Hockey-Tonk Town Nashville and its biggest country music stars have taken a down-home hankerin' to the expansion Predators

November 09, 1998

On Halloween night, Nashville Predators general manager David
Poile wore a gorilla mask, and Colorado Avalanche netminder
Patrick Roy wore goat horns. You would hardly expect neither the
buttoned-down executive nor the goaltending legend to be so
attired, but if the NHL can play in Nashville, a city where
hockey has been called NASCAR without the caution flags, can
anything be too weird?

The Predators certainly celebrated Halloween the right way. With
many fans turning out in costumes, there were more ghosts in the
Nashville Arena than you'll find even in the old Montreal Forum,
and before the game kids were allowed to trick-or-treat in the
luxury suites. That was a refreshing switch. Usually the only
trick-or-treating involving luxury suites occurs when a team
owner rings a doorbell and demands that taxpayers build him a
facility outfitted with lots of them. Fans came to the game
dressed as Hooters boys, Uncle Sam and the Grim Reaper as well
as apparitions, but to judge by the raucous cheers that
reverberated during the third period when the expansion
Predators peppered a shaky Roy and put away Colorado 3-2 for
their second straight win, the most original costumes were on
the 16,145 Nashvillians who came disguised as hockey fans.

"Yeah, but did you see the guy missed that question [on the
scoreboard]?" Predators right wing Blair Atcheynum asked,
referring to a fan who, while participating in a multiple-choice
quiz in a promotion, failed to pick captain Tom Fitzgerald as
the Nashville player who had appeared in 11 games for Colorado
last season. "He picked those bogus names. Ah, well, they're all
learning."

You want hockey sophistication, go to Montreal. You want a guy
dressed up as a Zamboni, go to Nashville.

There was also a woman behind the Predators bench who came
dressed as country music star Deana Carter, possibly because she
was Deana Carter. Nashville not only can put fannies in the
seats, but it also can put Grammys in the seats--a Vince Gill
here, a Reba McEntire there. "Country music people are showing
that we're supporting the team," says Carter, a season-ticket
holder. "There was a question of how much support there would be
for hockey locally. I'm proud of my hometown, that it could cut
the mustard."

The marriage between country music and hockey, a melding of
mostly Southern broken hearts with mostly Northern broken bones,
seems quixotic until you scrape away the stereotypes and touch
the people who make their living playing either. Hockey players
still retain much of the humility that comes from generations of
6 a.m. practices and lugging their own equipment--"Remember
where you came from" is the hockey player's motto, Fitzgerald
says--while the only airs most country music stars put on go on
CDs. Quick quiz: Whom would you rather borrow a power tool from,
a hockey player or an NBA player? And who would you want
baby-sitting for your kids, Garth Brooks or Tommy Lee? We
thought so. Hockey might be foreign in Nashville, but its values
are immediately recognizable.

The link between the Predators and the country music crowd is
more than just a nice touch; in many ways, it's the franchise's
lifeline. The NHL granted Nashville a conditional franchise on
June 25, 1997. In a city of a little more than half a million
people who identified number 99 with NASCAR driver Jeff Burton's
Ford rather than with Wayne Gretzky's jersey, owner Craig
Leipold had nine months to sell 12,000 season tickets without
the benefit, at least at first, of a team name, logo or player.
"We had no one to pitch our product, no credibility," says Tom
Ward, executive vice president of business operations. "If we
could get Nashville's biggest and brightest stars to become our
pitchmen, we had a chance. That's where Barry's relationship
with Garth Brooks came into play."

Barry is Predators coach Barry Trotz, who had met Brooks in 1996
when Trotz was coaching a minor league team in Portland, Maine,
and Brooks's tour passed through. Trotz had used a line from
Brooks's song The Dance as a rallying cry for his club, and one
thing led to another, as it usually does in the narrative world
of country music. While Brooks was in Portland, some music and
hockey folks--the former, it turned out, knew how to skate--got
together and played shinny until 3 a.m. After that Trotz would
call around and help get ice time for Brooks's band on its stops
in cities across North America. When Poile hired Trotz, Brooks
was eager to return a favor.

Brooks appeared in a Predators ad campaign that featured photos
on billboards of him as well as of Lorrie Morgan, Amy Grant and
some other hockey-tonk women with their front teeth blacked out.
(The only people who disliked the ads were some clueless Miss
Grundys in the NHL office who were miffed about such a portrayal
of their game.) "The joke at the expansion draft was that
Nashville would be the only market where the fans had fewer
teeth than their players," Ward says. "So we ran with it. What
we were asking these stars to do was to make fun of themselves
and poke fun at our sport. We were having these folks defacing
themselves, and we're talking about some of the prettiest women
you'll find anywhere. It captured people's imaginations."

Music Row got behind the Predators all the way. This wasn't
Woody Allen courtside at the New York Knicks games or
Washington's power elite in the suites at Redskins games. This
was better. During the ticket drive Faith Hill and Tim
McGraw--that's Tug's son, baseball fans--performed at a
three-hour benefit along with Delbert McClinton, who introduced
the Predators fight song ("Welcome to Dixie when you walk in the
door, but you better be ready for the Third World War").
McClinton reprised the song at the regular-season opener. Trisha
Yearwood has agreed to sing the national anthem twice. Barbara
Mandrell, whose son, Nathan, plays in the Nashville Youth Hockey
League, invited everybody in the Predators' organization to a
reception at her 30,000-square-foot log home last month.

Unlike the NFL's Tennessee Oilers, who can't shake their image
as interlopers, the Predators have seen every door open to them,
except at one bank. During the season-ticket drive team
employees dressed up as hockey players and went to local
businesses with information packets taped to their sticks. The
bank guard turned away an ersatz goalie, uncertain if he was
witnessing a marketing stunt or a holdup.

"The fans have been unbelievable," Trotz says. "We lost the
opener 1-0 [to the Florida Panthers], and they gave us a standing
ovation. We didn't know if we should leave the ice or bow."

The Predators, overwhelmed by the hospitality, have tried to
return the favor. Despite the meager talent that's the lot of
expansion teams--no Nashville player scored more than 12 NHL
goals last season--Poile and Trotz adopted a bold philosophical
stance against the neutral-zone trap, the anathema that levels
the playing surface but squeezes the life out of the game. The
trap worked in Florida in 1993-94, when the expansion Panthers
won 33 games and missed qualifying for the playoffs by one
point, but the small, quick Predators are scooting down the path
less traveled with an aggressive two-man forecheck. Says Poile,
"I think we have a little room for error this season, and if
we're going down, we're trying it a different way than just
surviving or losing close."

Nashville has been doing more than scraping by, thank you.
Through last weekend the 3-5-1 Predators had either been tied or
leading early in the third period in all of their games. Sergei
Krivokrasov, a right wing who has never scored more than 13
goals in his six-year NHL career, already had six goals, but he
isn't Nashville's first hero. That distinction is shared by the
goon, Patrick (K.O.) Cote--"With fights, you don't have to
understand the rules," says Cote, who led the league with seven
fighting majors--and goalie Mike Dunham. The trouble is that
Cote had spent more time in the penalty box than on the ice
(37:00 to 23:19), and Dunham, who was spectacular in stopping 41
Avalanche shots on Saturday, hides behind a mask. In fact Dunham
and his girlfriend sat unnoticed in Wolfy's restaurant a half
block from the arena after a 5-4 win over the Vancouver Canucks
last week when team owner Leipold sauntered in and got a
standing ovation.

The city has taken to Leipold, an entrepreneur who lives in
Wisconsin but who was born in Memphis and went to college in
Arkansas. A hint of a twang comes and goes, as does Leipold
himself. He has the support of the city, especially mayor Phil
Bredesen, who wanted a team as much as Leipold did. Bredesen got
the 17,298-seat arena, which opened in late 1996, built
essentially on spec in an effort to expand Nashville's place on
the nation's dial from CMT to Fox Sports Net. When Nashville
couldn't lure the NBA's Sacramento Kings, it went after a hockey
expansion team. Leipold has what might be the NHL's sweetest
lease: Leipold Hockey Holdings, which paid $80 million for the
team, pays a rent of 5% of ticket sales but keeps 100% of the
revenues from the arena's 72 luxury suites (67 of which have
been leased) and 40% of the concession money, plus a cut of
nonhockey events in the building, which the company will begin
managing next year. In a league muddied by ownership and arena
follies in Carolina and Pittsburgh and on Long Island, one of
the profitable franchises plays in the 30th-largest television
market in the U.S., a city that hardly knows what hit it. (Lest
that become literally true, The Tennessean ran a front-page
story last Saturday about the danger of fans' getting struck by
pucks.) The only disquieting note is that the Predators, with an
average ticket price of $42.35, sold out only the first of their
five home games. "If I had been in this market for two years and
felt I'd gotten my message out to everybody and we were still
bringing in 14,500 or 15,000 a game, I'd probably say I'm tapped
out," says Leipold, whose club's $15 million payroll is $5.5
million less than that of the next lowest team, the Calgary
Flames. "But in a nontraditional market, we're just beginning."

Predators players are doing their best to help. They cheerfully
give street-hockey clinics, sign autographs and explain that the
game's fights aren't staged. In an effort to emulate their
neighbors, five Predators--forwards Sebastien Bordeleau, Denny
Lambert and Darren Turcotte, and defensemen Joel Bouchard and
J.J. Daigneault--have formed a band. The novelty eventually will
wear off in a city where the dog dies, the romance fades and the
truck breaks down, and the league may find itself with another
franchise like the small-market, financially strapped Edmonton
Oilers, only with better weather. But for the moment, no NHL
city is having a better time.

B/W PHOTO: DYE VAN MOL & LAWRENCE ADVERTISING Hockey-Tonk Town Nashville's country music stars, like Lorrie Morgan (right), have even blackened their pearly whites to help the NHL expansion Predators get off to a flying start [Lorrie Morgan with middle teeth blackened out in advertisement for Nashville Predators--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY HOW-DEE! Some of the Nashville fans who attended the game on Halloween went more or less native as the upstart Predators spooked the Avalanche. [Fans in Halloween costumes during hockey game at Nashville Arena] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO KNOCKOUT ADS The campaign featuring stars like Amy Grant narrowed the gap between city and team. [Billboard advertisement for Nashville Predators with bite taken out of top] B/W PHOTO: DYE VAN MOL & LAWRENCE ADVERTISING [Amy Grant with middle teeth blackened out in advertisement for Nashville Predators] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO INCOGNITO Masked marvel Dunham has become a favorite even among fans who don't recognize him away from the arena. [Mike Dunham making save]

The marriage between country music and hockey represents a
melding of Southern broken hearts with Northern broken bones.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)