A sport on ice should never have worked in Nashville.
It’s not cold enough. Why play hockey in a city where you can fry eggs on the sidewalk a couple of months out of the year?
But nevertheless, it happened. The NHL expansion brought the Predators to Nashville in 1998 with much fanfare, thousands of new fans showed up. After a season or two, many of them quickly left. I was one of them.
When the Preds opened for their inaugural season, I went to a few games as a kid. Those games sitting in the nosebleed section were fun – ask me about the time a funnel cake fell on my dad’s head – but I never made a connection with the game. Maybe it was because the Preds lost in those early seasons. A lot. Attendance and atmosphere reflected that and made the games much less inviting.
After the first few seasons, I never went to many more games. But when the 2010-11 season arrived, so did the fans. And so did I.
When I bought tickets to a playoff game last May, I knew things had changed from those days. The Preds had been a mediocre playoff team for the last few years, even though the increased level of success hadn’t helped ticket sales. The situation was so bad the team had to fight off a move to Southern Ontario. The team’s owner even started selling tickets for team’s first home game in Canada. After that scare, it was obvious something had changed in the fan base. I never expected how fundamentally different it would be.
Last season the Preds earned a No. 5 seed for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Bridgestone Arena was a sea of yellowish-gold for that Wednesday night playoff game. The atmosphere was electric – nothing like I remembered from those games when I was 6. The crowd, led by a rowdy Section 303, was making itself part of the game, cheering, screaming, and chanting things I can’t repeat here. The arena was the place to be, even while the Predators lost the game after an abysmal final period. They eventually won the first series and advanced farther in the playoffs than ever.
With that atmosphere, plus the talent and experience the Preds now have, it’s fun to root for the team again. Those things, along with the interest of a generation that has grown up with a hockey team in Nashville, may finally cement Nashville as respectable hockey market. It may have taken 13 years for this SEC market to really take interest in their hockey team, but the transformation of the team from an undeserving expansion team to a respectable hockey market has truly been remarkable.
For now, fans are holding up their end of the bargain. The 17,113 seats in the Bridgestone Arena sold out for the first two Preds game of the season, a franchise first in the team’s 13-year existence. While that’s nothing compared to the sellout records teams in Toronto and Montreal have, it’s still progress, especially for a team a puck’s width of skipping town a few years ago. While the culture emerging in nothing compared to ones in Detroit or Boston, it’s consistent and unique enough to be considered legitimate in the hockey world.
For this reporter, it’s reason enough to be a fan in Smashville again.
Brian Wilson, Vision editor, is a junior journalism major.
Photo from ESPN.com