Mile High Sports

Frei: Nashville is hitting all the right notes as an NHL city

Country music group Rascal Flatts sings the national anthem prior to game one of the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL doesn’t get everything right, but it often doesn’t get enough credit for its successes, either.

One of them is Nashville.

For several reasons.

After the Avalanche-Predators first-round matchup was set, in several places I publicly recommended to Avs fans that if they ever had thought of making a postseason road trip, this should be it.

I heard from some who said they checked into it, but the price of last-minute flights and the difficulty of obtaining tickets ruled it out. They decided they couldn’t swing heading to Tennessee to see Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabe Landeskog and Tyson Barrie take to the ice for the Avalanche’s first playoff series in four years.

That’s too bad.

Bridgestone Arena is on Broadway, adjacent to the row of bars and honky tonks where you can get great barbecue and pecan pie and in many cases hear performers just waiting for that breakthrough, however that’s defined. In some instances, you can catch performers having fun and trying out material after already enjoying commercial success.

Rascal Flatts sang the national anthem before Game 1, as shown above. I had to double-check to make sure I had the right number of t’s in “Flatts.” I won’t be going to Nashville for the CMA Fest in June. But I know that’s big.

My experience in attending games in Nashville always has been positive, and I’ve enjoyed being among the enthusiastic fan base.

One of the misconceptions about Nashville is that it’s only about country music. It isn’t. In so many other ways, it’s a conventional smaller major city, a business hub and a state capital. Believe it or not, there are Nashville folks who are bigger on the Imagine Dragons than Lady Antebellum. Yes, many of the residents have come from somewhere else and, as in Colorado with the Avalanche, they face the decision of retaining former NHL loyalties or adopting the new hometown team.

As this series opened, some media members seemed to be portraying the Preds as a new act in town. Yes, they have expansion franchise roots, but they’ve been around 20 years under the astute leadership of one of the best general managers in the game, David Poile.

It’s not that the Preds were an immediate hit, either, validating the decision to select Nashville as the expansion site. In 2002-03, their fifth season in the league as an expansion franchise, they were last in the NHL in home attendance. As recently as 2007-08, they were 26th … but that was one spot ahead of the Avalanche and the arena’s status as one of the league’s smallest entered into it.

The Preds are a big hit now and while the bandwagon effect is at work to an extent, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s rewarding success. Again, if Avalanche fans try to belittle a Preds’ bandwagon, Colorado’s slide to the lower echelon of the league attendance figures during its regression from the Glory Years is undeniable.

The Preds never been the only game in town, either.

The Titans — still named the Oilers — first played in Nashville in 1998, also.

That said, the Preds now are evidence that the NHL’s Southern / Sunbelt Strategy can work, while also demonstrating the value of not having a full complement of major league franchises in town to compete against for the entertainment dollar and attention.

That’s not only the case in hockey.

In the NBA, among the examples of the limited-competition phenomenon are the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers. And they’re the only teams in town if the Big 4 is defined as the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. (Major League Soccer proponents would quibble about the definition. The popular Portland Timbers, for example, draw more than 20,000 per game and lead MLS in attendance.)

In the NHL, the issue is complicated by the Canadian markets. In other words, do you count the CFL? And despite the fact that some of the Canadian franchises had trouble drawing in down economic times, the interest is guaranteed.

So in looking at just US cities, the NHL markets with either only one other major-league competitor or no major-league competitor at all are Nashville (with an NFL team), Buffalo (NFL), Columbus (none), Raleigh-Durham (none), St. Louis (MLB) and Las Vegas (none). That group has a mixed NHL record. The Golden Knights are a spectacular success in every way and the Seattle (It’s Gotta Be) Totems, with NFL and MLB competition, will do well at the gate, too.

The other aspect of this is that long-time Commissioner Gary Bettman’s growing-the-game concept, mainly for marketing purposes, has worked overall. Empty seats in Sunrise or Raleigh in losing circumstances notwithstanding, going into the non-traditional areas indirectly widened the U.S. talent pool and fan base for the sport, not only the league. NHL players now are coming from traditionally unlikely places — including, but not limited to, Southern California and Arizona. The re-arrival of the NHL in Denver in 1995 and the Avalanche’s success helped accelerate Colorado’s transformation into a youth hockey hotbed.

The Coyotes’ failure in Phoenix, most reasonable folks concede, has as much — or even more — to do with arena location and metro area geography as it does with the Coyotes’ on-ice struggles and the area’s interest in the game.

If Phoenix gets its act together, it could be a hot NHL market, too.

Like Nashville.

Bottom line: If this, as Avalanche-Predators Game 1 seemed to hint, this will be a highly entertaining first-round series, the setting might even have something to do with it.

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Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair,” about 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris and “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” about the landmark 1969 Arkansas-Texas football game and the events swirling around it. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

The man from Saskatchewan has paid his dues … a lot of dues 

Remember when making the playoffs wasn’t so monumental?

How’s this for half full?

The obligations of stardom for MacKinnon, line

An Avs’ playoff berth can be flashback 

Here come the Knights … now and maybe in postseason

Nathan MacKinnon’s MVP talk becoming more legit

Amid March Madness, how the NBA should emulate the NHL 

Nathan, good intentions, bad idea 

Fourteen years ago, Steve Moore played his final game for the Avalanche

Avalanche going into final month in control of own destiny

Is Duncan Siemens becoming more than an “organization” guy?

At least here, NHL trading deadline was much ado about very, very little

Avalanche standing pat wouldn’t be irresponsible inertia

If the NHL stays away again, USA Hockey should be all-collegians

Just your average Harvard guy from West Vancouver

As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs have stayed in the playoff hunt

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible