Part 1: Welcome to Smashville: The Rise of Hockey in Tennessee

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That's the main drag in downtown Nashville, Fourth and Broadway, home to countless country bars, cowboy hat stores and, up there on the left with a giant antenna stretching into the sky, the home of the Predators. 

It's a hockey locale unlike any other, and a pretty surreal experience for someone who grew up typically Canadian, playing shinny on the pond and watching junior hockey at the local rink.

Me, I loved it. And I can see why so many NHLers enjoy playing in Nashville.

For one thing, Music City, USA, didn't strike me as all that different from a lot of small Canadian towns — including the one I grew up in. There's great BBQ, friendly people, lots of Nickelback and all the cowboy paraphernalia you could want. The Predators' players and staff also have the advantage of being able to pretty much come and go as they please, showing up in local haunts after games — although they're far from anonymous.  There are plenty of superfans who recognize the players, but they're treated for the most part as minor celebs in a town used to having famous acts come through.

The fans themselves, for the two games I saw, were terrific. Unique, sure, especially given all of their various chants (I've never seen a fan base get so excited when their team goes on the power play, for example, or thank the PA announcer for telling them there was one minute remaining in the period), but a lot of fun. Preds fans have built up their own traditions separate from those you see in arenas in Canada and the Northeastern U.S., and even have a band nestled above the zamboni entrance that plays during intermissions. They're also proud of the fact that the Preds were the first NHL team to employ cheerleaders.

This is football country, after all.

In a lot of ways, it's been a very difficult couple of seasons for the franchise, but I never got the sense of mass discontent that was out in full force in Columbus last season when I was in Ohio. Preds fans almost universally said they'd be happy just to make the playoffs this season for the fifth time in a row, something that looked incredibly unlikely a few weeks ago before the team's recent run up the standings. (Including two wins during my visit, Nashville's gone 12-5-1.)

Two years ago, the Predators were one of the top teams in hockey, challenging the Red Wings for the Central Division title and boasting some of the top young talent in the NHL. It was then, though, with attendance proving a major issue, that former owner Craig Leipold opted to sell, a decision followed by an edict to GM David Poile to drastically slash payroll and gut the team. After Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie made a well-publicized bid for the team and a few months of "save our team" type rallies, Nashville ended up with a hodgepodge of local businessmen paired with the NHL-endorsed Boots Del Biaggio, whose financial house of cards came down not long after he got his grubby hands on 27 per cent of the team for a bargain-basement price.

Then, in a development that I think set the Preds back more than anything in the past year, Alexander Radulov opted to break his contract this fall and play in the KHL, depriving Nashville of its top up-and-coming scorer and a player on the verge of breaking out (while playing on an entry level deal, no less).

All that'd be tough for any fan base to absorb, never mind one still in its infancy.

A lot of the fans I talked to had never been to a hockey game prior to the Preds coming to town in 1998, and many said they were simply curious to see their city's first major pro team in the beginning.

They've come a long way since that point — so much so that I'd argue the general level of fan knowledge at the Sommet Center during my time there was perfectly normal. (That said, during the Saturday game against the Red Wings, there was a USA Hockey official handing out Hockey 101 pamphlets with basic hockey terms and rules. I didn't get the sense the cheat sheets were needed by most, but they were there.)

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Our host for the game against the Coyotes was Mark (who has started blogging recently at The View From 111), a 50-something professional who has four season's tickets right behind one of the nets. He's been a Preds season ticket holder for seven seasons now, but said that he was hooked on hockey much earlier than that, having gone to Nashville Dixie Flyers games back in the late '60s when the old EHL was still in town. Professional hockey doesn't have much in the way of roots in the city, but the Dixie Flyers' 10-year stint came with a couple interesting characters, including former coach John McLellan, who moved onto coach the Maple Leafs before dying tragically at age 51 in 1979.

Mark is about as big a hockey fan as you'll find in Nashville, and he's a local (as opposed to all of the Michigan transplants — like well-known blogger Dirk Hoag — who root for the team). Mark knows absolutely everything about the Preds, goes to every game and even travels with the team sometimes with a small group of Pred-heads. They've made two Canadian road trips to this point — one to the East and one to the West — and know everyone from broadcaster Terry Crisp (who Mark introduced me and my pal Alasdair to prior to the game) to the coaches and even director of hockey ops Mike Santos.

When you're that big of a superfan in Nashville, you know the waterboy on up. And Mark was a great guide for a writer looking to get a handle on the local hockey culture.

The people that follow the hockey team that closely obviously aren't that numerous, but their ranks are growing. Nashville's still definitely a football town during the NFL and NCAA seasons, but we bumped into Predators fans everywhere, including one waitress at a local brewery who brought out her extensive portfolio of iPhone pictures of opposition players in the penalty box (all of whom she heckled mercilessly).

People like Mark are far, far from what we're often told is the stereotypical hockey fan in Nashville. He's definitely not a "hick," he knows and loves the game, and would be absolutely devastated if the team ever left. And, for the most part, that categorizes a lot of the team's admittedly undersized fanbase.

That's not to say there aren't some gaps in their hockey knowledge. At one point, when I was told assistant coach Brent Peterson was on his way to join us after a 4-1 win over the Coyotes, I misheard his name and wondered aloud if he was the player the Canucks acquired for Cam Neely in a trade that's still bemoaned in Vancouver. (Silly me, that's Barry Pederson.) No one knew about the trade — or even who Neely was — and when Peterson arrived, there was a bit of an embarrassing moment when they immediately brought up the deal.

"Well I didn't make the trade!" Peterson quipped.

Whoops.

As for the Predators' impact in the area, Mark pointed out that there are now an incredible 1,800 minor hockey players in the city, a group that was all but nonexistent a decade ago. The team and the NHL have made efforts to grow the game in the area, including starting a G.O.A.L. program (Get Out And Learn!) that offers "youngsters the opportunity to experience the excitement of hockey without the cost of purchasing equipment." Kids aged four to nine with no prior skating experience are given a free four-week program in March and April designed to help develop youth hockey in the area. (One of the major challenges is the fact there are only the two rinks, both of which locals said are always at capacity.)

Mark argued during the game that what Nashville really needs is time for the current generation of young fans, the ones that grew up with the NHL as a part of the community, to become hockey players and, eventually, season's ticket holders. Seeing the level of support firsthand, I don't think there's any question that, over time, that will happen, and we'll start to see prospects from Tennessee drafted into the league and fans' appreciation of the game continue to grow.

I do wonder, however, if the NHL's well moneyed teams see such a long-term strategy as something worth working toward.

Star-divide

I'll have more on hockey in Nashville over the next few days, including a look at the issues and challenges facing the NHL there. I'm also open to taking questions via email about my trip, so fire away.

>> All photos: Alasdair McKie

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