THE DAY NASHVILLE BECAME A HOCKEY TOWN
Last night something strange happened. I watched a regular season hockey game on TV in its entirety. To make sure I experienced the totality of the event, I watched the pre-game, the post-game, and the intermission reports. Stranger still, this was a Thursday night when I could have been—normally would have been—watching the Philadelphia Eagles at the Carolina Panthers. That’s right, I chose to watch grown men on ice skates (okay, the Stars vs. the Predators) instead of an NFL game between two teams that were leading their respective divisions. I chose the NHL over the NFL last night, and it was absolutely magnificent. Surely this is a sign of the Apocalypse.
I was angry the day the Predators showed up in Nashville. As a basketball junkie in a city with a shiny new arena, I was admittedly still bitter that Nashville had been unsuccessful in bringing the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to Music City in 1996. “Great,” I thought, “here come the ice skating Europeans, Russians, and Canadians.” It wasn’t any kind of cultural prejudice—it’s just not easy to cheer for dudes whose names are impossible to pronounce playing a sport I had never played. Understand that I didn’t hate hockey. I supported it…sort of.
The EA Sports NHL game was my second favorite to play on my SEGA, behind only Madden NFL. That made me a hockey supporter, right? Heck, I even went to hockey games. In the early to mid 90s, my wife and I would cheer on Nashville’s minor league hockey team, the Knights, in person at the UFMA (Unidentified Flying Municipal Auditorium). Fresh out of college and newly married with no kids, these were double date nights with dear friends—friends who also went to church with a UFMA usher. Don’t judge me. Sure we got in free, but I paid for every single bag of deep-fried mini-donuts I bought from the concession guy, and I ate thousands of those things. Think round, bite-sized funnel cakes. Whatever I didn’t eat, I generally wore home. Clearly, I was a hockey concession supporter at the very least.
Fast-forward a few years. The Predators first home game was October 10, 1998 in the Gaylord Entertainment Center, affectionately referred to by locals as the GEC. Although I attended some games at the GEC the first few years, I generally did so imagining—wishing even—I was going to an NBA game instead. How could we waste that beautiful arena? The Hockey 101 segments on the jumbotron in those days were thoroughly embarrassing. Thanks to my SEGA, I knew every hockey rule there was to know, but apparently most Nashvillians did not. Looking back, I suppose I was a hockey snob if not a hockey fan.
The hype was definitely palpable that first year, but October 10, 1998 was not the day Nashville became a hockey town. How could it be? The Houston Oilers had relocated to Nashville and were playing at Vanderbilt, just a few blocks away from the GEC. Worse for the Predators, Adelphia Coliseum, a 69,000 seat football stadium, was being built just across the Cumberland River from the GEC. Thanks to a Music City Miracle and a Super Bowl run in 2000, Tennessee’s new NFL team, the Titans, had captivated the collective interest of what was already a dyed-in-the-wool football town. Nashville was absolutely rabid over the Titans. So rabid in fact, the city threw a Super Bowl LOSER parade…and more than 20,000 people attended…in 33 degree weather. A teacher at the time, I had students skip school to attend the parade. I excused their absences.
If never the most popular team in town, the Predators most definitely have always enjoyed a cult-like following throughout the team’s existence in Nashville. Home sellouts were never really uncommon, and Predators sweaters were regularly spotted around town. The NHL had carved out a nice little niche in Music City, but the team played second fiddle to the Titans. Nobody disputed that. The new millennium provided some special days in Predators history, to be sure. Much more nostalgic than anything else, none of the following events represent the day Nashville became a hockey town. All of these milestones happened while Music City was preoccupied with its beloved Titans. Until the day it wasn’t.
- October 7, 2000 – Predators win season opener against the Penguins in Tokyo, Japan
- December 6, 2001 – Predators record 100th franchise win against the Senators
- April 7, 2004 – Predators play first playoff game, a 3-1 loss against the Red Wings
- April 11, 2004 – Predators log first playoff victory, a 2-1 win against the Red Wings
- July 19, 2007 – Predators fans rally to keep team in Nashville after owner, Craig Leipold, flirts with multiple buyers (7,500 fans attend, not counting George Plaster)
- April 24, 2011 – Predators record first playoff series win, beating the Ducks in six games
- April 20, 2012 – Predators win first round series for second consecutive year, beating the Red Wings in five games
- April 20, 2017 – Predators record first playoff series sweep against Blackhawks
- May 7, 2017 – Predators win a second-round playoff series for first time ever, defeating the Blues in six games.
- May 22, 2017 – Predators become Western Conference Champions for the first time, defeating the Ducks in six games
- May 29, 2017 – Predators play in first Stanley Cup Finals game, losing 5-3 to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins
- June 3, 2017 – Predators notch first Stanley Cup Finals win, beating the Penguins 5-1 at home.
Loyal Predators fans remember most, if not all, of these milestones. Many likely remember where they were when the team accomplished these things. But a dedicated subculture hardly a hockey town makes. The great irony in this story is that Nashville became a hockey town on a 90-degree day when the Predators were playing a meaningless preseason game in Columbus, Ohio some 377 miles away from Music City. In fact, the day Nashville became a hockey town had nothing to do with hockey at all. On a hot Sunday, September 24, 2017, the Tennessee Titans refused to take the field for the National Anthem before their home game against the Seattle Seahawks. While 53 misguided players and an entire coaching staff holed up in the locker room in the bowels of Nissan Stadium, Nashville’s sports culture changed forever.
Music City is now a hockey town, and a mediocre Titans team (whose last playoff win came in 2003 with Steve McNair at QB) should consider itself fortunate and humbly pick up the second fiddle. The funny thing about the ice-skating Europeans, Russians, and Canadians is that they all stand for our National Anthem, likely recognizing the uniqueness of their American opportunity and possibly even remembering real oppression in some of their home countries.
On September 24, 2017, while a group of under-achieving, overpaid football-players-turned-social-activists chose to disrespect America, grown men on ice skates whose names we can’t pronounce stole the collective heart of Music City. Like it or not, Nashville is now a hockey town. And that is the real Music City Miracle.