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Hockey Tonk: Nashville ready for its first show on NHL's biggest stage

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The NHL is celebrating its 100th anniversary season and a lot of stately arenas and cities have hosted the Stanley Cup final over the years. But the league's ultimate showdown has never been staged in the kind of atmosphere we will see here Saturday night.

The Nashville Predators are in the final for the first time in their 19 seasons and the Music City is abuzz as it whittles away the hours before Game Three of the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And don't think for a second the fact the Predators lost the first two games of the series is going to quiet any of the anticipation in what has become a unique NHL market.

There is nothing comparable in the league to watching a game in Bridgestone Arena, the Predators' home located smack on the heart of Broadway in the middle of the city's signature country bars and barbeque restaurants.

Just call it hockey tonk.

Of course, with this being Nashville, the music is the thing. There's a small stage inside the seating bowl at one end of the arena and intermission "mini-concerts" have long been a staple here. But this spring, the national anthem has become a sort of signature element to the playoff games. Country music superstars have been lining up to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.

The honors in Game Six of the Western Conference final against Anaheim were done by Trisha Yearwood, the wife of Garth Brooks. She hosts a cooking show, "Trisha's Southern Kitchen," on the Food Network, and Nashville players Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Colin Wilson appeared on it earlier this season.

The celebrity anthems started when Carrie Underwood – the wife of Preds captain Mike Fisher – was a surprise choice prior to the first home game of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks, a series Nashville swept in four games. The roster that's followed has included Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, Vince Gill, Keith Urban (who brought wife Nicole Kidman to the game with him), Kelly Clarkson and Lady Antebellum. Rumors around town have Martina McBride as a candidate for Saturday night, or perhaps an encore for Underwood.

In a market with its roots in college football and NASCAR, the NHL has had a strong foothold in Nashville for the last 10 years once a rumored move to Hamilton, Ont., was shelved and local ownership stepped in. The organized chants of the crowd are reminsicent of college or European hockey, or perhaps soccer. Opposing goalies are taunted by name with sing-songy rants of "it's all your fault, it's all your fault" serenading them after Predators goals.

When public-address man Paul McCann announces there's one minute left in a period, as is done in every NHL rink, the crowd reacts in its own way here with 17,000 voices yelling in unison, "Thanks, Paul."

In a nod to a longtime Detroit tradition of throwing octopuses on the ice, fans here chuck catfish. In fact, a place called Little's Fish Market is offering free catfish to fans who show tickets to Game Three and Four; a Nashville fan who snuck a fish into PPG Paints Arena for Game One was arrested in Pittsburgh.

"You should put this on your bucket list if you don’t have it," Predators General Manager David Poile said this week. "Right now we are the No. 1 entertainment city in the United States for music, and now hockey. Our building is the loudest. These are all clichés, but it’s all true. Our building is fabulous. The entertainment package that we have, both on the ice with our team and off the ice with everything that goes into a game presentation at Bridgestone Arena, is second to none. I’m not working for the Chamber of Commerce, but I’m telling you, you and your friends would never regret a visit to Nashville to see a game."

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Excitement inside and out

And for all the excitement inside the building, there's plenty more outside. Broadway has been closed to traffic for the weekend, extending through Game Four on Monday night. It's thus going to turn into one giant Bourbon Street-like party, although Tennessee whiskey is more likely the beverage of choice. There's talk 20,000 people might be outside watching the games on big screens.

Things will really get crazy here if the series returns to Nashville for Game Six on June 11 because next weekend is the annual CMAFest of the Country Music Association, already set to bring in upwards of 100,000 people into downtown. The Cup final has forced the CMT Music Awards show out of Bridgestone and into the sprawling Music City Center complex across the street.

The mangled cars painted in the colors of the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks signify the Predators' first three conquests (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News).

The team's marketing slogan for several years has called the town "Smashville" in a tribute to the rough-and-tumble nature of hockey. So what better way to let fans do some smashing themselves by giving them a sledgehammer for charity and take a few purchased whacks at a car painted in the logo and colors of the visiting team?

A car with the Penguins' logos and colors sits on the arena plaza, waiting for fans to take their shots. A few feet away are the remnants of the smashed cars of the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, vanquished in the first three rounds of the playoffs. A hockey stick with a sign accompanies the wreckage to list the round the Predators won. The Blackhawks' mangled vehicle has no stick, but a broom to signify the stunning four-game sweep Nashville pulled off against the Western Conference's top team from the regular season.

"It’s more than just a hockey game in Nashville, it’s an event," said longtime NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire. "They have done a masterful job in terms of cultivating a fan base and building it. Their in-game presentation is phenomenal. The atmosphere around the building is insane. It’s fantastic. It’s as good as anybody’s in the league."

Defining moments

Nashville and Buffalo are the only cities in the NHL that have just a team in the NFL in addition to their hockey team (Las Vegas will join that group next season). The Preds' run to the Cup final is easily the biggest sports moment in the town since the Titans' "Music City Miracle" victory over the Bills in the 2000 AFC wild-card game. That Tennessee team went on to the Super Bowl but the game, of course, was not played here as the Titans' last-play loss to St. Louis came in Atlanta.

When the puck is dropped for Game Three, it will be the first time a championship round of a professional sports league has ever been contested in Nashville. It's heady stuff for a team that began play in the 1998-99 season and is just a couple of weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of the awarding of its expansion franchise.

Gerry Helper

Holland native and St. Bonaventure graduate Gerry Helper is one of the team's original employees from that first season. One of the deans of public relations in the NHL, Helper worked for the Sabres from 1979-86. Coming to Nashville in '97 was right up his alley as he had helped the Tampa Bay Lightning from their inception in 1991.

"It's overwhelming to realize that you are actually in the Stanley Cup final," said Helper, a senior vice president and senior adviser. "So many thoughts have crossed my mind and have connected with a number of folks who were part of the original group. They're so filled with pride, realizing that we started 20 years ago essentially with a sheet of paper that said, 'You've got a franchise. Good luck to you.'"

When the Predators earned their berth in the final with a victory over Anaheim in Game Six, years of pent-up emotion were released as the final seconds ticked off. Helper was by the Predators' bench waiting to help with some postgame interview duties and took in the whole scene.

"Our fans are so passionate, so emotionally connected. They're almost like teammates," Helper said. "There are a lot of people who have been with us since the early days and there were tears in the stands. I saw a lot of hugging, a lot of celebrating. It was that moment you wanted to never end.

"It was one of those defining moments when you realize what a franchise means to a community. It's so much more than just a game. It's an emotional connection, a passion. To see them rewarded for their passion was wonderful."

The NHL's movement into Southern markets over the last 25 years has been done with varying degrees of success but Nashville has made the playoffs in 10 of the last 13 seasons. The Preds sold out all 41 home games this season in the most eagerly awaited campaign in their history.

An offseason trade with the Montreal Canadiens that brought in star defenseman P.K. Subban got the hype machine rolling, but the Predators struggled with injuries and inconsistency and were just 17-16-7 through the season's first 40 games. They started to heat up in mid-January, pushed into the playoffs by finishing 24-13-5 and went 12-4 over the first three rounds of the playoffs.

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To a new fan base, PA announcements in the early years included icing and offsides. Like on some kind of tour of a famous building, fans could rent headphones with an internal narrator explaining plays they were seeing on the ice. Those days are long gone now.

To Helper, the city's first true hockey moment came when it hosted the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and more than 13,000 people showed up. He vividly remembers the roar in the building when "Nashville" was called in roll by Commissioner Gary Bettman as fans stood and cheered. That was 14 years ago. Nashville  didn't become a hockey town just this spring.

"It's an 'A' market for hockey for a fan base," said Subban. "There's no question in my mind. Any player who plays there knows that. Maybe it hasn't always been like that but, in my opinion, it's like that now and it's going to be there for a long time."

Run matches the hype

The Penguins "Smashville" car awaits its whacks Friday outside Bridgestone Arena. (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News)

The Predators had been a playoff team for many years but simply couldn't get over the hump against Detroit and then Chicago. Until winning three straight series to get here, Nashville had won only three series in its history. The four-game sweep of Chicago in the first round opened eyes around the NHL and set the city on its ear for an avalanche of support that's reminiscent of what swept Buffalo when the Sabres drove to the Eastern Conference final in 2006.

"People were ready for this team to go on a run. The hype was there from the beginning," said Eric Schmitz, a North Collins native and Medaille College grad who moved here in 2015 to become a Preds ticket associate. "We sold out all 41 home games and that showed you people knew something special was going on. But it was the Chicago series where people looked at each other and said, 'Hey, something is happening here.' You thought they could gut out that series but they smoked them and it's been nonstop ever since."

The Predators underachieved for most of the season, finishing with the fewest points of any of the 16 playoff teams. Poile is the only GM the Predators have ever had and has masterminded the team's ascent through shrewd trades and the hiring of coach Peter Laviolette in 2014.

Once known as a plodding, defensive team, Poile changed it up into a more free-wheeling team with moves to acquire players like Forsberg, James Neal, Johansen and Subban. The draft produced homegrown defensive stalwarts like Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. That trio, like Subban, are all signed at least through 2020.

Eric Schmitz with the Campbell Bowl (@Schmitzandpucks)

After the West was won against Anaheim, Schmitz said employees were having a postgame party when Poile and coach Peter Laviolette emerged from an elevator with the Clarence Campbell Bowl. Picture-taking commenced and Schmitz now uses the shot as his Twitter avatar.

"The first kids born with the Predators in existence still can't come to a game and buy a beer," Schmitz said. "There's been a hard-core fan base that lived and died with the team. The hills and valleys people have experienced in these 20 years, you knew how much it meant to all of them.

"Same with the employees. As much as people like me got so much joy out of it, you can appreciate it more for people who  were really scrapping when they struggled to fill the building, when they didn't know if the team was going to be around."

Helper is certainly glad that's no longer an issue.

"When we moved here, my daughters were 6 months and 18 months old," Helper said. "They are now 20 and 21. They don't know a Nashville without the Predators. You want the previous generation to come on board and they certainly have but the younger people are the future and what we've been building towards all along."

Poile said a tough part of making the Cup final has been being unable to handle the numerous ticket requests from friends and family. But that's certainly a good problem to have.

"We don’t have any tickets to give anybody but they’re still coming because they see what’s happening outside the arena," Poile said. "It’s a tremendous atmosphere, second to none. It’s the best in sports right now."

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