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Predators welcome a new rival in the Wild

by John Manasso /

NASHVILLE -- Rivalries are a funny thing. Sometimes they can be one-sided, which some argue ceases to make them rivalries. Sometimes they can be more for the fans than they are the players.

With the NHL's new alignment, the Nashville Predators lost a team that many considered their biggest rival in the Detroit Red Wings, even if those in the Motor City didn't quite see it that way.

In Nashville's inaugural season in the League in 1998-99, the Red Wings won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. The expansion Predators, born into the Central Division with Detroit, compared themselves against the League's longest measuring stick as the Predators grew as a franchise.

Further fueling the rivalry from the Nashville side was the presence of Michigan autoworkers that migrated south to Tennessee to work in the Saturn manufacturing plant when it opened in Spring Hill.

Now, the Red Wings have moved east, but along come the Minnesota Wild. While the Wild might see the Winnipeg Jets or Chicago Blackhawks as their biggest rivals, Predators fans certainly have plenty about Minnesota to get them agitated.

For one, Minnesota signed away Nashville-drafted and -developed defenseman Ryan Suter, a finalist for the Norris Trophy last season. Also, the Wild's owner is Craig Leipold, the same man who brought the Predators into existence 15 years ago. It was also Leipold's money, $98 million of it, that brought Suter north in July 2012.

"Absolutely," Predators coach Barry Trotz said about the prospect of Minnesota becoming a top rival. "I see Minnesota, I see Winnipeg. Obviously, Detroit, we have a long history, 15 years since we've been around. They're gone, but there will be other rivalries. Minnesota has a really good hockey team. We'll play them [a lot.] Maybe we'll meet them in the playoffs. That's where rivalries really go to another level."

Predators captain Shea Weber, his team set to take on the Wild later Tuesday for the first time this season as new Central Division rivals, echoed that comment about rivalries emanating naturally from competition.

"I guess we'll have to see," Weber said. "You can't just say it's a rival and have it happen. I think Detroit [the rivalry] was built over a lot of years, a lot of tough times in this franchise and it's just over time we're going to see who the new rivals are, I guess, with the change with the divisional alignment."

Yet Weber agreed that one can draw a distinction between what constitutes a rivalry for the players and what constitutes one for the fans.

"Yeah, I guess," he said. "Maybe that's a situation where maybe from the outside looking in, it's different in the locker room, where you build those rivalries with the opposing players or the teams you play, eight, 10 times when it used to be the old division."

Any rivalry has to have its arch-villain, perhaps as Bucky Dent famously (or infamously, depending on one's perspective) played for the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox. For Predators fans, Suter is now cast in that role.

Suter's presence on the ice in the Wild's green and red is a tough sight for Predators fans. Last season they booed him lustily in his two return trips to Nashville, catching him off guard the first time around. As a joke on Tuesday during the Wild's morning skate, Suter's teammates booed him when he first touched the puck on the ice.

"I ran into Ryan. He goes, 'I thought you liked me?' I do like Ryan. I just know Section 303's not going to let him off the hook."
-- Predators coach Barry Trotz on Wild defenseman Ryan Suter

It's something Trotz has sought to encourage.

"I haven't helped that situation either," Trotz said. "I ran into Ryan. He goes, ‘I thought you liked me?' I do like Ryan. I just know Section 303's not going to let him off the hook. So I played along with it. Ryan's a big part of our history. He's an excellent defenseman and we know it.

"From our standpoint, one thing you'll find out about the Nashville fans: They're passionate. You know that and that's why when I was asked, ‘Can they help in any way?' If you can make it rough on the other team any way you can, be hard on Ryan. He's like one of our family, but he's the enemy now so if they want to stay rough on him that will be 303's decision, not mine."

After playing seven seasons with Nashville, the organization's most successful period, Suter seems to understand his role in this drama.

"I had a great time when I was here," he said. "The people were great when I was here. As a player, that's all you can ask. Obviously, they can do what they think they need to do."

Suter said the greater importance on divisional games helps to build rivalries. As for the enmity that he and his new team incites in Predators fans?

"No player likes it," he said, "but it is what it is."

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