Predators postseason run has turned Music City into Smashville

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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.

 

Video: Minnesota was the perfect place to grow up playing hockey, says Nick Bjugstad

Well before he was a first-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers, Nick Bjugstad developed his skills growing up in Blaine, a suburb of Minneapolis, in Minnesota.

It was the perfect place to grow up playing hockey.

“It’s the State of Hockey for a reason. Everyone loves it there,” he said in an interview for Kraft Hockeyville.

“My family had me in skates when I was like three years old. Lots of people had rinks, always playing street hockey. Lot of little fights that the neighbors got to witness.”

The state of Minnesota is well represented among the West Finalists and in the Top 10 for Kraft Hockeyville.

Bjugstad played his high school hockey for Blaine, before moving to the University of Minnesota for three years. Taken 19th overall in the 2010 draft, Bjugstad has played 278 games for the Panthers, with 62 goals and 128 points.

“I think it made us better hockey players being able to play a lot of street hockey,” he said. “I just love everything about Minnesota. I think eventually one day I’ll end up trying to coach a high school team there.”

NHL looks to China to ‘expand the sport’

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When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games – and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 – will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October, 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorships.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

 

Filppula makes immediate impact for Flyers

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Perhaps when we look back, it’ll be one of those win-win trades.

In sending Valtteri Filppula to Philadelphia, and then flipping Mark Streit to Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning certainly got what they wanted, and that was cap space to sign their pending restricted free agents, which include Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin.

For the Flyers, they got a veteran center in Filppula, with no commitment beyond next season.

“This kid gives us flexibility because centers are really hard to find,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “Most teams have four or five centermen. This kid gives up depth and options. He is highly competitive and competes on pucks. He makes plays.”

Filppula made an immediate impact last night in his Philadelphia debut, going hard to the net to tip home a Brayden Schenn pass. The 32-year-old’s goal tied the game halfway through the third period, and the Flyers went on to beat the Panthers, 2-1, in the shootout.

“He’s a very good player on the puck and he has a heavy stick,” linemate Jakub Voracek said of Filppula, per CSN Philly. “For me and Schenner, it’s important to have the puck on our stick most part of the game.”

The addition of Filppula also allows Sean Couturier to center the third line and focus on a shut-down role. It may even take some of the scoring pressure off Claude Giroux.

With only 19 games left, it’s going to take a strong push from the Flyers to book a spot in the playoffs. According to Sports Club Stats, they’ll have to go in the neighborhood of 12-4-3 to give themselves a good chance.

But this is a team that’s already shown it can get hot and string together a number of wins.

The Flyers kick off a four-game road trip tomorrow in Washington, so they’d better be ready for a test.

NHL players reflect on return of mumps

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The return of the mumps has caught some NHL players by surprise and they are counting on the league being better equipped to deal with the second such outbreak in a little over two years.

“Well, it happened the one time, and guys were concerned about it and thought it was going to be kind of gone forever,” Buffalo Sabres veteran forward Kyle Okposo said Tuesday. “I just hope it doesn’t reach us. I feel for the guys that have it. Just want to make sure that it gets as contained as we can this time.”

The latest outbreak began in Vancouver, where the Canucks announced last weekend defenseman Troy Stecher had been diagnosed while six other players and a trainer were showing symptoms. On Monday, the Minnesota Wild announced forwards Zach Parise and Jason Pominville and assistant coach Scott Stevens were diagnosed with the highly contagious disease and must miss at least three games.

The developments raised concern after what occurred during the first half of the 2014-15 season: 24 players, including Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, representing five teams and two on-ice officials either showed symptoms or were diagnosed with the mumps.

The Wild were also affected in 2014, when five defensemen contracted the virus.

“I don’t know what to say to that. It’s a lot for one team in a few years,” said Wild forward Mikael Granlund, whose brother, Markus Granlund, was among the Vancouver players showing symptoms.

There was enough worry in Minnesota that center Eric Staal wondered of the potential danger of players rubbing gloves against teammates’ faces during the celebration following a 5-4 overtime win against Los Angeles on Monday night.

“If someone had it in that pile, then we all got it,” Staal said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

Wild doctors recently provided players and staff with measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, as they did in 2014. The Wild equipment staff also uses a chemical spray on locker room cubicles each time players come off the ice. And Minnesota is one of 27 NHL teams using a Sani Sport machine to disinfect players’ equipment.

In Vancouver, public health officials have yet to determine where or how Canucks players contracted mumps, Vancouver Coastal Health spokesman Gavin Wilson said. Wilson added the Vancouver region is not showing any signs of a spike in the mumps virus, unlike neighboring Washington State, which had a reported 503 cases already in 2017, as opposed to just 48 last year.

There have been other pockets of outbreaks across the continent this year, including the University of Missouri, which reported more than 320 confirmed and probably cases earlier this month.

From Jan. 1-28, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said there have been 485 mumps infections reported in the United States, which already surpasses the 229 cases reported in 2012. Since 2000, there have been only two years – 2006 and 2016 – in which the number of mumps cases have topped 3,000.

Mumps can be spread by saliva or mucus. The virus has a 12- to 30-day incubation period. It’s typical symptoms are fever, headache, muscle aches and loss of appetite, followed by swollen salivary glands.

The CDC notes that while mumps are “no longer very common” in the U.S., outbreaks do occur particularly in places where people have had prolonged close contact with a person with the virus, such as school, dorms or sports teams.

In an email to The Associated Press, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly wrote it’s unclear what prompted the recurrence. As for how the league is attempting to contain the latest outbreak, Daly wrote: “Education, reinforcement of precautions and booster shots, where necessary.”

Though booster shots work, they are only considered effective 88 percent of the time.

In Buffalo, Sabres equipment manager Dave Williams said a protocol is put into place the moment a player shows any sign of sickness, even when involving what appears to be the common cold. The protocols include having players drink from their own water bottles, using hospital-strength disinfectant laundry detergent to wash the player’s uniform separately.

The first professional hockey-related case of mumps this year occurred last month, when three members of the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate in Albany, New York, contracted the virus.

Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban said there’s very little players can do to avoid getting mumps other than taking precautions.

“Professional sports is where all teams intertwine. We all touch every rink,” said Subban, noting the Predators played both the Wild and Canucks over the past three weeks. “We’ve just been told to make sure our shots are up to date and wash our hands. That’s it. That’s all you can do.”

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AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.