Nashville is a non-traditional hockey market, and that’s a great thing

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NASHVILLE — As soon as we got here, it was easy to tell the Predators were in the Stanley Cup Final.

The first “Stand With Us” banner we saw was at the airport. After that, we saw them everywhere. Hanging from the sides of buildings. Out front of the honky tonks. The slogan was even written on our restaurant checks.

So this was the Smashville we’d heard so much about.

To learn more, we needed to talk to a local.

Adam Vingan is the Predators beat writer for The Tennessean newspaper. In 2015, he moved from Washington, D.C., where he’d covered Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals for a number of years. Upon taking the job in Nashville, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.

“In a lot of ways, I was pleasantly surprised,” Vingan told PHT. “I knew they had a very passionate fan base. But the atmosphere, I remember being awed by how good it was, the first game that I covered. And it’s grown from there.”

If you’ve never been — and if you haven’t, you really should — Nashville is not a very big city. It’s definitely growing, as evidenced by all the construction and cranes. But at last count, its metro population was just under two million, ranking 36th in the United States, barely ahead of Virginia Beach.

Best known for its music scene, Nashville hasn’t enjoyed much sporting success. The NFL’s Titans have never won a Super Bowl. In fact they haven’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is hardly an SEC power in basketball or football.

Perhaps that’s why the Preds’ run has been such a big deal here.

“There’s always been an undercurrent of passion and interest in this team in this city,” said Vingan. “Of course, it’s a football-focused town, and a football-focused region in the United States. Football will always rule.

“But as the playoffs have continued, and the Predators have moved on in each round — especially starting with the sweep of Chicago — it’s grown exponentially to the fact you see it whenever you walk around town. You see the flags, you see the people wearing the hats. It’s now everyday conversation, like at the grocery store or among friends at restaurants. I overhear it all the time. ‘Did you see what the Predators are doing? What do you think about the Predators?'”

Game 3 against the Penguins goes Saturday at Bridgestone Arena. Following two disappointing results in Pittsburgh, the Predators are hoping their boisterous fans can help close a 2-0 series deficit.

Vingan said the atmosphere is unlike anything he’s ever seen in an NHL rink.

“I’m not a big college football fan, but living in this area I’ve now come to learn about SEC football,” he said. “It’s a very collegiate crowd. Everyone’s wearing the same color. There’s a lot of chants that they go through. Even when the PA announcer, Paul McCann, says there’s one minute left in the period, they say, ‘Thanks, Paul!’

“I think it does feel like you’re watching an SEC football game. It’s like you strapped skates onto the cleats of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers. That’s what makes this market so great.

“I know that there are teams that find it insulting to be called a non-traditional market. But I think that’s what makes Nashville unique. Because it is non-traditional. You couldn’t take this environment and put it in Toronto or Montreal or New York or Boston. It only works here.”