NASHVILLE — In the beginning, before the Nashville Predators sank their fangs into a city that adored hockey but just didn’t know it yet, there was a kiosk. Nat Harden perched there, outside the food court of the CoolSpringsmall in suburban Brentwood, eight hours a day, five days a week during the 1997 holiday season and tried to sell a sport that he had never seen in person and a team that had no players.
One television at the booth showed hockey highlights, while another ran a loop of Shania Twain’s music videos. Harden, who had recently graduated from Mississippi State, followed instructions to promote the game’s speed, but it did not impress him much back then. In college, he had been so indifferent to hockey that upon returning home one night and finding a roommate and some friends engrossed in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals, he ducked out.
To watch “Saved by the Bell.”
Harden’s entry-level position with the Predators paid $7 an hour, and he would have earned 1 percent commission on season-ticket packages had he, in fact, sold any.
“I wish I could say I came close in those three months, but I didn’t,” Harden said last week. “They figured I was a nice guy, though, so they let me stay on.”
Harden, 44, is now the senior vice president for ticket sales and youth hockey for the Predators, who reign supreme in a market that was long the impenetrable domain of football and Nascar. Having overcome wobbly attendance during their formative years, they sold out all 41 regular-season games at Bridgestone Arena and all eight so far in the playoffs, including Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against Anaheim on Monday night, when Nashville may advance to its first Stanley Cup finals since joining the N.H.L. in 1998.
In the same building where almost 20 years ago Harden made phone calls amid dangling lights and wires in unfinished office space, he now basks in the din produced by more than 17,000 fans, some of whom, when the team arrived, didn’t know the difference between offsides and icing.
“I’m grateful for these times,” Harden said, “because I’m grateful for those times.”
These days, fans scream “Go, Preds!” across the aisles at Target. Pekka Rinne’s goaltending or Filip Forsberg’s clutch scoring dominates conversation in grocery-store checkout lines. At Bridgestone, the noise starts thumping early and does not relent, creating a hockey-tonk atmosphere that combines the fervid tribalism of Southeastern Conference football with the rowdiness of European soccer, complete with choreographed chants and taunts.
A sample: Soon after Nashville scored in Game 3, the crowd pointed to Ducks goalie John Gibson and bellowed: “It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!”
“I went home with my ears ringing,” said John Russell, who has been the team’s photographer since its inception. “I was like, gosh, was it really that loud?”
The transformation is particularly rewarding for a small number of employees who have been present at every stage, witnessing the Predators’ ascent from fledgling franchise to playoff perennials.
Steeped in institutional memory, those employees crow about today’s boisterous crowds because they fretted in 2007 when the team nearly moved to Hamilton, Ontario. They gush about ousting Detroit in the 2012 playoffs because they gasped at all the transplanted Red Wings fans who worked at auto plants in nearby Spring Hill and Smyrna and crammed Bridgestone in the beginning. (Those early adopters were called Pred Wings.)
They cried when Nashville finished off the St. Louis Blues this month to reach this playoff round because they had cried in 2010 after the Predators allowed a late short-handed goal and an overtime winner to Chicago in Game 5.
Gerry Helper, a senior vice president and the team’s unofficial historian, worked through it all. Hopscotching from one expansion franchise to another, Helper arrived in October 1997 from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Until then, he had never visited Nashville, though its size reminded Helper of Buffalo, his hometown. Right away, he knew he wanted the fans here to feel the way he did on April 21, 1996, before the Lightning’s first-ever playoff game.
That day at the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg, Fla., Helper gaped while nearly 26,000 people rose as one when the players skated onto the ice.
Helper did not tingle again like that until 2003, after the Predators’ fifth season, when Nashville hosted the N.H.L. draft — a niche event in a city largely unfamiliar with junior wingers from Medicine Hat or defensemen from Cape Breton. There was no reason to expect much. Still, he said, about 13,000 attended, and responded with a standing ovation when a league official, doing a roll call of the teams, announced Nashville.
“That was my defining moment,” Helper said. “That this place has got it; this place can be it.”
In his office last week, Helper displayed a pamphlet from the days when deciphering hockey seemed like a prerequisite for selling a Predators season ticket. It included a glossary of hockey terms, a diagram of the rink and a description of responsibilities for each position. It also answered such questions as “Who gets credit for an assist?”
The first few years, the public-address announcer drew quizzical looks from visiting players by explaining basic infractions, like a two-line pass. Now, when the Predators sustain offensive-zone time or begin a power-play rush, the crowd roars.
“We had to groom them,” said Terry Crisp, a longtime broadcaster for the Predators. Crisp understood the task ahead, perhaps better than anyone. He had played on two expansion teams (the 1967-68 Blues and 1972-73 Islanders) and coached another (the 1992-93 Lightning).
“I guess I’m an original guy,” Crisp said.
He recalled Tampa Bay’s inaugural game, when Chris Kontos scored his third of four goals. Only one fan commemorated the hat trick by tossing a cap onto the ice. He was then tossed out of the arena by an uninitiated security crew. (The team’s general manager, Phil Esposito, found the fan outside, took him back in and bought him a beer, Crisp said.)
In time, fans there embraced the sport’s traditions. Crisp cherished his implicit role as a hockey ambassador for the Lightning, and he reprised it in Nashville with his longtime partner, Pete Weber, the Predators’ play-by-play voice on the radio.
They spoke at luncheons and dinners — “If there was a club, we went to it,” Weber said — and hosted Hockey 101, free sessions to educate the fan base. About two hours before games, 50 or so people would gather in a classroom theater across from the arena to volley questions at Crisp and Weber. Crisp wishes he had written a book about it.
The whole concept of changing three forwards on the fly never failed to mystify Hockey 101 students. Same with the N.H.L. schedule. The Predators play how many games again? Eighty-two?
Crisp and Weber made those sessions fun, because hockey is supposed to be fun.
They counseled fans not to worry about the rules, or anything else. Just enjoy yourselves, they said. They used the phrase “Get bit” — by hockey. If fans attended a game and wanted further clarification, they could pay a nominal deposit for headphones that connected them to an internal broadcast explaining on-ice situations as they developed.
“Right now, we wouldn’t have a Hockey 101,” Weber said. “It would be Ph.D. level.”
Employees attended Hockey 101 briefings of their own, and Weber and his wife, Claudia, threw playoff watch parties at their home, hoping the Predators would soon be hosting postseason games of their own. But five seasons passed without that happening. Attendance, no longer fueled by novelty, dipped.
The market had stretched to accommodate another professional team in 1998, the Tennessee Oilers (soon to be Titans) of the N.F.L. Some fans, judicious with their discretionary income, preferred to spend it on a more familiar sport — and a better team. As the Titans moved toward a Super Bowl appearance with ascending stars like Steve McNair and Eddie George, the Predators, with a roster of castoffs and misfits, yearned for name recognition.
Britt Kincheloe, the team’s vice president of service and retention, laughed as she recounted how the mother of Brent Peterson, a former assistant coach, used to tell friends that her son worked for the “Nashville Penetrators.”
Kincheloe also remembers the sparse crowds: “There were some Tuesday nights where you just sat there and held your breath.”
A graduate of Vanderbilt here, Kincheloe quenched her restless spirit with a series of temporary jobs before latching on at the arena in 1996 and, two years later, with the Predators. No matter how busy her workday, she carved time to attend the team’s morning skate. It soothed her. It converted her.
“In the beginning, we were more excited when we actually won a game,” Kincheloe said. “Now I’m much more excited to be disappointed with a loss.”
The Predators’ success — 10 playoff appearances across the past 13 seasons — has perpetuated steady increases in ticket renewals and purchases, Harden said, and yearly surges in attendance since 2013-14.
Children who picked up street hockey almost 20 years ago, who urged their parents to buy seats when the team was on the verge of being shipped to Canada, are now fans who consider season tickets a worthy investment.
No longer does Harden have to explain to confused souls at a mall kiosk that, no, the N.F.L. team has not changed its name to the Predators, or persuade people to part with money to watch players who have not yet been drafted. The sport, and the team, sell themselves.
Harden reflected on Nashville’s evolution during a recent drive with his wife, Paige. He flipped on the satellite radio to the NHL Network, where a caller from Alabama, in an accent thicker than Harden’s Texas twang, wanted to talk not about Rinne or Forsberg, Ryan Johansen or P. K. Subban, but about the team’s third defensive pairing.
Years ago, Harden worried that Paige would lose confidence in him and break off their engagement given his struggles at the kiosk, but she had faith — in him, in the Predators. And now, as he listened to a man in a different state, in the middle of football country, discuss Nashville’s blue line, he turned to Paige and laughed.
“This is what we’ve created,” he told her.
Published at Mon, 22 May 2017 06:00:44 +0000