NASHVILLE—When the news first piped through his cell phone, Vernon Fiddler began to shake. He was at home in New Jersey, alone while the Devils jetted off for a one-game road trip on Feb. 4, left behind to avoid jeopardizing his trade value. The center knew he would at least head to some playoff contender before the deadline, because general manager Ray Shero had graciously guaranteed as much. And now, on the other end of the line, Shero told Fiddler where.
“I’ve got something for you,” Shero said.
“What’s that?” Fiddler asked.
“Well,” Shero said, “I just talked to David Poile, and they would like you. Would you like to call your wife and confirm it?”
“No,” Fiddler replied, positive what the answer would be. “Just get the trade done.”
The terms were finalized soon after, the official call to league headquarters placed. For Poile, the Predators’ GM, the price of a fourth-rounder was plenty worth paying to buttress his team’s depth up the middle, heading toward what has since become the longest postseason run in franchise history. And the 37-year-old Fiddler, in quite possibly the final season of an NHL career that even he never saw coming, was returning to Nashville, the city where it all began.
“I was in tears,” Fiddler said Wednesday. “I was so happy to come back. They're the ones who gave me my chance to make the NHL and make a name for myself. Almost 900 games later, they trade back for me, to give me another chance at something else means the world for me, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
He was sitting inside the locker room at the Predators’ practice rink, empty except for his son Blake, 9, who was decked out in Nashville gear and keeping busy at the team’s ping-pong table. When Fiddler had signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with New Jersey last summer, his family—Blake, plus wife Chrissy and daughter Bella—decided to stay behind in Dallas, where they had spent the previous five seasons. “They knew what this year was about,” Fiddler says, “which was to keep playing, so at the deadline or somewhere along the line, maybe some team would want a veteran guy.” In other words, something like this. “When I talked to my son, that’s probably when I was getting teared up, telling him I had a shot at the Stanley Cup.”
Soon the memories began rushing back too. Blake was born in July 2007 at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital, located a P.K. Subban slap shot away from the practice rink, back before its name changed from Baptist Hospital, after Fiddler’s first full season with the team. As a kid, Blake would fall asleep to lullabies sung by a security guard at Bridgestone Arena who plays guitar on the side. Before Fiddler debuted for the second time on Feb. 7 against Vancouver, he resumed his pregame tradition of ordering the Preds Parm—chicken parmesan with vodka sauce and penne and a Caesar’s salad—at an Italian restaurant called Amerigo and found the same two women standing behind the bar. A few days later, he was pumping gas when a woman spied him, pointed to the small television at her pump and said, “I watch every game!”
It wasn’t like this when Fiddler inked his entry-level deal in May 2002 as an undrafted free agent. The fan base was still growing, the Predators still searching for their first playoff appearance, the rest of the hockey world still blind to the ear-splittingly raucous—and often delightfully kitschy—fan base in Smashville. Playing at the time for the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL playoffs, Fiddler was approached by then-coach Trent Yawney, who told him that Nashville assistant Brent Peterson would be attending. “So, be going tonight,” Yawney advised, as though Fiddler needed any extra motivation to impress. Fiddler recalls fielding several other offers, but eventually signed with the Predators. He debuted that November, skating 6:57 against the Kings at Staples Center. He has played 876 more regular-season games—plus 47 in the playoffs—since.
“They picked me out of the weeds,” he says. “Every time you drive your nice truck, it’s because of those guys that you’re living like this. I’ll forever be grateful to them, for sure.”
Fiddler seems reflective because he senses the end. Toggling between a fourth-line center and a healthy scratch since re-joining the Predators, he finished the ‘16-17 season with just 59 games, a career-low by a dozen. He hasn’t logged more than 10 minutes in six-plus weeks, battling injuries too. “This will be my last year,” he says. “I’m not 100 percent sure, but I’m leaning towards that. Body stops listening to your brain. It’s just been a tough year with injuries and stuff, and I’ve never had that. It’s been more of a mental grind than anything.”
Still, there have been some highlights, none better than the goal Fiddler whacked past St. Louis goalie Jake Allen with 5:05 left in Game 1 of the second round, which held up as the winner. In a locker room of new faces —only goalie Pekka Rinne was in the lineup for Fiddler’s last game during his first tour on April 10, 2009—he has felt welcomed with open arms, evidenced during the day after the trade, Super Bowl Sunday, when Fiddler joined the team for a poker tournament at Bridgestone Arena’s Lexus Lounge and finished third. He also loves working under coach Peter Laviolette, even if his ice time has been limited.
“Such a great motivator,” Fiddler says. “Even when you’re not playing, you’re like, ‘Holy f---, I need to play this game.’ I’m going home all fired up and I’m not even in the lineup tonight.”
After appearing in Games 1-2 at Honda Center, Fiddler was replaced by Harry Zolnierczyk for Tuesday night’s 2-1 win over the Ducks in Game 3, the first conference finals that Nashville has ever hosted in any major-pro sport. Around the time of Blake’s birth, Fiddler recalls being one of three Predators—David Legwand and Ryan Suter being the others—to attend a fan rally at Bridgestone Arena, held to save the franchise from relocation. It was impossible to look around Tuesday night, at the towel-waving Titans chugging beers and Keith Urban singing the national anthem and the sea of gold pumping rock-concert noise at Anaheim’s players, and not think how much had changed.
“From then until now, it’s crazy how far the team, the organization, the marketing has come,” Fiddler says. “There’s no louder building. It’s such a small building too, that college atmosphere with the chants. It’s pretty cool.”
As for what comes next, Fiddler isn’t sure. A few friends from several front offices have phoned to say, “When you’re done playing, call us.” He could see himself in management somewhere, or maybe behind a bench. “But I’m not thinking that far. I’m focused here, helping in the room, helping wherever I can. We’ll worry about that once the season’s over. Just want to contribute in any way I can help out. I’d sweep the floor for David Poile. I just want to win that Cup.”
He stood up from his stall. Blake was patiently waiting by the ping-pong table, bouncing a ball on a paddle, and together they walked out the door.