Seated at a hotel bar in Newark, New Jersey, recently, Tom Fitzgerald clicked the television on a hockey game and - surprisingly enough - found himself engaged in conversation with a Nashville Predators fan next to him.
Fitzgerald's companion, unaware he was speaking with the first Preds captain in franchise history, asked if Fitzgerald remembered the old days when the Predators had players like Cliff Ronning and Greg Johnson.
"Yeah, I sure do," Fitzgerald said. "I'm Tom Fitzgerald. He looked at me and said, `No you're not.' I said, `Yeah, I really am, just a few hairs less.'"
The affable Fitzgerald wound up talking with his new friend for about an hour, convincing him at some point of Fitzgerald's true identity.
While some Preds' fans recollections of Fitzgerald may not be crystal clear, however, Fitzgerald's memories of helping to build Nashville's first professional sports franchise remain as vivid and meaningful as ever.
That's why - almost two decades after the Predators came into existence, and some 15 years after he last suited up for Nashville - Fitzgerald still feels a surge of pride when he sees the Preds playing in their first Western Conference Final.
His remaining ties to the Predators include General Manager David Poile, Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton and Equipment Manager Pete Rogers, all of whom were in Nashville from the very beginning.
"I'm happy for those guys because it's been a long time coming," said the 48-year-old Fitzgerald, now the New Jersey Devils Assistant General Manager. "I know how hard they work, and I know this is what they set out to do from the get-go. It hasn't come easy. There's been heartbreak there over the last bunch of years to not get out of the [first two rounds], but adversity makes you stronger. So I'm really happy for them."
A tough-minded defensive center, Fitzgerald was an integral part of the Preds' first four seasons, ever since he was signed by Nashville in 1998 and immediately named the team's first captain.
Way back then, Fitzgerald's two oldest sons - Ryan and Casey - were tiny tykes who ran around the Preds' dressing room, whacking balls of tape with sawed-off hockey sticks.
These days, Ryan (a fourth-round pick of the Bruins in 2013) is getting his first taste of professional hockey in the AHL, while Casey (a third-round pick of the Sabres in 2016) is readying for his third season at Boston College.
Fitzgerald set a gold standard for leadership during his tenure with the Predators, which came to an end in 2002 when he was traded to Chicago. Over the course of 17 NHL seasons, Fitzgerald would eventually play with seven teams, but recalls the time he spent in Nashville with special fondness.
"Nashville has a very unique place in my heart and in my family's heart because of what it allowed me in life," Fitzgerald said. "So now that I look back, yeah, there's a lot of pride when I watch them play and know that from the get-go, there was a game plan. That game-plan was to draft well, to accumulate draft picks and develop them well. Sometime, I plan on running my own team and I would do it the same way."
Fitzgerald, who works under former Predators Assistant General Manager Ray Shero in New Jersey, said he's also been impressed with Poile's big trades - like the one that brought first-line center Ryan Johansen to Nashville in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones.
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"You develop your own players from within and then when it's time to add a piece or two, you're not sacrificing your principles for it," Fitzgerald said. "They had the luxury of maybe having the best defensemen in the NHL, so when you accumulate assets like that, you can afford losing somebody to gain an asset somewhere else. That's admirable, so I really do look at it and say, `Wow, they've done something pretty special there.'"
When he watches the Predators' playoff games, Fitzgerald finds himself wondering just how loud the arena must be, considering the noise level was pretty intense in Nashville's early years as well. His wife has even been asking him about the possibility of moving back to Music City, to which Fitzgerald responds, "Maybe someday."
In the meantime, he'll be pulling for the Predators to continue this unprecedented playoff run, hoping it ends with the Stanley Cup being paraded down Broadway.
"I'd love for Nashville to win the Cup this year, I really would - I'm rooting for them," Fitzgerald said. "I would absolutely love for the team I once played for to win the Cup. It would be great for all the people that are still there, battling and fighting for what they set out to do way back in 1997 when the organization came to fruition."