Music To Their Ears

Twenty Years After The Predators’ Arrival, Hockey Continues To Hit All The Right Notes In Nashville

When the NHL expanded to Nashville in 1998, some wondered whether hockey would take off in Music City. The massive and passionate crowd of Predators fans gathered along the city's famed Broadway strip during last season's Stanley Cup run was definite proof it has.

Blake Geoffrion, the first Tennessean to play in the NHL, remembers how hockey fever spread across the entire Volunteer State last spring.

"You had the entire city and state watching the Predators and ... people gathering in the streets and on Broadway," said the Brentwood native, who played two seasons with the Predators before his career was cut short by a head injury in 2012. 

"It was almost like we won the championship without winning the championship. I've never really seen it like that for any sporting event."

Hockey in Tennessee has definitely come a long way over the past 20 years. Nat Harden, senior vice president of ticket sales & youth hockey for the Preds, remembers the pains that the team would go through in the early days to educate fans. 

"When we first started, we did a lot of education. For example, you would come to a game and pick up headphones, and if there was an icing call, someone would come over the headphones and explain the rules," Harden recalls.

"Now, it's totally different. People are calling us wanting to know why a certain person is not on the power play. They're quite advanced and knowledgeable fans."

David Poile has seen it all since accepting the position as the general manager of an expansion franchise after a successful run with the Washington Capitals. He credits solid leadership at the top and an unswerving plan as the core components to developing a winning tradition. 

"We treaded water for a number of years, but the last seven have been the best, with new ownership-predominantly a local ownership that are all Nashvillians-whose main purpose in purchasing the club was to keep [the team] here and make it as strong as possible," Poile said.

In the past decade, the Preds have missed the playoffs just three times, and that on-ice success has translated to the box office where the Predators sold out every home game last season, a first in franchise history.

"The team has been built consistently over the last decade at being a consistent playoff team and changing the whole look and feel of the Predators with big trades," says Geoffrion, who is now the assistant general manager of the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters. 

One of those trades was the 2016 blockbuster deal that brought flamboyant defenseman P.K. Subban to town in return for fan favorite Shea Weber. 

The trade "was shocking to everybody, and it took our team a little while to adjust," Poile says. "But during the playoffs, you saw our team at our best and P.K. at his best."

The Preds' playoff run helped kick the team's already solid growth plans into high gear and bring added exposure to a game that still remains foreign to many around the state. 

When the Predators first arrived, amateur hockey participation in Tennessee was minimal-only 1,176 players. To get more kids participating, they created the GOAL (Get Out And Learn) program, a free four-week entry level program for kids aged 4 to 8 to learn how to skate and play the game. 

Harden says that there are always waiting lists for the program, and participation in the last five years is up 44 percent. 

"That's a good sign because these kids will be playing all the way through," he says.

The next logical step in the progression is the Little Preds Program, a slightly more in-depth learn to play program for kids (ages 4 to 9), which covers each participant head-to-toe in new hockey equipment at a low-cost. 

The results have been significant as amateur participation in the state jumped from 2,002 players during the 2000-01 season to more than 4,100 players last year. 

Harden says that one of the team's challenges is getting more ice in the community. Plans are in the works to open two new sheets of ice in Bellevue, west Nashville, which will raise the number of ice sheets in the area to seven. 

"We're actively working with different municipalities to increase that number over time because we believe that the more kids that play hockey, the more fans there will be," he says.

Not only are more people playing hockey in Tennessee, but amateur teams are making a mark on the national stage as well by winning championships. The Nashville Jr. Predators won the 2012 Youth Tier II 12 & Under 1A title, and the Knoxville Ice Bears won the 2014 Youth Tier II 18 & Under 1A title.

KJ Voorhees was the coach of the Ice Bears' championship team and is also the hockey director at Cool Sports in Knoxville. He points out that the Predators have been overwhelming in their support of youth hockey, not only in Nashville, but in other cities like Knoxville and Memphis.

"Right now, we're selling out all the Preds' learn to play programs," he says. "Before, our program used to bring in 15-20 kids, now we have almost 50. It's all because of the ability to market with the Predators."

This season Voorhees and his organization have looked to use the momentum of the Preds' Stanley Cup run to bolster their ranks.

And thanks to more dynamic deals struck by Poile, Broadway could once again be packed with hockey fans come springtime.

"Right now, we're at the best place that we've ever been-both on and off the ice- and will do everything we can to continue to grow the sport in Nashville and outlying areas, through youth hockey, adult hockey and the building of arenas to get the word out there," Poile says. 

"So, I think the future is very bright for hockey in Nashville, Tennessee." 

Issue: 
2018-01

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