NASHVILLE -- When the Nashville Predators disembarked from the plane at Nashville International Airport on Sunday, they walked down a staircase onto the tarmac. They were more than 100 yards from the terminal at Signature Flight Support. The wind swirled. The engines whined.
Still they could hear it.
Pete Weber, the play-by-play voice of the Predators since they entered the NHL in 1998, said he was about 60 feet off the steps when he heard the mascot, Gnash, and his drum going "thump, thump, thump-thump-thump."
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As executives, coaches and players pulled their roller bags toward the terminal, they could hear shouts and screams and cheers and chants.
"Let's go, Preds!"
They went through one door, walked a few feet through the terminal, walked out another door and hit a wall of noise. Hundreds of fans in Predators gear formed a golden gauntlet, taking videos, snapping photos, nodding heads, fist-bumping, high-fiving, literally patting them on the back for their 3-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Saturday.
This had happened before here, the fans greeting the team at the airport, but this was the biggest turnout. They lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 and can clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in Game 6 at Bridgestone Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Amid the scene, Ally Lifsey stood in the terminal with her parents, Steve and Susan Masie, and her 4-month-old daughter, Josie, who isn't named for Predators defenseman Roman Josi but is nicknamed "Jos" in honor of him. She was asked if she could put into words what this meant. At that instant, Predators coach Peter Laviolette walked out the door and into the golden gauntlet.
She laughed as the noise rose several decibels. She paused.
"No," she said.
You can't explain what this means with a quick quote, especially when it comes to a fan like Lifsey. You have to know the whole story.
Her parents met and married in Hartford, Connecticut. They followed the Hartford Whalers until the family moved to Nashville. When the Predators joined the League they got season tickets in Section 318, right above the band stage. She was 12.
They would go to games and she would call in to the postgame radio show. She did it so often -- and to be honest, the hardcore Predators community was so small back then -- that people got to know her as "Ally from Brentwood."
Her passion grew as she grew up. When the franchise ran into trouble she went to the rallies to save the team. When her boyfriend, George, wanted to propose, he knew what to do. He knew not to do it at a game on the scoreboard screen.
"I would say no," Lifsey said with a smile. "I'm not going to be proposed to in front of thousands of people in public."
Her mother worked with Barry Trotz, then the Predators coach, at Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization that creates friendships, employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So George was able to ask Trotz if he could get into Bridgestone Arena one day in September 2009.
Know that scene in the film "Happy Gilmore" when Happy takes his girl for a skate while the Zamboni driver lip syncs to "Endless Love"? That was George's inspiration.
Trotz brought them in for a tour of the arena. ("I totally bought it," Lifsey said.) Trotz told them they could go for a skate, and oh what a coincidence, George just happened to have skates in his backpack ("I should have known then that something was up," Lifsey said.) George dropped to one knee at center ice as Trotz and Weber tried to take pictures in the tunnel.
Of course she said yes.
"It was awesome," she said.
Now George and Ally Lifsey have a daughter who wore a Predators onesie to the airport to greet the team and will go to games with her family. Ally's parents, Josie's grandparents, still have their season tickets in Section 318.
"I was in eighth grade when the team came here; she's going to be raised not knowing anything but hockey here," Lifsey said. "My parents had tickets, and then as soon as I got old enough now, I'm buying my own tickets. She of course is going to buy her own tickets. Now it's turning into a real generational thing."
That's what this means. Endless love.
"I've been here before to see them come back from the airport and it's been 50 people, 100 people maybe," she said. "But now that we're in the conference finals, the city …"
As she spoke, you could hear the drum pounding and the fans chanting, "Let's go, Predators!"
"It's the best part, watching the city," she said. "Some people don't like the bandwagon fans. I love it. It's insane."