NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Nashville Predators, with plenty of help from their country friends, are bringing some Music City star power to the NHL playoffs.
Singer Vince Gill taunts opposing players. Dierks Bentley plans to attend second-round games against the Coyotes in both Phoenix and Nashville. During games, the likes of Martina McBride and Wynonna join the house band serenading fans in mini-concerts at intermission.
Keith Urban and his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, donned the free T-shirts given out to fans as they cheered the Predators to their series-ending victory over Detroit last week in the first round. Reba McEntire also was on hand in a luxury suite.
Shoot, Carrie Underwood is married to Nashville’s top centre, Mike Fisher.
Just don’t mistake this for country music’s version of Showtime. They call this Hockeytonking.
“We’ve got a really good thing going,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday. “Anyone who’s come and seen us play in Nashville in the playoffs, or even during the regular season for that matter, get blown away by what Nashville has to offer, what pro sports have to offer and what the Predators have to offer.”
This is the Predators’ second straight trip to the Western Conference semifinals, and Trotz noted people from Vancouver who didn’t even think the Predators were in the NHL came to town during the team’s second-round last spring and were impressed.
Trotz has been with the team since the start in 1997, so he said quite a few people have his cell number. He’s texted with Bentley, Gill, Christian singer Michael W. Smith, former ice skater Scott Hamilton, Canadian band High Valley that relocated to Nashville and singer-songwriter John Hiatt.
“Actually, it’s great to get texts from people that aren’t in the business because they’re fans and they’re rooting for you and it’s good,” Trotz said. “I love responding to those.”
Fisher knows firsthand how popular Nashville is for opposing players. He was with the Ottawa Senators before the Predators traded for him in February 2011, bringing him home to his wife to play in an arena a slap shot away from the Ryman Auditorium.
“Guys love coming to Nashville,” Fisher said. “It’s something different. There’s no other city like it as far as music, the honkytonks, and we stay right downtown and the weather’s usually great, a lot of people. Guys usually circle the Nashville trip on the schedule when they come to town, and the atmosphere just keeps getting better and better, and it’s fun.”
Singers and musicians have supported the Predators from the start. Amy Grant was on billboards around town holding a hockey stick with a couple teeth blacked out pushing ticket sales as the expansion franchise got off the ground. Barbara Mandrell, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has been a season-ticket holder from the first game.
Bentley has attended 10-12 games a season since 2000 after moving to Nashville. He fell in love with hockey so he started playing himself and now carries an equipment bag on his bus so he can play hockey during tour stops. Bentley said he was kind of a geek the other night when he sat next to Fisher at a dinner.
The singer joined Nashville captain Shea Weber for a video playing off the old Michael Jordan and Larry Bird commercial featuring trick shots. Weber slammed a slap shot from the top level of the Bridgestone Arena across seats and over the ice before banking off a post and into the net with two from Bentley in the crease.
“Next day I’m watching SportsCenter as I always do and on the Top 10 plays of the day,” Bentley said. “That was a pretty big career highlight for me.”
Fisher texted Bentley on Wednesday asking which team the Phoenix native will be cheering for in this series. Bentley saw his first hockey game in Arizona watching the Phoenix RoadRunners minor league team, and the Predators were his first NHL game.
“I’m being pulled pretty hard here,” said Bentley, who’s busy touring right now. “I love both of these teams. I never really expected them to be playing each other in the playoffs … it’s great for hockey when you have two teams like this, not part of the Original Six, the newer teams trying to build up their fan bases. To have both in the playoffs, it’s exciting.”
Fisher’s biggest fan may miss most of the second round, if not all of the series. The singer introduced as Mrs. Mike Fisher when she sang during intermission last spring in the playoffs launches a new album “Blown Away” on Tuesday. So she will be out of town promoting the album.
“She doesn’t like it when she misses it so, but now obviously it’s crunch time for her,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of her playoffs now with the album release. She’s excited about that and has a lot of work to do.”
Underwood told the AP she knows exactly what she’ll do if the Predators advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
“I would start cancelling stuff,” Underwood said. “I’m not going to lie. I do NOT cancel things ever. We are always good about making plans, keeping plans and I don’t mind working so, but I would cancel things for the Stanley Cup.”
Associated Press writer Caitlin R. King contributed to this report.