Nashville Predators

From the geniuses running the National Hockey Leagues comes… Another southern expansion team! Which, of course, also means there’s not a whole lot of story to go with these guys. The Nashville Predators are around to give the natives of Nashville a team to get attached to and the many displaced northerners in Nashville a chance to see their old teams once a year when they visit. At least, that’s the perception. The reality is that the Nashville Predators, once a team on Jim Balsillie’s plate, seem to have a real foothold in Music City.

Of course, one can’t help but notice that Nashville is a southern city. It’s a non-traditional hockey market, which makes you wonder what business Gary Bettman thought he had in the area anyway. After all, Seattle still doesn’t have a team. So who the hell wanted to place a team in a place known for country music and college football? Well, uh, Nashville did. Seriously. This whole saga started with the New Jersey Devils back in 1995. That was before the Devils started taking on the Neutral Zone Trap and the oodles of Stanley Cups, bandwagon fans, and scorn from people who liked to see fast, hard hockey. The city of Nashville decided to offer a $20 million dollar incentive to any team that would be willing to relocate to their nice, newly-built arena, and that happened to be at the same time the Devils were trying to get out of their lease. Well, that fell through when the Devils’ lease was restructured.

After the arena opened in 1996, Nashville then had an attempt to reel in the NBA’s Sacramento Kings fall though before going after another hockey team. In 1997, a group of businessmen made a formal presentation to the NHL to argue Nashville’s case, and a team of league officials went to tour the area. Thousands of fans gathered on the arena plaza to say hello. Nashville got its team. They were to start playing in 1998, but it was in September of 1997 that the new team held a press conference to unveil its new logo to the hockey world: A sabretooth tiger! And yes, that seems to be a random making that some ad executives pulled from their asses because they were obsessed with the all things EXTREME!!! Youth culture – it was the 90’s, and EXTREME!!! Was in vogue – but this actually had some local history and relevance behind it: In 1971, during construction of what is now the UBS Tower, a partial sabretooth tiger skeleton was found. The marketers looked at that and decided to make it the team’s logo. Once revealed, the team held a fan contest to decide the team name, which included the selections Ice Tigers, Fury, and Attack. You might have noticed that all three of those names are fucking godawful. So one of the leaders of the business group that got the NHL into Nashville, Craig Leipold, added a new submission of his own: Predators. The fans decided that Leipold’s submission was the best of them – which it was.

The first general manager was David Poile, and the first head coach was Barry Trotz. This is the part where I would blather about expansion pains and rookie mistakes and write about how the two of them were unsuited and unfit and working with limited resources, but… Nope! Not in this case. Not exactly, at any rate. The Nashville Predators haven’t exactly been a revolving door at either position. In fact, Poile remains the general manager of the team, and he’s known as one of the smartest and shrewdest GMs in the NHL. No, he didn’t get immediate results, but his teams have been competitive and built on limited budgets, so he’s been kept. Trotz hasn’t been QUITE as fortunate. I mean, he DID manage to get himself run out of Nashville. But that wasn’t until 2014. When his contract expired and the Predators simply decided not to bring him back. Because Peter Laviolette was available. Laviolette – who is still the Preds’ head coach – had successfully coached the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup victory in 2006 and followed that up with a stint coaching the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2010 Final. Yeah, the Flyers were grounded handily by the Chicago Blackhawks there, but the Flyers were a third-place team that shouldn’t have been within sniffing distance of the Final, and the Blackhawks the the inevitable Team of Destiny. Laviolette briefly held the record for most victories by an American NHL coach. (And Trotz, for those now wondering, is coaching a Washington Capitals team which is running roughshod over the league.)

When the Predators finally started playing hockey games in 1998, they ran out with a pair of 28-win seasons. Not much differed from those two – they finished second-to-last the first year, and last in the second. The 2000 season did come with a nice highlight, though: In a game against the New York Islanders, the Predators managed to score four goals in a span of three minutes and 38 seconds. The 2001 season started with the Predators going to Japan to play a pair of games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they split the series. It was the start of a year in which everything the team started to build was beginning to congeal and solidify, and while the Predators finished in 10th place, they did so with 80 points on the books.

The following couple of seasons brought a little bit of regression, but the Preds broke through and made their first playoff appearance in 2004. They were promptly mopped out of the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. Everyone knows about the epic that occurred the next season. Now, I don’t mean it happened to the Predators. Well… I mean it DID happen to the Predators, just not specifically to the Predators. It happened to every other team too. The season was cancelled because of a ton of bad boardroom mojo. But when the season after that got hockey going again, the Preds jumped out to an 8-0 start. Accumulated 106 points overall, and finished the season with a 32-8-1 record at home, which was the league’s best home record. Goalie Chris Mason even managed to notch a goal during a match against the Arizona Coyotes. They clinched home advantage during the playoffs, which didn’t mean very much because they lost in the first round again. This time it was to the San Jose Sharks, and it took five games.

In 2007, the Predators were even better. Jason Arnott came to Nashville through free agency, and the team traded two former first round draft picks to the Flyers for Peter Forsberg, who was considered the best player in the NHL for a brief window of time immediately after Wayne Gretzky’s retirement. As far as the overall standings in the NHL went, the Preds finished third overall in the league, coming up just behind the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings. Not that that helped them when the playoffs started. They were matched against the San Jose Sharks in the first round. Again. They were beat. Again. In five games. Again.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the Predators missed the playoffs again. They finished 10th that year, with 88 points. Their personnel moves basically changed the guard that year – they called up Colin Wilson, Patric Hornqvist had a breakout year, and Pekka Rinne shined in the net. The Preds made the playoffs as a seventh seed, but lost to the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks in the first round again. For the 2011 season, Shea Weber became the team Captain, and Mike Fisher was brought in from the Ottawa Senators in a trade, and the Predators managed to go to a place where they had never gone before: The second round of the playoffs! Yeah, you read that right, after a few 100-point seasons which had resulted in a constant string of first round playoff exits, they finally beat the Anaheim Ducks to advance to the second round, where the Vancouver Canucks awaited. Vancouver, though, was the Team of Destiny that year, and beat the Preds in six games.

That was followed by a series of tragedies. First, enforcer Wade Belak was found dead in his condo in Toronto. Belak had been a fan favorite and was one of the three enforcers who ended up dying that summer. Then a plane crash killed the Russian hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Two of the players on that team had played for the Predators previously: Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, and Robert Dietrich was a prospect with the Milwaukee Admirals.

2012 saw another 100-point plus season season, complete with a second round exit. The Preds missed the playoffs for the next two years, then decided they weren’t going to renew the contract of Barry Trotz. Trotz by then was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, surpassing Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff by a couple of weeks after Ruff got fired. He was the second longest-tenured coach in professional American sports, after Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. David Legwand also left when he was traded to the Red Wings. But with the hiring of Peter Laviolette, the team barely missed any steps. They’ve made Mike Fisher their Captain. In a surprising move, they traded Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for PK Subban. That looked weird from the outside because both players were high-powered defensemen in a single-for-single swap at a position neither team was in need of. But Weber was stoic and quiet while Subban was emotional and wore it on his sleeve. Subban himself, although he wasn’t angry at his old team, said it was a personality trade. And the team just went into the second round again, a story which is becoming more common.

Being such a young team, the Preds aren’t exactly overflowing with legends, retired numbers, and trophy winners. But they do have a pretty good all-time roster. Really now, Peter Forsberg was a Predator for awhile, and he’s notable for being on the short list of best players in the NHL right after Wayne Gretzky retired. Their original franchise goalie was Chris Mason, who won a gold medal in the Internationals representing Canada. Mason’s follow-up, Pekka Rinne, was a Vezina finalist who is also decorated for international play. PK Subban won the Norris in 2013 and made a few NHL All-Star teams. Shea Weber was a regular on NHL All-Star teams too. Paul Kariya gave them a few years.

A lot of what sums up the Nashville Predators can be seen in that Weber-for-Subban trade. Montreal is a serious organization that will always defer to its past and parade old players out in 45-minute ceremonies every night. Nashville is new and fun and upbeat, so it makes sense that Weber would be a better fit in Montreal while Subban seems quite happy at home in Nashville. A viral video of him singing in a Nashville karaoke bar even popped up.

Although the Predators have somehow managed to find a real core of fans to build around, they were until recently one of those teams which was always mentioned when the idea of a team moving back up north was being circulated. The original owner of the Predators tried to sell the team to Jim Balsillie, who wanted to move them to Hamilton, Ontario. Much as people love the idea of placing the disaster teams in the south back up north, putting a team in Hamilton would be a huge mistake. Hamilton sits right on the western bank of Lake Ontario, where it’s located smack in the middle of the drive from Buffalo to Toronto. Buffalo and Toronto already have overlapping media area. The guy who did end up buying the Predators ran into trouble over unpaid loans. He filed for bankruptcy and got thrown in jail for 97 months. Things have managed to turn for the Predators since then, though; they started turning profits in 2010 and sold out all their home games for the first time last season.

And with the apparent stabilising of the Nashville Predators came a few fan traditions. They modified the octopus-throwing of Red Wings fans by throwing catfish. The first time that happened was in 2003. The arena also has a recognized fan section: Section 303, also known as The Cellblock. The team recognized the section, and even printed a large banner to hang in front of it. And the fans have also made a tradition of applauding the team during the final TV timeout of games. Those aren’t much, but the Predators are still a young team, so their traditions are still developing. And given the character of Nashville, they’ll probably be able to create some good ones. Hell, their goal song is a popular country music song – “I Like it, I Love it” – with a lyrical reworking that fit hockey and the Predators.

The trouble with these young teams in the NHL is that they don’t give me very much to write about. But the appeal of following such young teams is watching them grow and create their identities. And if anything, the Nashville Predators seem close to finding theirs, and it’s looking like it will be a good and fun one.

Pros

Seem close to finding their identity as a team; PK Subban plays for them; have embraced gold as a primary color; have a surprisingly strong base of hardcore fans; front office knows what it’s doing

Cons

Notable trouble getting out of the second round of the playoffs; having to fight the perceptions of northern transplants about hockey in the south; trying to fight traffic in Nashville

Should you be a fan?

When I last did this project, I would have said no. But I’m taking that back. The Nashville Predators have a foothold, a diehard core, and an evolving tradition of fun with an exciting and talented team as its keystone. What’s not to love?

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