NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The place known as Smashville is ready for its close-up.
The Nashville Predators have reached their first Western Conference final in franchise history and that has spread hockey fever far beyond their arena and the team’s loyal legion of fans. Stars from Carrie Underwood to Lady Antebellum are lining up to sing the national anthem and the likes of John Hiatt to Lee Greenwood are singing with the house band during intermissions.
Not only do Predators’ flags and banners drape Nashville’s famous honkytonks, they now hang from front porches in the suburbs of Music City.
“You can’t drive through a neighborhood without seeing a flag,” Predators president Sean Henry said. “So it’s fun to tap into a passion that this community has for sports, and right now it’s all about the Nashville Predators.”
College football may be king in the South and NASCAR remains popular, but hockey certainly has a foothold. It’s not unusual anymore for a Southern team to be in the mix for a Stanley Cup championship – this just happens to be the first time that Nashville has made it this far.
The Predators are on their best run postseason yet and the longest by either of Nashville’s two major league franchises in 14 years. Shoot, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans haven’t reached the playoffs since 2008 and last reached the AFC championship in 2003.
That’s why most TVs were tuned to hockey at a local barbecue joint after the Predators ousted St. Louis in six games . People wanted to watch Nashville’s next opponent, either Anaheim or Edmonton.
Nashville native and PGA golfer Brandt Snedeker said he’s never seen so much yellow walking around downtown before Game 4 against the Blues. Everyone in his child’s class at school has Predators’ gear, too.
“To feel the energy on the ice was unlike anything I’ve felt in sports before,” said Snedeker, who brought the Ryder Cup with him to the game. “It was such a dynamic, electric atmosphere to see all that energy in one place pulling for one team and doing something only Nashville would do in the right way … it was awesome to watch.”
The Titans have been very supportive. Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray stirred up fans waving a rally flag for one game, while coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson regularly wear Predators’ gear. During a rain delay, the Triple-A Nashville Sounds showed the Predators’ playoff game a few blocks away on their guitar-shaped video board. The Vanderbilt Commodores watched the end of Sunday’s clincher on their own video board after their own game.
Former Bills and Jets coach Rex Ryan is a season-ticket holder who attended playoff games in St. Louis and Nashville. Former Titans coach Jeff Fisher also was at a recent playoff game.
“People just want to be with this team, and we just love this fan base,” Henry said.
The Predators also are benefiting from youth hockey programs in this non-traditional market, and now former skaters are buying their own tickets. They’ve now sold out 55 consecutive games, including every luxury suite this season.
About 70 percent of the Predators’ tickets are sold outside the city’s home county, with up to 20 percent of those coming from outside of Tennessee.
Matt Clark, a 30-year-old human resources manager, drives down from Louisville, Kentucky, for two to three games per month for the past three years. He grew up playing hockey in Roanoke, Virginia, where his favorite ECHL player was Terence Tootoo whose brother, Jordin, played for Nashville. Clark said the Chicago and Detroit jerseys he used to see in the stands are gone now, replaced by Predator gold.
“I’ve been to a lot of hockey stadiums, and it’s definitely up there at the top,” Clark said. “Every time I go the atmosphere’s pretty electric. Definitely one of my favorite things about it is during the TV timeouts when everybody stands and cheers at the top of their lungs to encourage the team.”
Fans make Bridgestone Arena so loud that a radio engineer measured the decibel level at 121.7 late in Nashville’s last home game. The NHL may have bigger buildings than Nashville, whose official capacity is 17,113. The Predators insist none is louder.
“They’re on their feet the entire game,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “You don’t see that at a lot of hockey games. It almost feels like a college football game of some kind.”
Tapping Underwood for the national anthem this postseason was pretty easy since her husband, Mike Fisher, is team captain. Who’s singing the anthem now is a closely guarded secret with artists offering to help out as the good times roll in Smashville.
“It’s great to see that the whole hockey world realizes how big of a hockey city this is,” defenseman Roman Josi said.