Honkey Tonk Hockey

Predators Strike A Chord With Local Fans As They Turn Nashville Into A Hockey Town

From a tiny stage near the front door of Tootsies Orchid Lounge, aspiring musicians sing for tourist tips as cigarette-stained photos of country music legends stare down from the walls, reminding them to stay true to their country roots.

For more than 50 years this Nashville institution that sits spitting distance from the famed Ryman Auditorium has been a launching pad for some of the biggest names in the business and a Mecca for country music fans.

On a shelf behind the bar, dwarfed by a giant black and white photo of Tootsie herself, sits a tiny replica of the Stanley Cup. For a town that didn’t know a hockey puck from a horseshoe a little more than a decade ago, it’s a reminder of how far hockey has come in Music City.

One Saturday night in February the streets outside Tootsies are jammed with locals who have traded in their Stetson cowboy hats and pressed Wrangler shirts for Ryan Suter jerseys and
Predator ball caps as they stream out of the honky tonks that line Broadway and into the Bridgestone Arena.

It’s another packed house as those bitten hard by the hockey bug have come to see the Predators take on the Phoenix Coyotes in a battle of two of the hottest teams in the Western Conference. Despite the playoff implications, this game may be little more than a blip on the radar for Hockey Night in Canada, but here in Nashville it’s the biggest show in town next to the Grand Ole Opry.

Inside the 17,000 seat arena, a local country band jams behind the visiting goal as a giant Sabre-toothed tiger head is lowered from the ceiling, spitting out smoke as the lights dim as the home team makes its entrance.

Waving “Welcome to Smashville” signs, fans cheer on hometown heroes as they scan the luxury boxes in search of their favorite country stars. Like movie stars sitting along the glass at an L.A. Kings game, it’s not unusual to spot Music Row superstars like Vince Gill, one of the franchise’s first season ticket holders, or Carrie Underwood, whose husband Mike Fisher was traded to the Predators on Feb. 12, supporting the home team on any given night.

Outside parking lots are full of cars from as far away as Mississippi and Alabama as fans make the pilgrimage to Nashville to get their NHL hockey fix. There’s no doubt that fans from all over the South love the Predators, and the feeling is mutual.

“I love it here,” said Colin Wilson, the Predators top pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft who cracked the lineup on a full-time basis this season.

“It’s a great town and you can see that hockey is growing and becoming more popular. Even from last year to this year there’s more people coming to games and even around town you see more people wearing Predators gear.”

Taking On The Titans

In a state where football is king, with the Tennessee Titans playing right across the Cumberland River and the University of Tennessee packing Neyland Stadium with more than 102,000 orange-clad fans every Saturday in the fall, winning the hearts and minds of local sports fans hasn’t been easy.

Hockey first appeared in Middle Tennessee in 1962 when the Dixie Flyers played in the old Eastern Hockey League, but it wasn’t until the puck dropped on the first Predators game in 1998 that the sport began to take off like a Shea Weber snapshot.

According to USA Hockey registration numbers, NHL expansion has been the single biggest catalyst in the growth of the game in non-traditional markets such as Nashville. The Southeastern District, which encompasses 11 states and the District of Columbia, has seen an increase of 492.5 percent, from 6,718 to 33,089 players since the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Atlanta Thrashers and the Predators.

“There’s no doubt that the [Predators] have had a very positive impact on the hockey community,” says Danny Corns, who has been on the frontlines of the battle to grow the game in Tennessee for more than 17 years.

“Minor league hockey is one thing, but when you get the big boys to come to town you get that marketing muscle that gives you that extra push.”

That push can be felt at every level, from Learn to Play programs to high school leagues. When the Predators arrived there were eight high school teams statewide. This year more than 25 teams from Knoxville, Memphis and greater Nashville will compete in the Preds Cup for statewide bragging rights and a spot in the USA Hockey High School Varsity National Tournament.

When the Predators arrived, they found a small but dedicated hockey community led by a group of hockey people who migrated south for a variety of reasons and never left. Together they created a tight-knit community that planted a seed for what is happening today.

It could be seen in talented young players such as Blake Geoffrion, the first Tennessee native to make it to the NHL (See story, Page 18), and in numerous teams that traveled far and wide in search of competition and proving to their northern counterparts that Southern boys can play this game too.

Still, the team realized early on that growing the game in a non-traditional market would take more than putting out the Open For Business sign and waiting for the fans to stream in through the turnstiles.

It would take a team effort, starting with the ownership and front office personnel willing to commit the time and resources to winning over hearts and minds of prospective hockey fans. And it meant getting out into the community to spread the gospel of hockey in areas where the sport is as foreign as Predators forward Sergei Kostitsyn.

School Visit

It’s 10 a.m. on a normal school day as the cargo van adorned with Predators logos cruises past expansive lawns in the exclusive Belle Meade section of Nashville and onto the well-kept grounds of the Harding Academy. Activity on the playground comes to a screeching halt as the van rolls to a stop in front of the gymnasium.

 Mike Dargin and Andrew Stewart jump out and quickly unload boxes of sticks and nets that will soon become the property of the school’s athletic department. Like Neil Armstrong planting the Stars And Stripes on the surface of the moon, Dargin climbs the bleachers to tape a team banner on the gym wall claiming these grounds in the name of the Predators.

Soon the first class of kids files into the gym and takes their seat in the bleachers. Dargin breaks the ice by holding up a skate, puck and stick as he offers a brief introduction of the sport, the equipment and what’s in store for the next 40 minutes.

“It’s kind of like a show and tell meets Hockey 101,” says Dargin, a Youth Marketing & Fan Development coordinator with the Predators.

Soon the room is a hive of activity as kids push pucks across the gym floor during relay races as cheers and laughter fill the air.

It’s a similar scene at gymnasiums around the city throughout the school year, as the Predators will host more than 50 clinics from September to May. (During the summer months the fun moves outdoors to local YMCAs and summer camps for the team’s Street Pride sessions.)

Sometimes they can enlist the services of a player, sometimes not. Either way it’s a fun way to run a gym class.

“It’s great because they get to pick up a stick and have some fun and learn about hockey and the Predators,” Dargin says. “Hopefully they have fun here and it carries on.”

He soon finds his answer.

“Who plays hockey now?” Dargin asks. A few hands go up.

“Who wants to play in the future?” he asks as a follow up. Almost every hand hits the air.

GOAL! Offers Huge Assist

It’s all part of the team’s community outreach program entitled “Get Out And Learn!”

Coming out of the NHL lockout of the 2004-05 season, as everyone involved in the game was looking for ways to mend fences with disgruntled fans, the Predators created GOAL! as an affordable and accessible way for the team to attract new kids to the game and hopefully lure more families back into its arena.

Since its inception, more than 1,000 boys and girls have passed through the free program, and roughly 20 percent of those kids are now playing hockey.

The program can handle between 70 and 80 kids a session, and at the present time the Predators can put on six or seven sessions a year.

That will all change in the near future, says Andee Boiman, the driving force behind the program, when the organization purchases even more sets of OneGoal equipment. Then they will be able to simultaneously operate clinics year round at both local facilities.

“It’s a no brainer for this area,” says Boiman, the Predators Amateur & Youth Hockey manager. “We’ve really started something great and now we have a monster on our hands.

“We are doing our best to keep up with demand. Our house leagues are busting at the seams. We definitely need another sheet of ice.”

Volunteer Jam

That is a consistent battle cry among hockey people in the area. As with any community, great growth initiatives don’t get very far if there’s not enough ice for programs to take root. Prior to the Preds arrival there was one sheet to satisfy all the hockey players in the area. Now there are four sheets and it’s just not enough. Everyone is waiting for someone to step up and break ground on another facility.

As the Predators and the local hockey community have demonstrated – if you build it they will come.

“We’re doing a great job at the bottom of the pyramid getting more kids interested, but we need to provide some additional outlets for the older players as well,” Corns says.

“With more ice comes more players and more opportunities for the players we have now. That’s just the bottom line. We’re maxed out with where we can go right now.”

In the meantime, hockey will continue to be the biggest thing in town next to Jack’s Bar-B-Que and Little Jimmy Dickens, and it is striking the right chord with a new generation of hockey fans.

Just like hockey, Nashville has a way of finding a special place in the hearts of those who came to play and have no thoughts of leaving anytime soon.

“I don’t really sightsee, but I love to walk around town and stop in places to listen to the live music,” Wilson says.

“It’s not quite like New York, the city that never sleeps, but here in Nashville, the music never stops.”

And neither does the hockey.

Issue: 
2011-04

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