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.
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.
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