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OPINION: What the Nashville Predators mean to me

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have hockey.

As a kid, I remember watching games on TV with my dad. I remember seeing the movie “Miracle” in the theater with my childhood best friend, and afterward re-enacting the historic Olympic game on our roller blades out on the street. Back then, the goal was a small cardboard box.

“I call Mike Eruzione!” I’d quickly shout to my friend.

In the fifth grade, I finally upgraded to ice hockey and lovingly played the sport for almost four years.

Since I moved a lot as a kid, I was also lucky enough to see two of my minor league home teams — the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and the Norfolk Admirals, formerly of the AHL — lift the Kelly Cup and Calder Cup, respectively.

However, I’d never lived in an NHL town and effectively never had a real allegiance to any particular NHL team.

That changed when I moved to Nashville the summer of 2015, just before the start of my freshman year at Belmont. I didn’t particularly care for country music, but Nashville had a hockey team, and that was good enough for me.

I remember the joy of stepping into Bridgestone Arena for my first game — a preseason exhibition match against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with star forward Tyler Johnson, who coincidentally came from the Calder Cup-winning Admirals team I’d watched just a few years earlier.

I remember celebrating an early power play with my first “Fang Fingers.” I remember seeing James Neal score the first goal and listening to Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” in shocked horror. This was Nashville, after all, and I figured I’d have to get used to hearing the country anthem every once in awhile.

The Preds ended up winning that game 5-2 and ultimately went all the way to Round 2 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they fell to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7. Regardless, it was a great first season to get behind my new team and left me looking forward to next season with a fervor.

Needless to say, that season didn’t end the way most of us had probably hoped, or even expected.

To be honest, it felt wrong for us to lose the way we did.

It felt wrong, not only because of the blown calls or the lucky breaks we just couldn’t seem to catch; it felt as if history — much like Hornqvist’s last minute shot — had gone in the wrong direction. This was the team that swept Chicago, that fought through a barrage of injuries and demolished the defending champions — one of the greatest teams in the world — twice on home ice. We expected the Cup, because we deserved the Cup.

I’d honestly envisioned ESPN documentaries years from now, in which a much older Pekka Rinne would talk about how hard it was defeating the Penguins, or an older P.K. Subban who’d reminisce over the infamous trade that unexpectedly brought him both the Cup and a new home.

I’d envisioned myself telling a son or a daughter about how I’d seen my home team win the championship in every league — starting with the Steelheads in the ECHL and eventually ending with the Predators in the NHL.

I imagined the stories I’d tell of what it was like to be one of the thousands of golden-clad fans who all mobbed downtown to watch history together and were eventually rewarded with their team lifting the greatest trophy in all of sports.

“I was there,” I’d say. “I was there, and it was incredible.”

Unfortunately, as is the inevitable truth of any sporting event, one team ultimately has to lose. This time, it was the Predators.

Despite the stinging heartbreak that always lingers after a loss like Sunday’s, I’ve come to realize something that I feel is important to recognize.

I was there, and it was incredible.

The packed city streets, the flags lining the skyscrapers and bridges, and the seemingly endless amount of catfish were all still undeniably real pieces of an unforgettable journey that thousands of fans got to experience as one. Throughout the playoffs, a palpable energy encapsulated Nashville — an energy I’m honestly still struggling to put into words, and an energy that brought with it my favorite part of the journey.

For me, watching the thousands of fans who got to experience hockey at the highest level, in the greatest possible setting, for the very first time was absolutely beautiful. Game after game, I watched as people of every age and background fell in love with the game that’s been such an integral part of my life, and — like myself just a year earlier — the team that brought them to it.

So, in closing, I want to thank the Nashville Predators for bringing such a great sport to so many excited new fans, for uniting Nashville as a single community and for taking us all on one heck of a ride.

We’ll see you next season.

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