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Predators fans cherishing playoff success

Nashville greeted warmly at airport following return from Chicago with 2-0 series lead

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director of Editorial

NASHVILLE -- For some, a holiday feast waited at home. For others, a perfect spring afternoon was a tempting option.

Yet, those plans were put on hold and pilgrimages to the airport were planned to greet the Nashville Predators, arriving home after winning the first two games of their Western Conference First Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center, which had been a house of horrors for the Predators in the past.

The Predators stayed overnight in Chicago after defeating the Blackhawks 5-0 in Game 2 to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Game 3 is at Bridgestone Arena on Monday (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN1, TVA Sports, FS-TN, CSN-CHI).

But on this near-perfect Easter Sunday, the fans showed up early, awaiting the arrival of their team. They came alone, with their significant others, with friends or with family in tow. They wore their bright gold jerseys and banged together their noisemakers.

These impromptu parties happen on a fairly regular basis. They are a celebration of their team and what it means to the community.

"It's fun," Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "Fans always show up, especially in the playoffs, they come out here and support us and we feel their support. It's a big key."

Jason Leuty wouldn't have missed the welcome-home celebration for the world. He has been a fan since going to his first game, as a 13-year-old, with his father in 1998. Now, he is introducing the game to his son, James, who is 4 and worships Viktor Arvidsson.

The hour-long drive, each way, on Easter no less, wasn't even a consideration when weighed against the opportunity of creating memories his son won't forget. Leuty said his son plays hockey once a week and will join an organized league in the fall.

"We had to be here," Leuty said. "We've been falling in love with them, and the way they are playing right now, it's hard to ignore it." 

So, Leuty picked up James from Sunday school and off they went to the airport.

The stories were similar, no matter who you talked to among the 150 or so fans on hand.

One fan stood out a little bit more than the others.

Scott Barry, 37, was about halfway down the line of fans greeting the Predators. He had on a homemade wrestling mask, featuring the logo of the Predators. He also carried a homemade championship belt.

He calls himself the Ultimate Predator.

Think wrestling's Ultimate Warrior, just not as muscled nor quite as excitable.

Why was he here, in his mask, with his championship belt?

"Give them high fives and show our love," he said.

Barry came up with his alter ego, he says, after kicking around the local pro wrestling circuit for close to a dozen years, doing just about every job there is.

He said he left the business recently and needed an outlet. Not long after, the Ultimate Predator was born.

A wrestler worth his weight needs a belt, right? That's what Barry thought too.

So he had one made by a company in Australia. It is the real deal: a custom-made keepsake, featuring an over-sized leather belt adorned with five nickel-plated steel, hand-painted panels. It weighs close to 15 pounds.

It's just something that I had the [idea] for, and had the time and the stupidity to do it," Barry said.

He says he has been offered $2,500 for it; but insists the one-of-a-kind belt is not for sale.

Sunday, you could see the smile behind his gold-and-blue mask after he spent a minute with coach Peter Laviolette as the coach walked through the throng of fans.

"Even the most die-hard Preds fan would expect to come with a 2-0 series lead," Barry said. "It's incredible and it's livened up this fan base."

The Predators fan base needs little to liven things up.

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They may not be among the biggest fan bases, but they are among the most vocal and the most enthusiastic. And it grows through the marketing efforts of the team since its arrival in 1998 and its more recent regular-season success.

When Laviolette was holding a press conference inside the terminal, the fans were outside the door, chanting: "We want the coach, we want the coach!"

Soon, Laviolette was outside, high-fiving, shaking hands, posing for pictures, saying hello as he passed the fans.

"It's awesome," Laviolette said of the welcoming party. "Our fans are just unbelievable. It's just amazing to me. I expect it is going to be a great atmosphere [Monday]."

Jason Leuty will be watching Monday; James Leuty will likely have to catch the highlights because of the late start. Barry will be somewhere in Bridgestone Arena for the game; he will pull on his mask and shoulder his belt. Each will be supporting his team in his own way and each will be dreaming of what may come: the celebrations yet to be attended.

"This might be their year," Leuty said as he grabbed his son's hand to start the walk to the car. "It might just be their year."

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