As the Nashville Predators begin celebrating their NHL Stadium Series outdoor game Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, we should all be clear: the league’s Tennessee Hockey Experiment has gone much better than many cynics – this one included – expected when the Preds franchise came into operation in 1998.
If you’re critical of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s stubborn attachment to the floundering Arizona Coyotes organization, and we are, you also have to admit he and league brass made a wise move in bringing elite hockey to Nashville. And the positive results will be evident when more than 65,000 people squeeze into Nissan Stadium this weekend. Nashville isn’t a traditional hockey town, but that’s OK; what they have been proven to be is a first-rate sports town, and the benefits of having an NHL team for nearly a quarter-century will show up in the South’s grassroots level of the sport.
When you think about it, it’s quite the feat, doing what the Predators have done. They failed to make the playoffs in the first five years of existence. It took them six years after that to win a playoff round. They haven’t had the good entry draft fortune to employ a dynamic, generational forward in the vein of a Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin (although you can make a good case current captain Roman Josi is a bedrock performer). In David Poile, they’ve had only one GM in their history, and how many teams can make that claim?
In short, the Predators have had their own, unique path to success, and that will be reflected in the small army of country music acts who’ll crank up the parties this weekend. You don’t have to be the biggest country fan to appreciate the culture that separates Nashville from the NHL’s 31 other teams. We can be different, and celebrate the differences. We don’t have to demean a group of people because they didn’t have an NHL team to call their own for as long as Original Six cities have.
The current Predators team isn’t stuffed with superstars, like the Lightning are. Nashville isn’t spending to the upper limit of the salary cap, posting a payroll that leaves them with more than $10.5 million in space at present. Yet, somehow, they’re currently holding down the first wild card berth in the Western Conference. That’s a credit to head coach John Hynes, but also to a management blueprint that’s made them a playoff team every season since the 2013-14 campaign. In 2016-17, they came within two wins of a Cup victory. They’ve raised the bar on expectations, and who knows, they could ride current star goalie Jusse Saros to a deep post-season run. Stranger things have happened.
Indeed, while many thought it strange when the NHL granted Nashville a team, it was stranger still to see the Predators succeed as they have. No, they don’t have a Hockey-Hall-of-Famer just yet – although Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya are in the HHOF, they both played the majority of their careers outside Nashville – but you can easily see Poile join his late father, Bud, in the builder’s wing of the HHOF someday relatively soon. Josi may wind up being that first “real” Predators player in the HHOF, but for now, they’re still trying to identify and develop legendary stars. That’s OK, too; there are plenty of NHL teams that have struggled to put together a Cup-worthy roster, and they’ve struggled for more than double the amount of time the Preds have fought to win it all.
In any case, let’s repeat what the point of this outdoor game is all about: Nashville’s growing love affair with a sport many weren’t raised with, and the NHL’s great decision to invest in the game in new regions. It doesn’t always work out – hello, Atlanta – but when it does, it’s delightful to see.