On the surface, Monday’s Tennessee state championship game between the Ravenwood Raptors and MBA Big Red might register as a small ripple in hockey’s global pond.
The trophy they are competing for, the Nashville Predators Cup, is not in the same stratosphere of importance or history as the Stanley Cup. There are no endorsement deals to be made with a victory, no livelihoods to be determined and no legacies to be cemented. Following the game, there’s a good chance many of those competing will have to finish mundane chores or homework. But for Dan Keczmer, a man who has competed for a Stanley Cup, the game on Monday night will carry a special significance that goes beyond wins or losses.
That’s because it will be the final time he will get a chance to coach his son, Christian, in an organized hockey event as the head coach for the Ravenwood Raptors.
Christian is in his senior year at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, and his father, Dan, is in his second year as head coach of the team.
The mere fact that they will be competing in a championship game in Tennessee, is a sign of the city’s unlikely emergence as a hockey destination in the South. It also marks an important turning point for the sport in Nashville, as players on both rosters of the final two teams were all born in 1997 or later, the year the Nashville Predators were named as the NHL’s newest expansion franchise.
The Genesis of a Hockey City:
June 25, 1997, was a hot one in Nashville. Temperatures, which were north of 90 degrees, baked the signature “saucer” roof for the the newly constructed Nashville Arena off of Lower Broadway. The air, which was thick with the humidity of a typical Tennessee summer, caked the city that had placed a $144 million gamble on a world-class venue. Needless to say, it was not exactly ideal conditions to cultivate a hockey-mad city.
But 900 miles away in New York City, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had just made an announcement that would stun the hockey community:
“The Board unanimously approved the recommendation of the expansion committee... Nashville will join the League in 1998-99,” Bettman said.
Dan Keczmer, then a defenseman for the Dallas Stars, was absolutely shell shocked.
“I thought it was a spoof,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Nashville was a city that could take on an NHL team. I thought it was filled with a bunch of country folk.”
He, along with almost everyone else, had good reason for the disbelief. The city core had a population that hovered around 500,000 - small by NHL standards - and the metropolitan area, which included Murfreesboro, was south of 1 million. Although the city had an on-again, off-again history with minor-league hockey dating back to the 1960 Dixie Flyers club, there wasn’t a massive grassroots movement brewing.
It was a city whose culture was steeped in the rhythm of blues, the twang of country and the gridiron of collegiate football.
Further complicating matters, there was only one sheet of ice in the city, making the growth of hockey a daunting undertaking for the “non-traditional” market.
However, the following year, life would take a wildly unpredictable turn for 29-year-old Dan Keczmer. And with NHL hockey on the horizon in Music City, what had once seemed like two unrelated objects running on parallel tracks, would turn into a collision course that would alter the history of hockey and Nashville forever.
“We Don’t Have Room for You”
When training camp rolled around in 1998, Dan knew his time as a member of the Dallas Stars was running on borrowed time. A slew of trades to bolster the defense that summer had him flirting dangerously close to being out of a job.
By that point in his career, he had spent eight years at the NHL level with Minnesota (the team that drafted him), as well as Hartford, Calgary and Dallas. Bob Gainey, then the general manager of the Stars, had taken a liking to Dan, making a special effort to keep him on the Dallas roster despite the fact his talent seemed to be out of place with his higher-skilled teammates.
“They had a really good team,” Dan reminisced. “After training camp, we were flying from Colorado, and we were on our way home. Bob came up next to me on the plane… I’m like ‘oh shoot. I’m getting sent down now.’”
Gainey had a different plan in mind though, and that’s when he approached Dan about changing positions from defense to left wing. He knew it was his only chance to stay with the big club, so he accepted.
“[Bob Gainey] basically made a spot on the team for me that year to stay up in Dallas.”
But the Stars, who eventually won the Stanley Cup that year, were stacked with a bevy of talent that included the likes of Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Brett Hull, Darryl Sydor and Jere Lehtinen. When the trade deadline arrived that year, it was Dan who was on the outside looking in and on waivers.
“We’re making some moves and we don’t have room for you,” Dan remembers Gainey saying.
Although his heart sank from the news, It was far from a shock.
“I was just happy he gave me the opportunity to be there the time that I was,” Dan said. “When I got picked up on waivers, it was basically a call from Gainey, and him notifying me of that. He said, ‘Here’s your travel arrangements, good luck in Nashville.’
Just like that, on March 12, 1999, Dan was no longer a member of the Dallas Stars and was on his way to Nashville for the first time in his life.
A New Place to Call Home:
If Dan had once thought Nashville having an NHL team was a spoof, he couldn’t have changed his mind any faster. The connection he felt to the city was almost immediate.
“In the first couple of days we were at the house, people would knock on the door and drop off cakes, brownies and cookies to introduce themselves,” he said. “I thought that stuff only occurred in TV and in the movies. But it happened in our neighborhood.”
Dan had settled in Brentwood with his young family, that included his daughter and young son, Christian.
There was also something different about the hockey atmosphere in his new city - something he couldn’t quite place his finger on.
“I do remember the energy inside the arena was very unique,” he said. “Typically you go to other arenas and it’s the goals and the fights that bring the great big cheers from the crowd. Here, the little hits along the boards, the fans went crazy.”
If hockey had any chance of succeeding in the new city, it seemed like it would be with a mix of brawn and country music as the foundation.
“After the game, we had a lot of country music stars downstairs with Amy Grant and Vince Gill, and Garth Brooks,” Dan recalled. “There was a lot of who’s who in country music downstairs after the game. I was like, ‘hey… this is pretty cool stuff.’”
For a man who had lived a nomadic lifestyle for much of the last 15 years, it appeared that he had found a true home in Nashville.
“The quality of people here was different than anywhere I had ever played,” he said. “That was one of the big reasons why we decided to lay our roots here, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Dan finished his NHL career in Nashville the following season, but he was far from finished with the sport, dedicating the next phase of his life to the game in equally rewarding ways.
Laying Down Roots:
Christian Keczmer’s passion for the game started when he first put on skates at almost four years of age. It’s a tale that’s typical for most Canadians or Americans in colder climates, but in Nashville at the time, the game was in its budding stages.
“I took Christian over to A-Game, got him some skates and a helmet and some gloves,” said Dan. “He was pushing one of those support systems. He took a liking to it. As you can see, the rest is history.”
Christian's evolution to hockey and growth mirrored that of the city’s.
“I would just relate it to Nashville,” said Christian, now 18-years-old and a brawny 6-foot-5. “It just kind of exploded.”
It took years of methodical planning for that combustion to happen, of course. One sheet of ice turned to two, then four, then six. The Predators invested heavily in learn-to-skate programs, community initiatives and used the team’s “non-traditional” moniker to its advantage, capitalizing on the NHL’s ability to create memorable experiences.
“I remember the announcer for the Preds, how he said the names like Jason Arnott, J-P Dumont and stuff like that,” recounted Christian. “That was one of the bigger parts of the memory of the game was mostly the announcer and the people that played for the team.”
The atmosphere, combined with the city’s population boom, seemed to ingrain the franchise into a beloved part of the culture of Nashville.
“It’s just little things,” said Dan. “You see so many people with license plates that have the Preds logo on it, bumper stickers. Picking up the newspapers, you see a lot more articles involving hockey than you did initially. The success of the team attributed to the fan base.”
On the high school level, there has also been significant growth. When the Preds first arrived in Nashville, there were zero high school teams. The Nashville Predators organization created the Greater Nashville Area Scholastic Hockey - GNASH - League, and saw it grow from zero to the 20 or so teams that exist to this day.
Christian has been a benefactor of that growth, having competed in travel hockey just like his dad.
And in a time when youth sports enrollment is on a national downward decline, youth hockey enrollment in Nashville has skyrocketed, with USA Hockey registrations up over 20 percent in the last five years.
Much of that growth can be attributed to the organization’s opening of Ford Ice Center in Antioch, Tennessee, in 2014. The Predators partnered with the municipality in a unique public-private partnership and have publicly stated that they will work with anyone to build new rinks.
But if you think the Nashville Predators are slowing down, you would be dead wrong.
In the coming years, the team will be leveraging its brand by instituting fitness programs at area elementary schools and will be charting other aggressive plans to introduce as many children to hockey as possible.
The growth is running parallel to the city’s, and is occurring both organically, and by brute force.
“It’s not growing just internally, you are getting corporations who are moving their headquarters here, drawing in people from the east, midwest and northern cities,” said Dan. “Those people grew up with hockey, and it gives them the ability to attach themselves to a NHL team.”
The Dawn of a New Era:
The team, and the city, seem well positioned to continue that growth in the coming years. Nashville has experienced a kind of cultural-chic revival previously associated with towns like Austin and Portland. It’s led national publications like The New York Times to call Nashville the new “It city.” A survey commissioned by Forbes Magazine found that Nashville ranked among the most desirable places to live among Millennials.
Perhaps more importantly, the city, and by extension, the Nashville Predators, are creating a culture of connection in the DNA of Music City’s soul.
The fact that Dan will be coaching his son’s high school hockey team, a feat that once seemed unimaginable, is tangible proof of that.
“I think it’s a bond that’s brought us closer together,” said Dan on the importance of hockey in connecting with his son.
Although Dan and his son Christian grew up in entirely different cities, the shared experiences of competing in travel hockey is a language in no need of translation.
“It’s a special time and a special bond at practice or at the games,” Dan said. “The kids grow up so quickly and you blink and they are in college.”
Regardless of the outcome of the game, Monday’s contest will be a coronation, a figurative “full-circle” moment for Dan, Christian, Nashville and the growth of hockey.
“I do think it’s neat, reflecting upon it now, that with my son’s birthyear of 1997, the [NHL] announcing that they are going to have a team here,” said Dan. “That part of it is pretty cool.”
The game is also moment both Dan and Christian know they will both remember for years to come.
“I cherish and try to live in the moment as much as possible knowing that once they go off to college, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Dan. “They could move away from home like I did at a young age, and that’s why I want to embrace him and live in the moment as much as possible. I’ve enjoyed the experience and the journey so much; it’ll be sad to be finished, but it opens up a new chapter in his life. I’m excited to see what happens in the future for him.”
Some people look at hockey in a city like Nashville and see a small ripple. For the Keczmer family, it means something much larger. Sure, the growth of the sport is something that can be measured with data, but more importantly, it's something that can be felt.
Dan and his son Christian will be a part of something very special on Monday night. Whether they realize it or not, it will be the end of one era and the beginning of another one - a connection and a destiny the two will be able to share their whole lives.
That’s something worth celebrating, even if it’s not a Stanley Cup.
The Ravenwood Raptors will be taking on the MBA Big Red Monday, March 7 at 6 p.m. (CT) at the Ford Ice Center in Antioch, with the winner claiming the Nashville Predators Cup. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, click here.