Congratulations, Nashville. The Stanley Cup finals. No city deserves this more.
It has been a privilege to watch the Predators play this year — sneaking into the playoffs, finding ways to grind out games, scoring big goals when it mattered most, sweeping the Blackhawks in the first round … all unforgettable stuff. And really, with such a talented roster and coaching staff, it was only a matter of time before this Nashville team found its way to the finals.
But it wasn’t always so pretty. It took a lot of years and a lot of patience for the Predators to get where they are now. But I don’t have to tell that to Nashville fans. We all remember what it was like in the beginning.
I had no idea what to expect when the Predators selected me with the no. 2 pick in the 1998 NHL draft. Like, truly zero.
I can remember getting asked, “How does it feel to be the first player ever drafted by the Nashville Predators?”
I didn’t know the answer. What does Predator even mean, really? There are like a million predators. And I didn’t know how it felt to be the first guy drafted by a new team — or by an old team for that matter. It’s not like I’d ever been drafted before. I was 18 years old when all of this is happening. I just wanted to put my head down and play hockey.
All I really knew for sure was that I was going to be playing for an expansion team, and I had never been to or heard much about Nashville in my life. Hockey was new there, so I didn’t know if the city would love us or just not know that we existed.
My only job was to play hockey. And I was excited to do that.
When we showed up to our first training camp in September 1998, everything was brand new. The roster literally didn’t exist until the day before I got drafted, when Nashville had picked 26 players in the expansion draft. It was strange. Just a different feeling, being a part of a new franchise with no traditions or way of doing things. “The Predators Way” could be whatever we wanted it to be.
Some pundits said that our odds of succeeding early on were not good, but we tried not to listen to anyone on the outside. We jelled quickly as a team because, like I said, all we wanted to do was play hockey. Really, that was the only thing any of us had any control over.
What about Nashville, though? Was the city really going to embrace a hockey team? People made it out like it was mainly a big country and western city — Johnny Cash and square dancing and stuff like that. I knew the Titans football franchise (who were still then known as the Oilers) had moved to town from Houston the year before, and the city seemed to be responding to them, but would hockey work?
We were an expansion team before the salary cap era, which meant that sometimes we were going up against teams with payrolls three or four times bigger than ours. But to us, it was just a challenge that we had to overcome. At the end of the day, the stats weren’t going to say anything about who was getting paid more.
We went out and gave everything we had, every single night. We were glued together by guys like our captain, Tommy Fitzgerald, and guys like Bob Boughner, Greg Johnson, Andrew Brunette, and Drake Berehowsky. Yeah, we were a brand new franchise, but it didn’t take long before we started playing together like a team. We won 28 games that year. It wasn’t many, but we knew we had an excuse because we were an expansion team — but we also knew we wouldn’t have that excuse for very long.
In the eyes of Barry Trotz, our coach, and David Poile, our GM, we never really were an expansion team. And I think the fans of Nashville appreciated that. We wanted to be winners and we weren’t going to make excuses for not winning. We knew it wasn’t going to ever be easy for us, we just had to have resilience. The approach we had back then, I think, is the same one you see in the Predators organization today.
It took six years. Six years of Nashville fans standing by us before we finally made it to the playoffs.
I remember skating onto the ice for Game 3 of our first-round series like it was yesterday. We had just come back from Detroit — the Red Wings were our archrivals at the time — where we had lost Games 1 and 2. I didn’t know what the atmosphere was going to be like, but I was worried that, because we were already down, the fans wouldn’t be pumped up for the first home playoff game in franchise history.
I don’t really know why I was worried.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever again hear anything as loud as the arena was that night. It was like a volcano had erupted. Like all the seasons of frustration had built up into one phenomenal explosion. I had never doubted that the Nashville fans loved the team, but that night they were the best fans in all of sports.
“Embrace the moment.”
Maybe Coach Trotz or one of the older guys said it first. I can’t remember. But in my mind those words were so important. Embrace the moment. Enjoy the feeling that you’ve accomplished something — even if it only lasts for a short time.
We went on to win the next two games to tie the series, but weren’t able to get out of the first round. We never lost confidence, though — or sight of our goal. And it was after that Game 3 that I had a realization: It really felt like the stronger we played, the more energy we got out of the fans; and the more energy we got out of the fans, the stronger we played. We fed off each other. For the next decade that I spent in Nashville, I tried to make sure the fans always knew that we were going to give them everything we had.
It was a long and sometimes painful process, but our team would continue to get better and push further and further into the playoffs. And every season the fan base in Nashville seemed to be growing larger and more passionate.
In my 956 regular-season and 47 postseason games as a Nashville Predator, I saw a city with an expansion team grow into a legitimate, die-hard hockey town, and a new franchise evolve into a perennial championship contender.
Yeah, Nashville has changed so much since I went there 20 years ago. It’s crazy to even think about it. There’s still Tootsie’s and Legends and Broadway and hot chicken, but there’s so much that’s new and exciting happening now — such great culture, and great people, and now a truly great hockey team.
Nashville deserves this. And the fans there have been waiting a long time.
So embrace the moment, Nashville. There are guys who have spent their whole careers chasing this experience. There are fans who have been waiting even longer. Who knows if this will ever happen again.
Enjoy every part of this, and remember all of the work that it took to get where you are now. It wasn’t easy, and it’s only going to get harder.
Get up, get loud, and get ready for a fight.
It’s the biggest stage of them all. Now it’s time to show the world that there’s no place like Smashville.