While this is factual in a literal sense via Interstates 65 and 94, the figurative meaning of the phrase holds real truth when it comes to ice hockey played by the Predators or Milwaukee Admirals.
Nashville’s primary American Hockey League affiliate, the Admirals and Preds have been together since 1998-99, the inaugural Predators season. Completing their most recent campaign on April 18, Milwaukee missed out on the postseason for the first time in 13 years (since 2002), an admittedly disappointing outcome for Head Coach Dean Evason and the Ads.
“The biggest thing that we’ve found going through our talks and our evaluations is that we’re a very young hockey club here,” Evason told NashvillePredators.com via phone. “We had so many ups and downs here in Milwaukee this year, more than I’ve ever experienced at this level, in the three years I've been here. I think that was because of our youth.”
In total, the Admirals had 13 different rookies skate for them at some point during the season, including forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala, both of whom also made their NHL debuts with the Preds in 2014-15.
“There was a learning curve that we had with our young people this year, but I think all in all, our development was right,” Evason said. “It didn't translate into the success we wanted as a group, but I think individually, we had a lot of growth within our organization here in Milwaukee.”
That growth and development has been the case in Milwaukee not only for this past season, but for a number of years - a staple of the relationship between the two clubs. According to Predators Assistant General Manager and Admirals GM Paul Fenton, while some NHL teams may view their AHL affiliate as a source only to be drawn from in extreme circumstances, the Preds see their connection with the Ads as a single, cohesive group - filling out the Predators roster often comes with some help from southeastern Wisconsin.
“You look at our track record over the years, our lifeline has been the Milwaukee pipeline up here [in Nashville], and not a lot of teams can say that,” Fenton said. “We believe as an organization that it benefits us in the long run to let our kids go through growing pains. Our coaches have done a tremendous job, our development people have done a great job of bringing them into positions where they can succeed.”
Two of those kids, Arvidsson and Fiala, played a large part in that development in 2014-15. Both were selected in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Predators, but neither were necessarily expected to play in North America at any point this season, let alone get a shot in the show.
“[Arvidsson was] a player that, when we went to development camp last summer, we did not have him making our hockey club,” Evason said. “But when we got there, and we saw his speed in a limited role on the ice, we asked him to come to our organization, still not expecting anything…He’s clearly seen great strides. [He made the AHL] All-Star Rookie Team and was basically a consistent player for us. I think that’s a real good example of our organization here.”
Fiala’s arrival in North America was also a bit of a surprise to Evason and the Preds staff. Having returned to Sweden after seeing preseason action for the Preds in September, Fiala arrived in Milwaukee in mid-January and skated for the Preds in a game against the Montreal Canadiens just over two months later. He also appeared for the Preds in Game Three of the postseason against Chicago.
“Clearly he has the skills and the tools to play in the NHL, but what we were impressed with was his attitude and his mental preparation,” Evason said of Fiala. “His maturity from rookie camp to development camp and then to main camp, to see him go away and then come back much more mature, not only as a hockey player but a person, I think that allowed him to develop and be in a position where he played a game in the playoffs for the Nashville Predators.”
As the ice melts and humidity creeps in, the time comes to refresh and retool for the Preds and the Ads. Both Evason and Fenton will use the summer months to evaluate not only what is needed in Milwaukee, but also the pieces in Milwaukee who could be ready to make a permanent jump to Tennessee.
“[After evaluating last season], we’re putting together a hockey club for next year, recognizing some areas we can improve on and then trying to fit people into that,” Evason said. “We’re going to have some more young people coming into our organization, so we’d like to surround them with some veteran people as well. We have to make some decisions in that area and then go pursue some people to fill out our roster.”
“If you look at our roster and then you project out what the holes could be [in Nashville], you have to look and see what we have coming and see if there’s somebody who’s going to be able to fit and fill that from both your prospects and Milwaukee,” Fenton said. “Kevin Fiala…the Austin Watson’s and Colton Sisson’s of Milwaukee, they’re pushing at the door here, [defenseman] Anthony Bitetto is pushing at the door, [goaltender Marek] Mazanec is pushing at the door.”
For the Admirals, the postseason miss is one they’d prefer to correct next season, but for their bench boss, 2014-15 wasn’t a step backward. If anything, what transpired makes him even more optimistic for October to come back around.
“We definitely had a group that was different at different stages in the year, but we certainly feel that we learned how to stay more even-keeled,” Evason said. “We never, at any point in the season, high or low, did we feel that the group shut down on us or got away from us as a group. That says a lot about the character of the people that are in the locker room and our leadership group as well.”
Perhaps one or more of those pieces will make the transition from the Badger State to the Volunteer State come autumn. Besides, it’s just a straight shot down I-65.
“It’s great,” Fenton said, “that we have players we’re very confident in saying can step in, play for [the Predators] and not miss a step up here to continue the quest for that Stanley Cup.”