Since the Nashville Predators first laced up the skates in 1998 as a new expansion franchise in the National Hockey League, there have been hundreds of different people who have passed through the doors at Bridgestone Arena as members of their organization. From players and coaches to game night staff and even ownership, there have been lots of different people who have come and gone over the course of the past 15 years.
That’s just how it is in professional sports. There is a lot of turnover as far as jobs are concerned, and it’s rare to see people last for 15 years in the organization doing the same job.
However, if you were to take a trip down to 501 Broadway in Nashville during hockey season, slip through the doors and down the elevator to the cold, dimly lit event level at Bridgestone Arena, you would hear a familiar voice echo throughout the hallways; a voice that has been there every single season since the Predators came to town.
Craig “Partner” Baugh has been a locker room attendant with the Predators since their first season in 1998. His infectious personality and boisterous laugh have made him one of the most beloved people in the history of the franchise. He’s become one of the most universally liked people in the hockey world and holds a special place within the hearts of players in Music City.
Before he was a part of the Predators organization, Partner spent his time washing dishes at Greer Stadium for the Nashville Sounds. When he heard that the Predators were coming to town, he wanted to make sure that he was able to get a job with them as a locker room attendant. That’s exactly what he was able to do, and he’s been there ever since.
However, Partner is so much more than a locker room attendant to the Predators. He’s a part of their family. He’s a part of the brotherhood that NHL players have among one another.
“He’s a part of the team,” said Predators forward Eric Nystrom.
It’s a simple statement with a lot of truth to it. Sure, Partner doesn’t lace up skates and hit the ice with the team, but he’s an integral part of the morale of the locker room. He usually greets everyone he comes in contact with the same way: “Hey, buddy.” And a lot of times, he says goodbye in a way that is uncommon in the world we live in today: “I love you.”
Partner suffers from a mental disability that causes him to stutter and makes conversations a little more difficult for him than for most people. However, if you spent time around Partner and got to know him, you wouldn’t think it hinders him much at all. At 49, Partner loves being around people, especially hockey players throughout the NHL. What’s even more telling is how much the players love being around Partner.
“He’s just an infectious personality,” Nystrom said. “The first time you meet him, you’re like ‘Who is this guy?’ And all the veteran guys are like ‘Hey Partner’ and messing around with him and stuff. You know right away what kind of respect he has around the league. He’s great at his job so it’s great having him around here.”
Partner’s job can seem a bit monotonous to the untrained eye. After all, there isn’t a whole lot of glamor that comes with being a locker room attendant to a professional sports team. But Partner’s job is more glamorous than the average locker room attendant’s position. He often goes to eat with players on both the Predators and sometimes with players from out of town that he’s friends with when they come in town to play.
On the days of games, Partner is oftentimes the star of the show at the morning skate workout in the visiting locker room. When the media comes in to do their interviews after the morning skate, it’s often pretty quiet inside the locker room. Players are filing in from their practice session and mingling around in anticipation for the next step in their respective game day routines. However, that quiet and relative calm goes away once Partner enters the room. Every time, regardless of what team is in town or what time of the year it is, the reaction is always the same. Partner is the star of the show, and the players treat him as such.
“Even before I played here, being the visiting team coming in here, everybody knows him. He’s a personality that is so great to have around and always makes us smile no matter what. He’s a great, great guy,” Nystrom said.
Nystrom isn’t kidding when he says that everybody knows who Partner is. That includes the best hockey player on the planet. When the Pittsburgh Penguins came to Nashville to play the Predators on March 4, Sidney Crosby was excited to see Partner again. As the media made their way into the locker room for interviews, Partner also made his way in to attend to the locker room. When he arrived, Crosby said “Partner! How are you, bud?” The same thing happens with every team that visits Bridgestone Arena. Partner is like a rock star every time he enters the room, even though most people inside that room are treated like rock stars in the outside world.
That’s the level of respect Partner has around the NHL, not just in Nashville. Players all around the league love him. Even some of the ones who used to play with Nashville but have since moved on still maintain a close relationship with Partner. Former Predator and current Philadelphia Flyer forward Scott Hartnell has always had a close relationship with Partner and makes sure that he’s able to hang out with him every time he’s in town if possible. Former Predator and current member of the Washington Capitals Joel Ward has a unique bond of his own with Partner.
“Partner and I share the same birthday, December 2nd,” Ward said. “We have that special bond, for sure. Partner’s a funny guy. If you’re ever having a bad day, you can always just look at Partner with that smile on his face. It’s always good. We’ve always got that bond of sharing a birthday cake on our birthday.”
Hockey seasons are long, especially in the NHL. The Predators play 82 regular season games, which doesn’t include the preseason and potential postseason matchups. This past season, the Winter Olympics were also added into the equation for two members of the Predators, which added even more of a workload and a lot of travel to their already grueling schedule. Life in the NHL can be very challenging, especially when things aren’t going well for the team on the ice.
For the second consecutive season, the Predators missed the playoffs. After making the playoffs for seven out of eight years before the past two seasons, missing out on the playoffs for two years in a row isn’t something the Predators are used to. Naturally, that doesn’t sit well with anybody in the organization. In times like these, it’s easy for tempers to flare and negativity to set in. However, that’s when having Partner around can be the difference for this Predators team.
“I think he’s a huge part of the team,” said Predators forward Nick Spaling. “Every day you get to come in and see him and hang out with him. He just puts a smile on your face. He’s the one guy around that’s in a good mood every day. I think it just makes for a fun atmosphere no matter how things are going, good or bad. He’s that guy that lifts everybody’s spirits.”
Partner’s good mood and high spirit never gets old, even for guys who have spent nearly a decade around him. He’s always got something to say. He’s always got a story to tell. He’s always got words of encouragement. That’s what separates him from most people. It’s not his disability or the way he talks. It’s his heart. That’s what the players see, and that’s what those who are around him on a daily basis see.
“He’s a guy that’s always in a good mood no matter what,” said Predators captain Shea Weber. “I mean I’ve been around him for I think this is my ninth year here now, and it never gets old coming in and giving the big fellow a hug and asking him about what he did the last night or that morning. The stories are never-ending.”
“He’s always so positive,” Nystrom said. “You say something and he always tells you ‘It’s okay’ or “That’s all right’, no matter what you tell him. The boys love him, the organization loves him, visiting teams love him. He’s great to have around.”
Partner’s stories resonate with the players. He’s got a story for almost anything. Whatever happens in his life, Partner is always ready to tell the players about it when they ask. Recently, Partner got a new phone after having a flip phone for several years beforehand. He was thrilled to show off his new phone because it had a touchscreen. It’s something that most people would just gloss over, but not Partner. He was overjoyed that he had a phone that had a touchscreen. It’s the simple things in life that make Partner happy and that also provide for some memorable stories. It’s not so much the actual stories themselves, it’s the way Partner tells those stories.
“Lots of stories. Lots of lunches and things like that,” Spaling said. “Basically his excitement over things that happen are what gets me and makes me laugh.”
Those stories make it easier to come to the rink every day for the players. The NHL is a grind, but it’s also a game. Why shouldn’t you have fun going to the rink every day? Partner plays a big role in making that a reality for the Predators and the visiting teams that come in throughout the course of an NHL season.
“That’s the thing. In a season, there are going to be those ups and downs and there are going to be those tough times that are trying,” Weber said. “To come in and see Craig in a good mood and trying to lift guys’ spirits no matter what’s happening with us on the ice, it helps us a lot.”
Partner has found a place in the hearts of every player on the Predators and the hearts of many across the entire NHL. He truly is a part of the Predators. He truly is a part of their group. And that means just as much to the players as it does to him.
“He’s family,” Nystrom said.
There’s no better way to put it than that. Partner and the Predators are one big family. It’s a family that Partner loves coming to work with every day and one that continues to grow. With each season that passes, Partner is introduced to more and more players and is able to form new relationships while maintaining his old relationships. If you ask him, he’s got it made.
“I love what I do,” Partner said. “It’s the best job in the world.”
That’s just Partner. There’s always a positive outlook on things from him. Although, an argument can be made that the Predators’ players have the best job in the world.
After all, they are the ones who get to spend every day with Partner. And those are always days well spent, no matter what the scoreboard may say on the other side of the door at Bridgestone Arena.