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.) Côté—"With fights, you don't have to understand the rules," says Côté, who led the league with seven fighting majors—and goalie Mike Dunham. The trouble is that Côté 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 Sébastien 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.