For any young hockey player, pulling on the jersey of a NHL club is often a dream come true. When a player does so with a Nashville Predators sweater for the first time, there’s a decent chance it won’t be the only instance.
Since the franchise made their first-ever NHL Entry Draft selection in 1998, 52 of Nashville’s 160 draft picks have broken into the League wearing a Predators jersey. Another 10 have done so with a different NHL club. Considering the number of roster spots available at the start of any given season, that’s not a bad ratio.
Many of the Predators top players, who also happen to be some of the best in the NHL, are original draft picks of the team. Names like Shea Weber, who was drafted in 2003 and now captains the group, or defenseman Roman Josi (class of 2008), who has developed into one of the premier blueliners in the League. Then there’s goaltender Pekka Rinne (2004 draftee), a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate and one of the top netminders in the world.
But they weren’t superstars when their name was called on the draft floor or when they signed their first deal with the Predators. It took time, and the Preds organization prides itself on drafting and developing hockey players into not only elite sportsmen on the ice, but also into exemplary humans off of it.
“It’s about treating people right,” Predators Director of Player Development Scott Nichol said. “If you look at all the superstars in the League, you look at the superstars on our team with Josi, Weber and Pekka, they could be the nicest humans out there. They’re very respectful, and that’s what we want to teach to our players.”
No matter if it takes five months or five years, the Predators take the time to get it right with their players.
One such subject is centerman Colton Sissons. Drafted by the Preds 50th overall in 2012, Sissons spent 17 games in Nashville during the 2013-14 season before skating all 76 games with the club’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, in 2014-15, honing his skills and fine-tuning his game into a style that can translate seamlessly to Nashville when he gets the call.
“[Admirals Head Coach] Dean Evason and [Assistant Coach] Stan Drulia do a great job of breeding NHL players in the minors in Milwaukee,” Sissons said. “We study the systems we have up here so we can integrate pretty easily when we come up here and we can just come out and play. We don’t have to worry about the systems too much, and that’s a huge part of my game, personally, when I can just go out and play. They do a great job of that.”
Sissons has already seen 19 games of action at the NHL level this season, and there figures to be more to come in due time. The North Vancouver, B.C., native says that it’s not only the on-ice systems, but the teachings away from the rink that have helped him advance to the next level.
“They always preach to us down there to be a true professional and how you conduct yourself off the ice is just as important as on the ice,” Sissons said. “That’s a message that gets overlooked quite a bit in the game, and I think that’s one thing that that’s helped me be a good pro and be able to come to Nashville and have some success.”
Players like Sissons, forward Viktor Arvidsson and defenseman Anthony Bitetto are just some of the names who have been drafted by the Predators in recent years and have made their way through the system to reach the NHL level, crediting their time in Milwaukee with their arrivals to Nashville.
“Milwaukee was very good to me,” said Bitetto, who made his NHL debut last season and stuck with the Preds out of training camp this season. “It’s a huge part of where my game comes from; the coaching staff down there has pushed me, really worked with my game and I think that’s why I’m here. I give a lot of credit to those guys of showing me how to be a pro. Being down there was definitely helpful.”
“It’s comforting to be able to come up here to Nashville and you know the system and everything,” said Arvidsson, a fourth-round choice in 2014. “It’s fun; we work hard down in Milwaukee and everybody competes every day and we have a good coaches there. It’s a great atmosphere.”
It’s not only the young players who have seen success in being a part of the franchise. Cody Bass, a free-agent signee this past summer, inked a one-year, two-way deal with the Preds in July after skating previously in the Ottawa, Columbus and Chicago organizations. The gritty center appeared in two games for the Predators earlier this season, and he says no matter the city, he’s more than content.
“I knew my chances [of making the Preds roster] were slim at camp, but I think I’ve been around long enough where I try to have a positive attitude,” Bass said. “Going down to Milwaukee, the coaching staff is amazing, the training staff is amazing and it’s a good, young team with lots of skill… I’m extremely happy I signed here. Whether I’m up in Nashville or in Milwaukee, I’m extremely happy.”
So what does a young player have to do to secure a locker stall at Bridgestone Arena with regularity? Of course raw talent helps, but making an impression at the team’s summer Development Camp in July or the Prospect Camp in September certainly won’t hurt.
For Nichol, who oversees Development Camp, getting to know the players on and off the ice is key. He’s not only a coach, but also a mentor. As someone who played for six different NHL teams over the course of almost two decades, Nichol knows what it takes to get to the top, and now he instills that knowledge upon the next crop of fresh faces who could one day become household names.
“Once they get drafted, we basically try and mold them and teach them our way; how we like to develop players and how we want to develop athletes and humans,” Nichol said. “I’ll watch them, I’ll follow them around for a couple years; if they’re college guys, I’ll watch their games for four years and we’ll watch video, I’ll go over video with them - just kind of teach them a little bit of the pro aspect, the pro details of what it takes to be in the NHL.”
The ‘Predator Way’ is often talked about by younger players in town for Development Camp in regard to what they’re learning on a day-to-day basis. Nichol heads up that effort to ensure the Preds have quality people sporting their logo when the time comes.
“We want them to be respectful, and we want to teach them how to compete,” Nichol said. “The NHL isn’t the best 700-plus hockey players in the world, it’s the guys who compete and who want the puck and want to get better every day. That’s what we all try to incorporate, and it builds a really competitive culture and guys push each other to get better.”
The players who have established themselves in Nashville know those morals to be true, possessing the right mix of skill and respect to succeed at the NHL level. That comes courtesy of the culture within the organization that is instilled from Day One; a belief in the process that will eventually yield the desired results.
“We’re not pulling guys up because they’re our first-round draft pick, we’re pulling guys up who are going to help us right now and that’s a great model,” Nichol said. “As an ex-player, that’s what you want. The players want to see that they get rewarded for the work they’re doing.”
On top of it all, Nashville isn’t a bad place to live, either. Nichol skated for four seasons in a Predators uniform and is always anxious to get back to the Music City. Players past and present enjoy calling Middle Tennessee home, for more reasons than just the success on the ice.
“I’m very fortunate to be here,” Rinne said. “To be able to stay in the same organization for such a long time is great, and I love the city. I feel like it’s my home, and I love the people here, love the organization; I feel very lucky to be here and hopefully there are many more years to come.”
“It’s a great place to play,” Nichol said of Nashville. “You can just be a normal person, take your kids to the park and people aren’t hounding you. Plus the atmosphere, the crowds are so passionate with the Gold; every time I come back, you see more Gold on the streets and it’s such a fun place to play.”
Many have gotten to experience that thrill over the years. The journey from draft day to the first NHL game is one that isn’t always easy, but the rewards top everything. And when it’s done the right way, the satisfaction is tenfold.
Just ask the club’s second selection in 2008, who now happens to be their leading scorer.
“They really take care of their players, and they want their players to develop properly,” Josi said. “As a player you always want to go to the NHL as quickly as possible, but they make sure you’re ready and develop you properly. That’s a really good thing.”