If you’re talking to your friends about taking a hockey road trip the same cities are bound to be mentioned.
Montreal’s rich history and the Canadiens’ penchant for emotional ceremonies make the Bell Centre a must-see for hockey fans. Chicago has a great on-ice product and a twist on the Star Spangled Banner that will give you goosebumps, so it’ll be on the shortlist. Detroit for the Joe Louis Arena experience and now the brand new Little Caesar’s Arena puts it in the mix. Toronto, if only in the past because of the nearby Hall of Fame, is another popular pick. Pittsburgh, New York, Boston all have their charms, and a deep root in hockey lore.
But if you’re looking for something a little different, very lively, and a place where there’s no shortage of things to do, you need to hit up Broadway.
No not that Broadway. The one in Nashville.
Non-traditional it may be, but Nashville has an exciting NHL team and a party atmosphere in and around Bridgestone Arena that stands out. Inside, live bands perform, the team will pull in some star country music artists to sing the national anthems, and these Section 303 chants are terrific. The fact the crowd thanks their announcer, Paul, when he tells them a period is in its final minute shows off a little bit of its southern hospitality and charm.
“Even just the simple thing that their building is right smack dab in the middle of their city, right off the main strip of honky tonk bars and all that stuff, it’s a great place to go,” Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston said on Sportsnet The FAN 590’s Jeff Blair Show. “I’d recommend any listeners if you’re ever just looking for a hockey road trip to get down there at some point. It’s a nice spot and they’ve captured the imagination of that community.”
Unlike the Panthers, Senators, and some other NHL teams, the Predators’ arena is right downtown on Broadway. Surrounded by restaurants and bars, the Johnny Cash Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame, there is no shortage of things to do.
As one cab driver told our own Ryan Dixon on his ride to the arena, “Man, it’s the place to be now.”
This all ties in to Nashville’s quiet emergence as a fun hockey market with a great product to watch. If you glance at league attendance marks this season you’ll see Nashville ranked 20th in average crowd size, but if you look a little further into it, you’ll notice the team sold out all its home games this year. The Preds had one of the best home records in the league at 24-9-8 and their playoff momentum could make this a lasting impact.
“They’re delivering their best TV audience in the history of the franchise during this playoff run. They’ve sort of carved into the fan base,” Johnston noted. “I think sometimes because Canadians tend to look down their nose at some of those non-traditional markets, we have to recognize it takes a long time to build into the psyche of the community a support for the team, a true support, one where people live and die with it.
“There are kids there that 20 years from now – that team will be far more established – and they’ll be adults and they’ll be remembering a playoff run like this one.”
This season is turning into one where the team is slaying all of its demons. They surprised everyone (even those who picked them to win) by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1, their traditional market arch-nemesis who had twice eliminated them in the playoffs, including a crushing defeat in 2010. Now dominating the St. Louis Blues and holding a 3-1 series lead, the Preds are poised to get past the second round for the first time in franchise history.
At that point, who’s saying no to the team with the best post-season goal differential, a power play converting 22.2 per cent of the time, the best blue-line in the league, and an offence that has two 30-goal men before we get to talking about other difference-makers such as James Neal or Ryan Johansen?
As far as “fun to watch” goes, the Predators rank right up there with the best of the teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were a popular pre-season pick to come out of the West, but that cooled as they squeaked into the last playoff spot in the conference and drew a dynasty in Round 1.
They’re proving themselves all over again and, like the atmosphere in and around the home arena, everyone needs to know how much fun the Predators are. If your team is out of the playoffs, they’re a good option to pick up a rooting interest in.
With this well-rounded roster, shrewdly build into a power by original GM David Poile over the years, it’d actually be far from a surprise if the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed reached its first Cup final. It’d be a good excuse for an out-of-towner to make the trip there.
“Probably every hockey writer is silently fist pumping under the table at the prospect of spending a couple weeks in Nashville at the Cup final,” Johnston said.