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The ‘it’ team in the ‘it’ city

In the Jan. 9 version of the New York Times, Nashville was given the title of America’s “it” city. This place has a certain charm about it on the outskirts of town, yet an electric vibe on the inside. Personally, I can’t think of a better city to have called home for the past 10 years.

Of the many gems Nashville possesses – the Grand Ole Opry, Broadway, civil war history, etc. – its hockey team is one of them. A short six years ago, the Predators almost left town when owner Craig Leipold sold the team. Boy, is that a distant memory.

Everything about the Predators, on and off the ice, has become a magnetic pull to people of all creations in this region. Like the city itself, there’s both a certain charm and an electric vibe that makes Bridgestone Arena “the place to be” 41 nights a year.

That’s reason enough to say the Predators are the “it” team in the “it” city.

The Rise

In 1997, as part of commissioner Gary Bettman’s quest to expand the game in the United States, the NHL granted Nashville an expansion franchise. Over a year later the Predators took the ice for the first time in a city that had only witnessed minor league-level sports.

“When I was first notified that Nashville was getting an NHL team, my first thought was, ‘Really? Nashville in the NHL?’ You’re thinking football down here, NASCAR, college sports all over the place, but NHL hockey?” Predators TV color analyst Terry Crisp said. “When we came here and met the people and the diehard hockey fans, we realized they had some people down here that loved it. And then you were thinking, ‘Why not? They love football and racing, and hockey is a combination of hitting and speed – certainly they’re going to love hockey.’”

Crisp’s on-air sidekick, Pete Weber, agreed that he expected the NHL to work in Nashville.

“I thought it would work here because of how the fans responded to the Titans’ run to the Super Bowl (in 2000) and how the excitement level was absolutely incredible. If this Predators team becomes that good, I could see the same thing happening,” Weber said.

Predators goaltender Chris Mason has had three different stints with the franchise, and he’s seen the three different phases – the expansion team, the playoff team and now the team with a Stanley Cup on its mind.

Many inside and outside of Nashville had doubts about hockey in the south, let alone in a city that had never previously owned a professional sports franchise. But Mason echoed what Crisp and Weber had to say.

“When I first got here and started playing, all the guys no question considered it a hockey town because we had passionate fans,” Mason said. “A lot of the Canadian media like to call out Southern teams not being a hockey market. I don’t think they give enough credit and haven’t experienced watching games here in Nashville. Even when we had to fight for those playoff spots, it was one of the loudest buildings, the fans were passionate and we got the numbers in the building. There’s no question that they’ve always been passionate and vocal, and now they’re starting to get credit for that.”

Even though there were passionate hockey fans in the city, it was only a fraction of what it’s like in the present. One important reason for the growth is the generation factor. Predators fans from the early days have passed down that enthusiasm to their kids or grandkids in the 14-plus years since the puck officially dropped on October 10, 1998.

“There are 14 year olds in this city that don’t know this city without hockey,” Weber said.

“The grass roots had to grow,” Crisp said. “I always refer back to the kids in the U.S. were raised with baseball and football and basketball – it’s engrained in them. Hockey was never [in the picture]. Suddenly in Nashville we are starting to reap the benefits of having 14 years of grass roots. We see kids of all ages at the rink today – the college kids, high school kids and the little ones coming with their parents to a game. You look and there are grandparents that have come religiously as season ticket holders, we see their kids, then their kids and now babies with the little earmuffs and jerseys on them, and they come consistently.

“That shows you we’re coming of age. It’s arrived.”

Willy Daunic, currently a sports talk radio host on Nashville’s 102.5 The Game, has been the Predators’ pre- and post-game host during radio broadcasts for most of the team’s 14 years. He mentioned how listeners back in the day had trouble grasping the game, and how he was hesitant to bring up hockey topics on the air. He doesn’t have that problem now.

“I think there is a broader interest and the level of conversation is a lot better,” he said. “I know I can talk about it on a different level than I did when I started. We used to get plenty of calls on the Predators, but it was much more basic stuff. We could never get to the level of discussion we do now. There also isn’t any second guessing for talking about the Predators like there was in the past.”

The popularity of hockey reached what seemed to be a high point back in 2007. The Predators were one of the league’s top teams and had a realistic chance at winning the Stanley Cup, as Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun and Kimmo Timonen led an explosive roster.

That momentum was halted in the spring when they were bounced in five games by San Jose – again – and imploded that summer when Leipold sold the team.

Prospective owner Jim Balsillie had a deal with Leipold to buy the franchise but threatened to move it to Hamilton, Ontario. He even started selling season tickets in Hamilton. Bettman stepped in, Predators fans fought back and hockey stayed in Music City thanks to a local group headed by David Freeman, who ponied up the money to buy the team that is now owned by Predators Holdings LLC, led by Tom Cigarran.

Since that point the Predators have had to rebuild what came crashing down in that tumultuous summer of 2007. The popularity of the team is higher, by leaps and bounds, than it ever was when Leipold held his ownership stake. Getting over the playoff hump in 2011 was the seminal moment that the organization had been waiting for, and the momentum hasn’t stopped since.

Daunic wishes Leipold would have stuck around to see the benefits of the generational fans, “because I still think he deserves a lot of credit for getting it here. His heart was in the right place, but he just couldn’t quite wait long enough to see the fruits of that first generation.”

President/COO Sean Henry added, “Questioning this market as a hockey market, those days are done.”

The Connection

There is a certain relationship between the Predators organization and its fans that is exclusive compared to other NHL clubs or even the Titans. Since the summer of 2007, the fans, organization and team feel as if they are all in it together.

Even after the Predators knew they were safe from moving, relocation rumors persisted up until the team won its first playoff series. Talks of relocation are now a thing of the past, which is a sign of how far the franchise has come.

“It shows the bond between the team, the organization, the city and the fans,” Mason said. “From day one the organization’s objective was to connect with the fans and make everyone feel it’s Nashville’s team. The fans believe that, the players believe that and so does the organization, and that’s what they wanted all along. Over the span of the team being here, that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

On off days during the season, you can always bank on seeing Predators players in the community or visiting kids at hospitals. Bonding with and assisting the community has always been a point of emphasis, as Mason explained.

“Most of the teams I’ve been on try to do what they can, but giving back and connecting with the fan base is one of this organization’s priorities, aside from winning hockey games. I don’t think there is a bigger thank you than to have that access and always having them at the front of your mind. This team goes the extra mile,” he said.

Defenseman Kevin Klein added, “Everyone enjoys it. When I go to see sick kids, that’s the number one thing I do because I’ve got two young kids at home, so when you can make them smile it’s a good thing. Sometimes they are in a dire situation where not a lot of things can make them happy. You go in there with Gnash and he makes everyone smile. It’s nice that we can do little things like that to bring big smiles.”

Perhaps the most admirable thing about the Predators’ buy-in to the community is that everyone gets involved – the star players, the role players, the coaching staff, the front office and on down the line. Not only do all of the above engage in the community, but they are visible, well-spoken and approachable in public.

“I think what got me hooked on hockey is just that fast pace of the action. It’s quick, it’s relatively easy to learn the rules and it keeps my attention,” said Myka Bertrand, a fan who didn’t attend many games before the 2011-12 season. She is now a half-season ticket holder with her husband. “When I started going to practices and found out how nice all the players were and how it was easy to meet them and get pictures or autographs, I just started to love it even more.”

Said Daunic, “I do feel like right now the Predators are more connected with their fans than the Titans. Sometimes it is a dynamic personality that can help you with that connection. Eddie George was a guy that just had that charisma, along with Frank Wycheck, Blaine Bishop and guys like that. They had it naturally. This group of Titans hasn’t won as much and they don’t seem to have that personality that is really magnetic. I don’t know if the Predators have had too many characters, but I think that effort the organization puts in that helps the Predators make that connection.”

The Dynamic Duo

Due in large part to being hired in the same off-season, CEO Jeff Cogen and President/COO Sean Henry will forever be linked together. You can’t mention one without talking about the other, and they have both been instrumental in getting the Predators where they are off the ice.

Cogen and Henry have been there, done that when it comes to working with successful franchises. Each of them has won a Stanley Cup (Cogen with Dallas in 1999; Henry with Tampa Bay in 2004), and has extensive experience in professional sports and even the circus.

“I don’t know if he’s turned this into three rings with a top hat while walking through here,” Weber said of Cogen, “but he’s getting near that.”

Cogen and Henry, as well as the rest of the front office staff, have played an important role in making the Predators brand more visible around town.

“The Predators have always realized that they’ve had to give extra effort and have more creativity and work harder to get the fans. Even when the team wasn’t very good the first four or five years, there was still something hip about it,” Daunic said.

The Predators front office has certainly added creativity to its product for consumers. Among new options for the loyal legion of fans, in recent years they have offered season ticket holders the option to buy Bridgestone Arena concert tickets via presale, as well as a beneficial rewards program. This season they’ve started digital ticketing and added new food items to the arena’s menu.

“Not one thing we have done has not been suggested by our season ticket holders,” Henry said. “We don’t take advice on player moves – that’s the only thing.”

The team’s rise in popularity mostly has to do with the team’s newfound playoff success. However, it’s not a coincidence that the Predators brand has blown up in and around town ever since Henry and Cogen were hired in 2010.

When those two took over, the Predators were coming off the 2009-10 season where their average attendance was 14,979 and they failed to sell out a playoff game. Three seasons later they’re averaging 17,142 fans per home game, more than 100% of the arena’s capacity. Moreover, the season ticket base has grown by almost 3,000 since Henry and Cogen arrived in Nashville.

They haven’t just affected the Predators franchise. Bridgestone Arena is now a hot spot for concerts and other sporting events, particularly college basketball. In fact, it’s grown into the ninth-busiest arena in the nation.

“The one thing that they bring is passion,” Crisp said of Henry and Cogen. “They don’t ask the workers to do something that they aren’t willing to do themselves, like going out in the community or working late at the arena, attending events. First and foremost, it’s Predators for them. It’s like a tattoo on your rear end. They have that.”

Daunic added, “There was a time where the Predators got very good on the ice, but it wasn’t showing up in the corporate support or the second level of fans that Leipold wanted. He called for help silently, didn’t get a lot of return on that and then got really frustrated and that’s when some Nashvillians pulled away and he sold the team.

“This new group, through Sean Henry and Jeff Cogen, has done a really good job of reconnecting and connecting with new businesses downtown. Those two have made a tangible difference, and it shows up on the ice.”

Henry is quick to deflect the credit for being a key factor in (a) increased ticket sales for the Predators and (b) turning Bridgestone Arena into one of the nation’s most popular buildings.

“Jeff and I are always concerned that people say that when we showed up we froze water and put metal blades on Canadians. That’s not true at all. All we did was further engage with our partners and our fans,” Henry said.

“You look at the staff we have, it’s the same staff that was here. We didn’t change anybody. I think the only thing we did was take the handcuffs off of people. We wanted to engage people together, take down some silos, introduce the notion that there isn’t a Predators team and a Bridgestone Arena team and a business operations team. It’s all one.

“I do think we’ve been fortunate that when Tom Cigarran took over as chairman, he had a simple vision. If you don’t set lofty goals, how will you ever achieve them? The goal is perfection. You’ll never catch it, but along the way you’ll do some things you’ve never done before. I think that’s what we’re experiencing.”


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