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Hockey-Tonk Town
Michael Farber
November 09, 1998
Nashville and its biggest country music stars have taken a down-home hankerin' to the expansion Predators
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November 09, 1998

Hockey-tonk Town

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

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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.

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