Barry Trotz was 35 years old.
It was a hot August day in 1997 and he was just named head coach of an NHL franchise for the first time. The Nashville Predators were the league’s newest expansion team. There was a buzz throughout Music City and the hockey world.
Trotz had dreamed about this day.
He walked into the arena for the first time and was led to his office.
“In the middle of this giant room there was a table that they must have gotten from security,” Trotz recalled with a laugh. “There was this rotary phone on it with a wire hanging down from the ceiling. I thought, ‘Well, I finally made it!’ ”
It was the first sign that Trotz and those around him would be building from the ground up.
Since then, the Nashville Predators have evolved from a young franchise into an annual contender in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They play their 1,000th game in franchise history on Sat., Nov. 12 against Montreal at Bridgestone Arena.
The club has received rave reviews from hockey experts and historians. The front office and coaching staff are among the most stable in all of professional sports. The roster features some of the world’s elite players, and most of them came up through Nashville’s system. As the club has grown, so has its success. The Predators have made the playoffs in six of the last seven years. Nashville is just one of four NHL teams to reach the 40-win mark in each of the last six seasons.
But it took some time to get here.
David Poile was the general manager of the Washington Capitals in 1997. He was contacted by Jack Diller, who would soon be named Nashville’s team president. The two met at a Holiday Inn in Washington D.C.
“It was a short meeting,” Poile said. “Jack said, ‘I just want to know if you’re up for it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m up for it.’ ”
Poile later accepted the job and – much like Trotz would later find out – quickly realized how much work there was to do. The team didn’t even have a nickname yet.
“We were just the Nashville Hockey Club,” Poile said. “We had business cards with the NHL logo. Jack tried to be creative. He made me general manager by title, but he had my business card read, ‘David Poile: Hockey Guy.’ ”
Poile and Trotz still have fond memories of the times before the first puck was dropped.
“The people who started here together did everything,” Trotz said. “We decided where people were going to park. We were designers for the dressing rooms. We picked out carpets. Things you don’t usually do. It was a lot of work, but it was fun.”
Once a coaching staff was assembled and players were drafted, an endless checklist began to be whittled down. Soon, it was time for their first game.
It came on Oct. 13, 1998 against Florida. Even though Nashville lost 1-0 on a goal by Ray Whitney, the crowd stood the entire time.
“It was one of those moments that gets buried into your memory bank forever,” Trotz said. “When I’m on my deathbed, that moment will roll through my mind, for sure.”
Added Poile: “The whole year was great. Maybe that’s easy to say in retrospect. You look back and it was so much fun having your fingerprints on everything, from selecting office space to staff to the schedule. Looking back, it’s the people that stand out most.”
Poile had a clear vision when it came to building the team.
“I thought it would be an opportunity to give everyone a chance,” Poile said. “Whether that be in management, in scouting, in coaching. I took a chance on a lot of people who were unproven. I think everyone has developed very nicely.”
Through the years, Nashville has shocked the hockey world multiple times. Known as a team that builds from within, Poile still studied the market. He signed or traded for legendary players Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya, and last season landed forward Mike Fisher
, a talented veteran who is also the husband of country star Carrie Underwood.
In 2010-11, the Predators advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. This season, the team signed goaltender Pekka Rinne
to a seven-year, $49 million contract, the largest in franchise history.
Before the Predators began to grow into a contender, Trotz knew it would be challenging to grow the fan base in a non-traditional hockey market. He did countless interviews to promote the sport and the team, and the club made sure children were involved from the start.
One of those kids already had a firm grasp on the sport. His name is Blake Geoffrion. His father and grandfather were legendary players in the NHL. Geoffrion grew up in Brentwood and was 12 years old when the Predators played their first home game. He and his family were in the stands – in section 306 – on the front row of the upper bowl.
“Opening night was fun,” Geoffrion said. “Everyone was really excited about the game. We came to pretty much every home game, unless it was a school night. But we snuck over here and caught a lot of the games.”
Geoffrion, now 23, is a forward for the Predators, and sometimes glances up to the spot where he sat during that first game.
As time has passed, Poile, Trotz and others who have been here from the start look back with smiles on their faces, but they also look ahead with a determined focus.
“There are lots of ups and downs with every franchise,” Poile said. “With the Predators, the goal is to be competitive every year. That’s where we’ve brought it to now. We have to go a little bit further each year. And eventually, we have to do what a lot of people say is impossible for us, and that’s win a Stanley Cup.”