care if I'm worn down and haven't slept, if my voice is half gone. I'm going to get up there and have fun.' I was just honored to be a part of the celebration."
Bryan did not grow up loving hockey in Leesburg, Georgia.
"That's quite a stretch when you've never seen snow on the ground and maybe a puddle in your yard would freeze once a year," he said.
But he moved to Nashville in 2001 and started going to Predators games soon afterward. He said he would never forget his first hockey experience -- the speed, the noises. "It just totally hooked me," he said.
He'd play NHL video games on the road and go to games when home, slowly learning the game as he went, from icing to offside to penalties, and he found he wasn't alone. Vince Gill has been a Predators season-ticket holder since Day 1. Carrie Underwood is married to Predators captain Mike Fisher. Music companies have suites at Bridgestone Arena, and it has become a place to see hockey and be seen. In these playoffs, country stars became surprise anthem singers.
"We're so thankful for Nashville because we got to come here and follow our dreams and make our dreams come true, and it's just about hopefully creating an overall fun vibe," Bryan said. "When the Preds asked me to do the anthem, I was like, 'Heck, yeah.' I walked out there. I was more nervous doing the anthem out there than I was at the Super Bowl. Big stage out there."
When the Predators played the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, Bryan was in a suite with Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge and some songwriter buddies. Another set of artists were in another suite. Keith Urban and his wife, Nicole Kidman, were there. The A list goes on. The Predators won and clinched their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
"We had people in our suite crying," Bryan said. "It was really emotional. It's been an amazing ride."
Now Bryan's boys have come along for it. About three weeks ago he went to a sporting goods store and bought hockey gear for his 15-year-old nephew, 9-year-old son and 6-year-old son -- sticks, tape, small nets, big nets. The boys moved the sofa, took off the cushions and built a rink.
"My wife and I for the last three weeks, we don't need an alarm clock," Bryan said with a smile. "All we do is hear feet stomping. We hear, 'Goal!' … We're going to probably need a new rug in the living room before it's all said and done."
Before his last song Sunday, Bryan pulled on a gold Predators jersey with his last name on the back. He joined in a preemptive taunt of Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, chanting, "It's all your fault! It's all your fault!" Gill and Dierks Bentley introduced Bryan.
"Tonight's your night Nashville!" Bryan yelled.The band started to play "I Don't Want This Night to End," and everyone here agreed.