A-list celebs, a raucous building and hockey-mad fans? Welcome to Nashville, the NHL's hottest city this spring. And Stanley Cup or not, the party is just starting
LEAVE IT TO the offensive lineman to lead the party. "The quarterback should be the model citizen," explains Taylor Lewan, the Titans' Pro Bowl left tackle, "and then you have these five silly goons getting after it, having a good time." And so while Marcus Mariota dutifully filled his role as chief towel-waver at Bridgestone Arena on May 16, revving the crowd before the Predators beat the Ducks 2--1 in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals—the first time any Nashville pro sports franchise had hosted a game that late in a postseason—he was flanked by his 300-pound protectors cheers-ing and chugging 16-ounce cans of Bud Light.
Question: What sound do you get by mixing massive men, tallboys and the strange item Lewan raised skyward during the game: a 15-pound catfish for which he paid $43 and brought inside an icebox?
Answer, according to Anaheim defenseman Kevin Bieksa: "The loudest building in the NHL."
At first, Lewan planned to chuck his catch over the glass, the local twist on Detroit's famous playoff octopi. But the assembled Titans quickly—and accurately—judged that not even Mariota could reach the ice from their spot on the band stage between Sections 110 and 111. Yes, Bridgestone Arena has a built-in band stage. It was already there when the Predators arrived in 1998--99 as an expansion franchise and the consolation prize for a stadium designed to hold an NBA team. They put the platform to good use. In the Music City, intermission means showtime.
These aren't your usual B-list celebs lounging rink-side at Staples Center or Madison Square Garden, smiling and waving on the jumbotron. During television timeouts in Nashville, it's not unusual to catch 21-time Grammy winner Vince Gill heckling opposing goalies through cracks in the boards. Carrie Underwood, herself a seven-time Grammy winner and the wife of Predators captain Mike Fisher, belted out the national anthem at Game 3 of the first round, which ended with the Predators sweeping top-seeded Chicago. Since then, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan, Little Big Town and Kelly Clarkson have all done the pregame honors.
"I don't know another city where that's possible," says country music star and Predators fan Dierks Bentley. "Hockey and the entertainment industry—the perfect marriage."
On the set list for this evening are Felix Cavaliere, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame keyboardist of the Rascals, and a surprise appearance by one-time Kansas front man John Elefante. In the second intermission, with Nashville trailing 1--0 to Anaheim, Elefante sings his group's hit, "Carry On Wayward Son."
And as they have for 18 seasons, despite relocation threats and mockery from more traditional markets, the Predators do just that—persist. Winger Filip Forsberg strikes the tying tally early into the final period—the sixth of his team-high seven goals this postseason, which matches a franchise record—and defenseman Roman Josi punches a weakside winner past Ducks goalie John Gibson on the power play with less than three minutes left. The 2--1 victory marked Nashville's 10th straight home playoff win dating to last spring, the NHL's longest streak since 1997--98. And though a disappointed crowd spilled onto Broadway two nights later as the Ducks evened the series at two, a Game 5 triumph in Anaheim last Saturday granted Bridgestone Arena the chance to witness a new, unprecedented act: Nashville's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
Former Predators coach Barry Trotz used to liken the downtown Nashville arena to the Colosseum. But the Romans probably didn't precede gladiatorial bouts by hurling skinned ducks into the ring, as one bold fan did during a stoppage in Game 3. Still, it's one of many apt comparisons. "A college football atmosphere," adds defenseman Ryan Ellis. "Like a big carnival," suggests goalie Pekka Rinne.
A wild and raucous fan base? Yes. An unlikely hockey hub? For sure. The bandwagon is full, and no one deserves more credit for the strides this team has made than the man who has been there from the start.
ON THE EVE of the Predators' conference finals debut, their avuncular general manager strolls across the street from his office at Bridgestone and settles into a corner booth for lunch at The Palm, an upscale steak house decorated with caricatures of local celebrities, including one of himself (above the maitre d' stand). Over wedge salads and fruit tea, a grinning David Poile unspools two decades of franchise history.
"Everybody's asking me how happy I am," he says. "Well, I'm happy for everybody. I truly feel like our team is part of the city's fabric now. And who thought that was going to happen?"
Certainly not Bud Poile. In 1997, when his son spurned an offer to run the storied Maple Leafs and instead headed south to run an expansion team in college football country, the late Hockey Hall of Fame executive simply asked, more critical than curious, "Why?" David still remembers the answer he gave. "This may sound corny," he says, "but I think I'm a builder."
So his staff laid bricks from the ground up. Before home games fans attended "Hockey 101" classes at "Predators University," learning concepts like icing and hooking. They listened to the action on headsets as if they were on guided tours of the Louvre. Craig Leipold, the team's original owner, remembers that when the first home hat trick was recorded, an unaware usher attempted to eject one fan for tossing his ball cap to the ice. "We were never expecting to win a game," Leipold says, "so every night we did, the business staff would go out for beers and cheer when the score crawled across the ESPN ticker. The little things in life back then."
The little things. That's Poile all over. Around the office he is known for carrying a spiral-bound legal-sized notepad, sheathed with tasks for his colleagues to complete; former assistant GM Ray Shero, now GM of the Devils, would sneak peeks at his section whenever Poile went to the bathroom. "There was always something that I was missing," Shero says.
This perhaps explains why Poile is chuckling now at a recent Toronto Star article, which called him, "one of the biggest riverboat gamblers in the game." Sure, his transactional streak may seem shot from the hip, but not even Jesse James would execute two of the splashiest one-for-one swaps in recent NHL memory—over a six-month span, no less. "I think I'm a little more calculating than that," he says.
For years Poile had struggled to find a true No. 1 center, a must for any Cup contender. He recalls trying "100 different ways to trade anybody but Seth Jones," but he swallowed hard and in January 2016 flipped the emerging defenseman to Columbus for Ryan Johansen, who clinched Nashville's second-round series against St. Louis in Game 6 with a backhanded beauty on the rush. "Spectacular goal," Poile says. "I've watched it about 20 times." The next bombshell dropped last June, when Poile sent stoic captain Shea Weber to Montreal for the effervescent defenseman P.K. Subban, a move Subban described to SI at the time as "a personality trade." The match has been pitch perfect. On the ice Subban, along with partner Mattias Ekholm, has smothered and frustrated the likes of Chicago's Jonathan Toews and St. Louis's Vladimir Tarasenko this spring. He's quick to perform in the locker room too, even crashing a teammate's postgame media scrum—pretending to be a reporter. (His interview skills need work.)
After finalizing each deal he makes, Poile humors himself by hanging up the phone and muttering a phrase that former Capitals owner Abe Pollin once barked at him. Upon learning that Poile, then Washington's GM, had traded captain Ryan Walter after just 10 days on the job in 1982, Pollin warned, "I hope you know what you're doing." Clearly Poile did then—the return for Walter was future Hall of Famer Rod Langway—and it's plenty true now: A few hours before Game 3, he was named one of three finalists for NHL GM of the Year.
And just think, Poile says, this almost didn't happen in Nashville. A decade ago, Leipold was selling his ownership stake; Blackberry magnate Jim Balsillie held a ticket drive in Hamilton, Ont.; and several thousand fans assembled for a save-the-team rally at Bridgestone. Yet, against odds that would deter even the gutsiest riverboat gambler, the team is stronger than ever. Ten businesspeople—eight of them locals—bought the team from Leipold in December 2007. Coach Peter Laviolette, who replaced Trotz in 2014, brought a Stanley Cup pedigree and an attacking philosophy that, this season, produced Nashville's best offensive output in a decade (2.90 goals per game, 11th leaguewide).
Poile and his staff, meanwhile, continue to mine diamonds from the deepest shafts of the NHL draft, like two-way standouts Josi (38th overall, 2008) and defenseman Mattias Ekholm (102nd, '09), top-line winger Viktor Arvidsson (112th, '14), and three-time 20-goal scorer Craig Smith (98th, '09). But no hidden gem has shone brighter in these playoffs than the goalie who Trotz nicknamed the Eraser, the pencil-thin Finn whom Poile sought out after Nashville dispatched the Blues. Embracing the nine-year veteran in a sweaty hug, Poile whispered into Pekka Rinne's ear, "Finally."
GIVE NASHVILLE credit for creativity. Outside the arena in the hours before Game 3, fans put the smash in Smashville, paying $10 for three sledgehammer whacks at an old Chevy Malibu spray-painted with Anaheim's logo—$20 for three swings and a cowboy hat. At intermission, reporters were served roast duck. And by far the best sign read, OUR PEKKA IS BIGGER THAN YOURS.
Indeed, at 6'5" Rinne stands two inches taller than Gibson. That was also the only thing Shero knew before visiting Oulu, Finland, in February 2004 with Predators pro scout Janne Kekäläinen—"that Pekka was f---ing big." Then a 21-year-old backup for a local pro team, Rinne didn't even play when Shero came. "I guess he must've looked good on the bench and in warmups," Shero says. "Who knows?"
Kekäläinen did. On his recommendation Nashville took Rinne in the eighth round, 258th overall, a pick that doesn't even exist anymore. After many ups (Vezina finalist in 2011, '12 and '15) and downs (hip surgery and subsequent E. coli infection in '13, an NHL-high 161 goals allowed last season), Rinne has never flown higher. The 34-year-old netminder now leads the playoffs with a .942 save percentage and 1.62 goals against average through week's end, plus three assists that put him one shy of Martin Brodeur's single-postseason record for a goalie. With Weber gone he is now also the last remaining cog from the Predators' old core; that's why Poile hugged him first. "There's a little bit of time to reflect back," Rinne says. "At the same time, you don't want to do too much, you don't want to feel too good or too emotional."
As for the rest of the roster? A little more ... carnival. Subban remains his gregarious self, dancing away during warmups, and tough guy Cody McLeod walks more lines than Johnny Cash. Even the normally staid Laviolette, whose animated fist-punch celebration launched a thousand GIFs—POW!—has let his emotions come through.
The Predators' march through the postseason has the feeling of a party that no one wants to end, though Anaheim has valiantly tried. Taking on a physical edge, the series has exacted a toll on both sides—the Ducks lost sharpshooter Rickard Rakell for Games 5 and 6, and more crucially, the Predators will be without their leading scorer, Johansen, who underwent emergency thigh surgery to address compartment syndrome after Game 4. But no matter the final outcome, whoever lifts Lord Stanley's Cup in June, the bar in Nashville has been forever raised.
Where cheerleaders once held up signs to celebrate sellouts, Bridgestone Arena was booked full for 41 of 41 home dates this season for the first time ever. All top-four blueliners are under contract next season; at ages 24, 24 and 22, respectively, Arvidsson, Johansen and Forsberg form the forward corps for the distant future. The celebrities will keep crooning. The party isn't stopping. Better crack open your tallboy.