That presented a challenge for a new fan base that was eager to learn the game. Who would they rally around among the expansion picks the new squad would send to the ice as underdogs every night?
There were several players the fans would eventually latch on to, but none more than an unknown goalie (even among the most knowledgeable hockey fans) from the Montreal Canadiens organization.
Tomas Vokoun had played in one NHL game in his career when he became a Predator, and he was pulled before it was over. He was so low on the Montreal depth chart the Canadiens offered to give the Predators another player (Sebastien Bordeleau) if they would take Vokoun and not one of their other unprotected goalies in the 1998 Expansion Draft.
When the first season started, Vokoun still wasn't really in the plans. Mike Dunham, a very good goalie, was the clear No. 1, and the backup was a guy only the most die-hard Preds fans even remember: Eric Fichaud. But "Feesh" struggled badly and eventually got injured while going winless. That opened the door for Vokoun, who quietly started making the most of his opportunities when he got his chances. Slowly, the crowd began to gravitate toward him.
What was it about Vokoun? He was the ultimate underdog on a team of underdogs, and in an expansion situation, the goalie is often in the spotlight because his team is getting peppered with shots. But there was something about his style as well. The intensity. The fiery competitiveness. And the knack for the big save at the key time.
As time passed, the team evolved and began to get more and more competitive. In 2002, the Preds traded Dunham to the Rangers and gave the reins to Vokoun as the No. 1 goalie. Meanwhile, the game operations department sensed fully the crowd's love for the young Czech. Now, when he made a big save, Blur's "Song Two" would play over the PA system as the replay would show. But instead of "Woo-Hoo", the crowd would shout "Vo-koun". The song would also be accompanied with an "old school" cartoon character on the megatron, who would put his hands in the air in the shape of a "V". Section 303 then began to mimic this, in the form of a Wayne's World "We're not worthy" motion while they sang the chorus. Soon, the whole crowd got into the act.
The Predators made the playoffs for the first time in 2004 (after six years of building) - with Vokoun playing 73 games as a total workhorse. There were special moments as he performed brilliantly during the first round series against the No. 1 seeded Red Wings - leading the team to two victories in the first two home games in an electric atmosphere.
By this time, Vokoun was one of the best in the League. After two more stellar seasons after the 2004-05 lockout, the Predators had become a full-fledged contender and had built the roster the way Poile had envisioned. But it all came to an unfortunate end when then-owner Craig Leipold ordered a trimming of payroll as he sold the team in the summer of 2007. Vokoun was traded to Florida amidst the uncertainty.
The Predators and their fans weathered that storm as we know, and are a healthy franchise today. But they had to have somebody to rally around from the start as the team put down its roots. If not, who's to say the organization could have made it through the early struggles? Vokoun was that guy for Nashville. His value to the organization goes beyond the numbers for that reason. Someday soon when the team brings him back to honor him in Smashville, I for one, can't wait to hear "Song Two" again. Something tells me I won't be alone. - Willy Daunic
Recently, Nashvillepredators.com caught up with Tomas Vokoun to chat about his time spent in Nashville and what might be next for the former Preds goaltender. Now retired from the NHL, living in Florida and coaching some youth hockey, Vokoun had plenty of fond memories to reflect upon during his tenure in a Predators uniform.
Seventeen years later, what do you think about Nashville as a hockey town?
“I think Nashville is following the footsteps of places like Anaheim or San Jose, some of those earlier expansion franchises that have really done well. Since I’m involved in youth hockey right now, I’ll give that as an example. In talking to people around the city, it’s clear that youth hockey is really growing in Nashville, and that’s due to the Predators being in town and young kids being exposed to NHL hockey. When you’ve got growth in that area, then you know that you’re helping to grow the next [generation] of fans and that gives you security. I think having players like Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne has really helped their exposure as a hockey town too. I still don’t think it’s quite the same as if Weber or Rinne played for the New York Rangers, but that [star power] has helped Nashville in its own way. It’s getting to the point where teams and media are finally not overlooking Nashville and counting them out year after year. The ownership did a great job of patiently growing the franchise, drafting well and relying on young players. But right along with that, they focused on growing their fanbase too - and that’s paid off. When I was there, we had great fans, but that was partly because we were the new thing in town and it was exciting, but the harder thing is to keep the fans after years go by. The fans, even in those tough years for the team, and I was a victim of that change, stood by. And now they have local [owners] who are a part of the community and want to keep the team in Nashville.”
Now that you’re a “retired” man, what led you to become involved in Florida youth hockey?
“I don’t feel like I’m qualified yet to say I know all about it, but in my limited experience, it’s been really great. It’s something I can relate to and it comes a little easier to me than starting in something new that I’ve never dealt with before. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have said, ‘No, no way am I ever going to be a youth hockey coach,’ but people say a lot of things and you never know what the future will hold. It’s not about this player could play at this level some day or something like that, it’s more about growing hockey fans and growing good people by passing along lessons I learned along the way. I don’t have to look at my post-NHL career as something where I’m scrambling to provide for my family. I was fortunate enough to play for a long time and did well financially, and for me it’s a lot more important to see what my life looks like than what my paycheck looks like. Am I doing something I really enjoy and what I think makes sense? For me right now, that’s been youth hockey. In five years, I may be somewhere else, but for now I’m enjoying it and I plan to stick with it.”
What were you thinking when the Predators selected you in the 1998 expansion draft?
“I was at a crossroads. I’d been trying for three years to break through in Montreal and it didn’t work out for me, so I was having thoughts of going back to Europe and all these different things. I didn’t feel very wanted by the [Canadiens], so when I was drafted I got excited because I felt like it was a second chance for me. I was going to play in front of people that hadn’t seen me before; for all my shortcomings in the early part of my career, they hadn’t been a part of that and didn’t see me with any labels. I came in as one of the guys and I got a fresh start like I wanted. It was up to me to have people look at me in a new way rather than how they had three years ago. It was such a change though, I was coming from the tradition of the Montreal Canadiens to a brand new hockey town. It was such an awesome experience. From David [Poile] down to the trainers, I formed some amazing relationships with them and I still keep up with them to this day. It was a fresh start and it ended up shaping my career. You get second chances from time to time, but not that often, and I was able to take advantage of that one.”
How incredible was the first playoff series with the Red Wings in 2004?
“It was very special. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re playing for a team with so much tradition that has won a bunch of Cups and done it all before. The beauty of playing for an expansion franchise, like I did, is that there are a lot of firsts along the way. That first series with Detroit was just so special when you think about it. Especially back then, when they had at least seven or eight future Hall-of-Famers. That first game in Nashville during the playoffs, the atmosphere in the building was incredible. Nashville is so personal and filled with close-knit people. You’re not in some huge metropolitan area. A lot of the fans you see at the games you see them around the town too and form bonds. You hear from them even if you’re not playing; it was just such a fun and personal time. It was a lot of fun.”
Do you keep up with any or your former Preds teammates or management?
“I was actually sitting with Barry [Trotz] and Mitch Korn just a few days ago. They were down here playing against the Panthers and they invited me and said they wanted to see me. Even David Poile came and talked with me when Pittsburgh came to Nashville in years past. These people, and also Ray Shero and Tom Fitzgerald, are close to me. Ray was my boss while I was in Pittsburgh. A lot of these people helped to start my real NHL career, so I want to keep with up them. Starting the expansion team with the Preds was a second and third chance for many of us. We had a chance to re-invent ourselves. I look at Barry Trotz, who was a minor league coach, and now he’s been an NHL coach for 16 or 17 years after he had his opportunity. Mitch Korn was more established, but still he moved on from that first year and now he’s still in the League. For me, we were a close group, and no one came with this ‘better than anyone’ attitude. I think that’s what made it so special because we all had that same start together and a second chance for many and we grabbed it. I think that’s the way it should be too.”
You’ve mentioned that now that you’re retired you consider yourself to be a Nashville Predator, what makes you say that?
“Quite frankly, I played almost two-thirds of my career in Nashville, and I think that’s where my career kind of took off. I played the most games, I really enjoyed it and I loved living in Nashville. I have so many friends still in town and we keep up with people. The neighbors from my old street, we follow each other on social media and all that. Every time I come back, I’m excited to go back, so just from that perspective, and then from obviously a performance perspective. The biggest part of my career was in Nashville. Being there nine years, eight playing and one lockout, that’s a long time for a professional athlete to be in one spot. My first win, my first shutout, you can go down the list, and most of the things that I achieved came in a Nashville uniform. Looking back on my career, things would never have happened if I didn’t get my first win in Nashville. I loved playing there, I enjoyed every moment of it, I enjoyed the city and the people. A lot of people will say that, but I genuinely enjoyed it.”
What would you say to the Preds fans that have followed you throughout your career?
“I would just want to thank them for their support because it meant a lot to me, and I just wish them a great season this year. I think they have a great team and [I wish them] success going into the playoffs and growing that franchise. I’m not just a hockey player, I’m a big fan of the game. I think it’s the greatest game in the world, and in my opinion, I want a great place like Nashville to be a part of the best League in the world and do well. Honestly, since I left Nashville, every player I’ve ever talked to who played there, nobody said anything negative about Nashville. For some reason, every player loves playing there and living there, and it’s funny, because that’s not the case with a lot of other places. The fans do support the team, but you don’t get the hassle of maybe a Canadian team. You still have the atmosphere during the games, so it’s almost a perfect scenario for a player.”
After this latest step, what’s next for you?
“I’m going to try to make [spending time with my family] my priority. Especially once you get older, there’s a lot of hard decisions you’re going to make for your career. For me, being away from my kids for an extended period of time for the last three years [was tough]. Not just moving, but being in the everyday unknown. Now I think it’s my time to give them the peace of mind that they know where they’re going to be. That’s part of why I like the youth hockey coaching too, it keeps me in one place. Right now, I don’t have any ambitions to be at a higher level than that, because [professional coaching], it’s not much different than when you’re a player. Once it gets to the higher levels, there’s uncertainty and coaches come and go and all that. I just want to be in one spot and watch my kids grow up and be part of the game. I don’t feel it’s any less a part than when you play. I can probably do a lot more good [in life now] than when I played.”