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Stanley Cup Final

Upper-deck Predators fans used to cheer for Penguins

'Cellblock 303' backers switched allegiance to Nashville in 1998, will be heard from in Game 6 of Cup Final against Pittsburgh

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

NASHVILLE -- If and when the Nashville Predators score in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, fans inside and outside Bridgestone Arena will taunt Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray. First, they will draw out his last name three times. Second, they will say something we can't repeat here. Finally, they will make him feel shame.

"It's all your fault! It's all your fault! It's all your fault!"

The funny thing is, the taunts are all the Penguins' fault. Well, at least partly.

They originated in Section 303 of Bridgestone Arena, also known as Cellblock 303, where the hardcore Predators fans live in the upper deck. The warden and one of his original cellmates loved the Penguins and play-by-play man Mike Lange before the Predators were born and put their passion for hockey into their new team. They are still Penguins fans today -- when Pittsburgh isn't playing Nashville, of course.

Mark Hollingsworth, the warden, has Pittsburgh sports memorabilia displayed at home, including photos of the 1991 Stanley Cup champions and Mario Lemieux. When he hosted a watch party for Game 1, his guests wanted to redecorate.

"People were like, 'You really ought to cover up this Penguins stuff on the wall,' " Hollingsworth said with a laugh. "Yeah, I was very excited when they won the Cup last year. Now people ask me, 'Are you torn?' Absolutely not."

The Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 entering Game 6 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports). If they win, they will be the first back-to-back champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and the seventh team to win the Cup five times. If the Predators come back and win the series, they will win the Cup for the first time.

"I find it a little difficult to make too much fun of the Penguins," Hollingsworth said. "But I definitely want the Preds to win it. I'd probably be more torn if the Pens hadn't won a lot here in recent years. The fact that they've got several under their belt here, I think I would prefer that the Preds get this one."

Hollingsworth was born in Pittsburgh in 1955. When he was 5, his family moved to Columbus. He went to his first hockey game to see the Columbus Checkers of the International Hockey League.

"I was immediately smitten," he said. "I just thought hockey was the coolest thing I'd ever seen."

Because his dad was a fan of all teams Pittsburgh, he became a Penguins fan when they joined the NHL in 1967. He went back to visit family and saw games at the Igloo. He saw the Penguins play in places such as Chicago and St. Louis.

He lived in Nashville in the early 1980s and got his hockey fix with the Nashville South Stars of the Central Hockey League and later the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. He moved to Colorado for a while, then returned in 1991 and got into the Nashville Knights of the ECHL.

Soon he met Lee Swartz, a native of Berwick, Pennsylvania, who had lived in Pittsburgh for a couple of years and moved to Nashville in 1993. The Penguins' 1991 and '92 Cup teams made him a hockey fan.

"Ginormous," Swartz said. "You can't watch Mario Lemieux skate and not have your whole view of the game changed."

Hollingsworth and Swartz started going to Knights games together, meeting more hockey fans, taunting the opposition, mimicking Lange. Swartz made a compilation CD of Lange's best one-liners, before the days of the Internet and easy searches and digital downloads. 

Hollingsworth said he still listens to it to this day and gets fired up.

"It was like hockey meets Monty Python," Swartz said.

Hollingsworth wrote about marketing in the minor leagues for a magazine called Hockey Ink, visiting franchises from Mobile, Alabama, to Utica, New York. When he heard a good chant, he'd write it down.

So they were ready when Nashville joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1998.

According to Section 303.com, they bought season tickets in the cheap seats, so each could afford an additional ticket for friends and family. At the first game on Oct. 10, 1998, they arrived early to soak in the experience and meet the people around them. Five minutes before faceoff, Hollingsworth stood up and made a speech.

"We're all here to enjoy hockey, right?" he yelled.

"Yeah!" 

He said he and his buddies were going to be goofy, cheering for the Predators, taunting the opposition, having a good time win or lose.

"How many of you are with us?" he yelled.

Everyone smiled and voiced support.

They started teaching people basic chants. They shouted Lange one-liners like, "He smoked him like a bad cigar," and made up their own like, "Somebody make me a sweet tomata sammich." 

Hollingsworth kept notes on which chants were working, and they made signs and "taunt sheets" to organize everyone. Over time, they developed the chants you hear today, a tradition.

"Those first couple years, it was an expansion team, so we weren't going to be tearing it up that early," Swartz said. "We were committed. We like to believe that it became infectious throughout the section. We introduced ourselves to everybody around, and it became a huge family. Mark would be sending Christmas cards, birthday cards. It became a great atmosphere to walk into the arena every night and know everybody around you."

Along came Section303.com. Hollingsworth would write game summaries with his own special slant, each opening with a line from Lange or inspired by him. He still does it on Facebook. Lange said he was honored and flattered.

"I would say, 'Go to it. Have some fun with it, baby,' " Lange said. "It's what it's all about. You've got to have some fun in this world. If I can get them to smile, it makes my day, so I'm very pleased with the fact that they borrowed off some of it. That's great."

Now the chants aren't just coming from Section 303. They're reverberating throughout Bridgestone Arena. They're cascading into the plaza outside and right down Broadway, where thousands of fans are watching outside on big video screens.

Hollingsworth still sits in Section 303. He has seen 700-something games up there, and maybe four games somewhere else in the arena. Swartz doesn't have season tickets anymore because of the demands of a young family, but he hasn't lost his passion.

"Nashville has an inaccurate rap that we don't know anything about hockey," Swartz said. "We knew exactly what was going on, and there's a lot of people in the arena who knew exactly what's going on, but it was new to the community. And hopefully we've changed that perception quite a bit over the years."

They have, and just wait for Sunday. Predators vs. Penguins, of all teams. Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. To borrow from Lange, it'll be a hockey night in Nashville. Hollingsworth, Swartz and tens of thousands more will be smiling like a butcher's dog.

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