Smashville. It’s more than just a hashtag. It’s more than just a slogan. It’s a family that was built with a strong foundation. It may have started more as a marketing idea back in the mid 2000s, but Smashville has become a rallying cry not just for the Nashville Predators organization but also for fans of the team from all over the world. It’s actually uncommon to hear the city referred to as Nashville in the hockey world – it’s Smashville.
So, how did the team arrive at the point it is at now, competing for its first Stanley Cup in franchise history? Let’s take a look back and see how tremendous this moment is for not only the team and its fans, but for Middle Tennessee and the growing hockey community in the south.
The Nashville Predators first hit the ice in 1998 after the franchise was awarded in 1997. For the first few years, the team was built on strong leadership to establish what was deemed the Nashville Predators “way of hockey.”
General Manager David Poile saw coming to the Predators as a good opportunity. After spending 15 years with the Washington Capitals and five years before that with the Flames franchise, Poile was now at the helm of an expansion franchise — a challenge, but one that he wanted.
Poile’s first hire was obviously going to be at the head coach position. It was important to lay the groundwork and hire someone who could gain from the experience, as well as become the face of the franchise while the team continued to build. After speaking with other peers in hockey, Poile came to the conclusion that he wanted to give someone a chance to make an impression. Less than a month after Poile himself was hired, on Aug. 6, 1997, he named Barry Trotz as the first head coach in the history of the organization.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presents the Nashville Predators with the Clarence S. Campbell trophy as Western Conference Champions. Photo by John Russell/NHLI.
As the team prepared to hit the ice for the first time in the fall of 1998, now came the part of deciding the direction of the team. As an expansion team, the Predators would enter the draft lottery and participate in the expansion draft. That being said, the team was starting from scratch. It would get the players that other teams did not lock down and protect from the expansion draft.
By getting those types of “expendable” players, the team’s identity began to form early on.
“I think the skill level, with all due respect, was not where we could be at a competitive level, so you wanted to get character blue-collar guys,” Poile said.
And that’s exactly the type of players they brought in. Tom Fitzgerald, Cliff Ronning, Greg Johnson and Scott Walker are all names that early Predators fans will recognize. Those were some of the original leaders on the ice, helping mold an identity for the team. When other teams didn’t want them, the Predators took them and used them to establish the team.
From there, the team began to grow, eventually making its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the 2003-04 season to face the Detroit Red Wings. While the Predators lost that series to Detroit, it was already easy to tell how hockey could become very special in Music City.
Following the momentum that season, it was difficult for a team still trying to establish itself to suffer through a lockout season (2004-05), but the team moved on. Including its first playoff berth, the Predators then qualified for the playoffs seven out of eight season. Since then, Nashville has qualified for the playoffs 10 out of 13 seasons. Not too shabby for a team that almost met its demise after the 2006-07 season.
Ten years ago in May, the Nashville Predators were almost sold and moved to Hamilton, Ontario. Now, the team is just four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup over their heads. That’s a mighty big turn around.
Back in 2007, Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Research in Motion, known for the Blackberry, made a bid to purchase the Predators and move the team to Canada. He even went so far as to begin a season ticket drive in Hamilton. The fans in Nashville rallied at Bridgestone Arena by the thousands. Former Nashville mayor and then- governor Phil Bredesen was even on hand for the “Save the Team” rally. Luckily, a local ownership group took charge and purchased the team, keeping them in Nashville and setting up the organization and city for something special.
From then on, the rise of the Predators began. Soon after, Jeff Cogen and Sean Henry were brought in to lead the front office as CEO and president, respectively, and the team hasn’t looked back since. The pair helped create a winning atmosphere not just in the organization, but also in the city.
Over the past few seasons, the hype and expectations for the Predators has continued to grow. The fan support that this team has seen over the past year has been outstanding. Nashville sold out all 41 of its home games this season, in addition to selling out every playoff game. Not only that, but thousands have filled Bridgestone Arena plaza and Walk of Fame Park to watch the playoffs along with the over 17,000 people inside the arena during home games.
T-shirts line the seats of Bridgestone Arena as a fan photographs from above. Photo: Sanford Myers.
The atmosphere is what continues to get the most attention; there’s the country stars singing the anthem, and the offensive line of the Tennessee Titans waving rally towels, chugging tallboys and holding a catfish over their heads. It’s the atmosphere inside the arena that is also making this run something special.
“It’s amazing. I’ve never been to a college football game, but I feel like when you watch it on TV, everyone is standing, they have their chants, their cheering the entire game. I think that’s the closest thing you can relate it to,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis. “It’s unbelievably loud. The fans are incredible and it just keeps getting better every single night.”
It’s easy to see how much the fan support means to the team. There have been multiple times where it seems as though the fans willed the Predators to a goal. Whether it’s constant cheering during a TV timeout, roaring for a big save or hit or appreciating a player like Viktor Arvidsson killing off 20 seconds by keeping the puck in the offensive zone during a penalty kill, Predators fans give the team the energy they need to finish.
Justin Bradford is the author of Nashville Predators: The Making of Smashville.
“Our fans, they're amazing,” said defenseman and alternate captain Roman Josi. “Like every time they stand up, and they just keep cheering... And as a team, it gives us that extra boost. And, like I said, the energy. (I) haven't been in a building with that much energy in my life – in my career. So it's unbelievable. And I think you gotta be here to see how it really is.”
He’s right. You have to see it to believe it. And while most tickets to all of the Stanley Cup Final games are already sold out, you’ll be able to watch downtown with thousands of other Predators fans whether it’s a home or away game. So get loud, Smashville. Sports history is being made in your town.
Justin Bradford covers the Nashville Predators for Penalty Box Radio and is the author of Nashville Predators: The Making of Smashville. In 2014 and 2015, he was voted as the best sports reporter in Nashville. Bradford also plays rec-league hockey for the Mighty Drunks at Ford Ice Center. Follow him on Twitter: @justinbbradford.
Cover photo: Nashville Predators fan Luke Maas waves a flag prior to Game Six of the Western Conference Finals. Photo: Sanford Myers.