Catfish, tall boys and country music: How Stanley Cup Final-bound Predators took over Nashville

Tuesday May 23rd, 2017

This story appears in the May 29, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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 creature 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, so 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, Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood 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, amid relocation threats and mockery from more traditional markets, the Predators do just that—persist.

NHL
Music, Predators' hockey entwine to make for an ‘on fire’ atmosphere in Nashville

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, they would soon return to witness a new, unprecedented act: Monday night's 6-3 win, which vaulted Nashville into its first Stanley Cup Final

Former Predators coach Barry Trotz used to liken the downtown Nashville arena to the Colosseum. But no chance the Romans -- ancient, not Josi -- preceded 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, slugging back success like Bud Light? No doubt. An unlikely hockey hub? "We're deep in the heart of football country here, and yet it seems like this is the sport," Bentley says. The bandwagon is full. The Predators are four victories away from the Stanley Cup. And no one deserves more credit for the strides this team has made than the man who has been steering 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 located 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 the home of honkytonk, 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."

NHL
Catfish-toting Taylor Lewan, Titans adding to Predators madness in Nashville

The little things. That's Poile all over. After one game during their inaugural season in 1998–99, Poile was headed to the coaches' office when he abruptly broke stride, peeked inside the family room, and returned to tell former assistant GM Ray Shero, "Can you believe it? Man, they're out of chocolate chip cookies. We've got to get the wives their cookies." Around the office, Poile is known for carrying a spiral-bound legal-sized notepad, sheathed with tasks for his colleagues to complete; in an effort to get ahead, Shero would sneak peeks at his section whenever Poile went to the bathroom. Says Shero, now the Devils' GM, "There was always something that I was missing."

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 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, St. Louis's Vladimir Tarasenko and Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf this spring. He's quick to perform in the locker room too, once crashing a teammate's postgame media scrum—pretending to be a reporter. (Unlike his pirouetting puck retrievals, Subban's interview skills could use some polish.)

After finalizing each deal he makes, Poile humors himself with a tradition. Hanging up the phone, he mutters a phrase that former Capitals owner Abe Pollin once barked at him upon learning that Poile, then Washington's GM, had traded captain Ryan Water after just 10 days on the job in 1982: "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 never happened 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); after eliminating Anaheim in Game 6, Laviolette joined Dick Irvin, Scotty Bowman, and Mike Keenan as history's only bench bosses to reach the finals with three different teams. 

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 immediately 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 without question 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, on a sub-zero afternoon 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 as Shero shivered in the stands. "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 .941 save percentage and 1.62 goals against average through the third round--he made 38 saves in the series-clinching 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."

NHL
2017 NHL playoff schedule

This speaks to an aspect of Rinne's personality that appeals to the values of Predators fans -- and hockey, for that matter. When former goalie coach Mitch Korn visited Rinne in Oulu, he stepped into the goalie's apartment to a spread of cappuccinos and homemade cookies. "It was awkward," Korn says, laughing. "But he tried so hard." This season there could've been animus between Rinne and his heir to the starting job, 22-year-old countryman Juuse Saros. Instead, while Rinne played at the World Cup of Hockey last fall, Saros lived at his house for two weeks during training camp."You can drive the cars," Rinne told Saros, handing over the keys. "Whatever you need."

As for the rest of the roster? A little more . . . carnival. Decorations in the locker room include a bobblehead of Saros; a trading card of Ellis strung from the ceiling by skate laces; and a painting depicting Super Mario and the team's unofficial mascot, a blue cartoon bulldog named Stanley. Of course Subban remains his gregarious self, dancing away during warmups, Mike Milbury be damned. Tough guy Cody McLeod walks more lines than Johnny Cash. Laviolette would surely enjoy swinging the sledgehammer if he had the time; during the regular season the team video staff regularly cuts highlight-filled hype videos to pump up the players, and most of the front office greeted Laviolette in the hallway after Game 6 against St. Louis by imitating the fist-pumping celebration that launched a thousand GIFs: 

POW! 

But like any of the bands blaring along Broadway, the Predators perform best with harmonizing parts. They employ not just one workhorse defenseman but two bonafide top pairings—Ekholm with Subban; Ellis with Josi—that have combined for 39 points through 16 games. With Johansen sidelined by season-ending thigh surgery and Fisher sitting with an undisclosed ailment, Nashville snatched Game 5 at Anaheim's Honda Center thanks to rookie Pontus Aberg, a heroic name worthy of the Colosseum who became the 10th different skater to strike a game-winning goal. A hat trick from center Colton Sissons, unexpectedly ushered to replace Johansen on the top line, made the difference in Game 6. And the backhander that clinched the St. Louis series, the one Poile was watching on loop before lunch? Never happens without third-pair defenseman Yannick Weber boosting Johansen with a nudge of the stick in the neutral zone. "He gave him the catapult," Poile says.

No matter which team lifts the Cup in June -- the Predators or their Eastern Conference opponent, either Ottawa or Pittsburgh -- the bar in Music City has indeed been set at greater heights. Where cheerleaders once held up signs to celebrate rare 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 grab your catfish and crack open some tallboys.

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