The Predators were hardly the first professional hockey team to call Nashville home.
The Dixie Flyers were first, and while they departed before I got here in 1974, I still remember the South Stars, the Nights, the Nighthawks, the Ice Flyers - we covered them all.
And boy, those games were fun to watch. There was a guy named Archie Henderson, who had no teeth, and he was the big fighter with the South Stars. People would come to the Municipal Auditorium just to watch him scrap. It was like going to a wrestling match and seeing a hockey game break out.
Through the '80s and most of the '90s, hockey in Nashville had a niche following and was fun to watch, but we never imagined the NHL would give us a look.
But in 1997, a shocking announcement was made, and all of a sudden a much larger group of people was asking: "What's this hockey thing coming to Nashville?" The niche audience was gone and gone quickly. The Predators were born, and we all had to learn about big-league hockey and find out whether or not there would be an interest in this community.
There was a substantial learning curve for me too. I grew up in Wisconsin, so I skated on ice ponds and did all of that, but I never played hockey. I even didn't know all of the rules, but if I was going to cover it, I had to learn. At first, I compared parts of the game to basketball, because that's what I knew. Odd-man rushes? Those were like fast breaks. The only difference was - well, hockey players were on skates and somebody was trying to knock their block off.
My biggest challenge as a sportscaster on the local news - and this is a philosophy I never let myself forget - was inviting in the audience that didn't innately care about a subject. When you're a sportscaster, you have to remind yourself that at the forefront 50 percent of the audience doesn't care about sports. So my thinking was: "How do I tell this 50 percent that doesn't care about hockey to appreciate what they see and the efforts of these people?"
Therefore, when I was trying to educate, I used myself as the dummy. I would ask the most naïve questions, without pretending I knew anything, and so I felt like I represented the people in the audience who didn't care. The more a guest made me care, the more I turned around and tried to make other people care - and I feel like we did a pretty good job with it.
Opening Night came in October of 1998 at Nashville Arena, and the thing that I remember most is how people who went to the game said: "This is so much different than anything I've ever seen. Man, these guys are fast. Man, this is a tough sport." I felt the exact same way.
The game sold itself with the speed and skill and physicality, but the more I went into the locker room to talk to these guys, you began to get to know them as people. I tried to do more and more stories on the players so that fans would get to know them, and by getting to know a player, people would come to the games because they were interested in seeing that player.
What I liked most about covering hockey players is that they have virtually no ego. These guys had all bussed the backroads in Canada when they were teenagers, and so they were different. They didn't get the hype of kids who were NFL players, who were lauded their entire high school and college careers. They were down-to-earth guys, and they were fun to be around. We tried to show that to the people. It certainly made me enjoy being around them and reporting on them even more.
The guy I really loved was Darcy Hordichuk, a tough guy who played for the Preds from 2005 through 2008. We would do stories where he would grab me and we would talk about the art of being "the sheriff" and it just blew my mind. Plus, he was a magician, so he could do magic tricks, which was just great. He was the most personable and eloquent guy. I loved Darcy, and we stayed in touch for a long time after that.
My grandsons ended up with a different favorite player.
I took my two grandsons from California to a practice one day and all the guys were so friendly to them. We went by the locker room, and I'm talking to somebody, and these two little guys are 9 and 6 years old at the time, and Shea Weber comes off the ice, goes up to them and says, "Hey fellas, how you doing?" And he gives them his hockey stick.
My little two grandsons went back to California and made their dad get the hockey channel to watch the Predators play because of Shea Weber.
I can also remember interviewing Pekka Rinne, who moved his equipment aside when I came to do an interview with him, and he shook my hand and thanked me after the interview. You just don't get that in an NFL locker room! They endeared themselves to me, and I think they've done that with the community, too.
I can remember the early years of the Preds, when New York newspapers called us "Hicksville" and said, "Who cares about hockey in Nashville?" And there was a defiance in this city. Through it all with General Manager David Poile and what they did organizationally, when it emerged and we became this hot city, it's like you can stick your chest out and say, "There ya go, what do you think about us now?" I loved seeing that transformation.
I remember doing a live report from the roof of Tootsies on Broadway during the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 and looking down at 100,000 people, and what a sight it was. The entire NHL came in here and said, "My lord, this is mind-blowing." I did an interview with NBC's Doc Emrick, and he said this was beyond anything that the NHL has ever thought about, and it'll just change the NHL - and it has from that point on.
We have progressive people in Nashville who saw the potential of taking country music, a destination city, the energy of the game, throwing it all together and putting their wildest dreams in motion, and it actually worked, and I think it's better than anyone could have imagined.
I've been retired for almost two years now, and the thing I miss most about being a sportscaster, and specifically the Predators, is the people. I'll go to some practices now just to visit with the players that I still know. Rinne is still kind enough to call me by name, but we won't talk about hockey. I'll talk about his life, and I did that for years.
The Predators are a wonderful story, and it was a pleasure to cover them from the beginning. Their fans still bring the energy, there are sold-out crowds night after night, and the next challenge for them, and in all of our hearts, is for them to win a title.
I would be so happy if they did. So would my grandsons.