Saturday, April 05, 2008

Nashville: Where there are, in fact, people who realize that ice comes in more varieties than cubes and chips

WE’RE IN THE PLAYOFFS! Honestly, it seems a little odd to be so excited over clinching our fourth consecutive playoff berth, sitting in eighth place no less. If only you understood the story behind my elation; then you would see me as less of a crazy and more like someone you would like to sit and talk to for hours in sports bar over a couple of beers. Wait…what’s that you say…you’d like to hear my tale? Well, sit back and get comfortable because you’re in for the long haul now.

This story should really start off with the end of the 2003-2004 season, when the Nashville Predators had their first winning season in franchise history that led to the first playoff berth in franchise history. In all honesty, the Nashville team and its fans were just proud to say that we were on the winning side of things so our expectations to make it past the first round were pretty low. Needless to say, I think we were okay that we lost to Detroit our first time out. It wasn’t until after the lockout season of 2004-2005 that things started to get just a little more interesting in the Music City. Predators GM David Poile brought in Paul FREAKING Kariya with a two-year deal that held many promises for the team’s chances at future success and deeper runs in the playoff race.

Cue the 2005-2006 short, Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan and goalie Tomas Vokoun were the key players that everyone counted on to carry this team to the playoffs again. As a sidebar story to this little tale, our number one goalie (KOUN!), was sidelined late in the season due to life-threatening blood clots. All of a sudden, we as fans were forced to come to terms with putting our faith in Chris Mason, our backup netminder. To give credit where it was definitely due, Chris Mason proved to be equally stellar between the pipes and fans rallied around this team to push them onto their second playoff bid, this time against San Jose. However, this match up proved to be no match up at all. It was basically like pitting the Jolly Green Giant against the Keebler Elf. So yeah, San Jose kicked our butts and it became apparent to many that our team was lacking in the size department. This was remedied with the off season addition of Dallas Star’s center Jason Arnott, who at 6’4”, would become the biggest player on our roster.

Enter the 2006-2007 season; labeled by the coaching staff, the front office and even many fans as being “Our Year”…the year we make it to the Stanley Cup finals. To be realistic here, the odds did appear to be stacked in our favor. We had a great team with amazing chemistry; we brought in Peter Forsberg at trade deadline to summarily “seal the deal” and we ended the regular season with a franchise-record 110 points, putting us again in fourth place in the Western Conference and facing the Sharks once again in the first round of playoffs. Hopes were high for pushing past the Sharks in the first round, as this team had been built specifically for this rematch. When the post season proved to be less-than-amazing, the mood in Nashville (and the locker room) left little to be desired. Fans were disappointed, the coaching staff was disappointed and the team felt defeated and deflated.

And then it happened…a day that Predators fans will always keep filed away in their memory banks as one of the defining moments of franchise history. After ten seasons as owner of the Nashville Predators, on May 24, 2007 Craig Leipold announced his intent to sell the team due to continual loss of revenue since the team’s inaugural season. Now this wouldn’t seem such devastating news unless coupled with equally disheartening information and boy did Leipold know how to throw a one-two punch. Not only was he intent on selling the team, he wanted to sell the team to Jim Balsillie, owner of RIM (BlackBerry) Technologies and a man who was not quiet in his determination to bring an NHL team to Hamilton, Ontario. From the time the announcement was made, speculations on what would come to pass ran rampant. Nashville media, already lackluster in its coverage of all things NHL, reported gloom-and-doom stories day after day with not one positive story was being drawn from this situation. Adding to the uncertainty of whether or not there would be hockey nights in Nashville come October, the Nashville roster rapidly diminished fire-sale style with the loss of Scott Hartnell and captain Kimmo Timonen to Philadelphia; the shocking trade of starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun to Florida (we still miss you, Vokie!) and the biggest blow, UFA Paul Kariya signing to divisional rival St. Louis Blues.

In a way though, the media’s negative publicity of the events that swirled around over the following month ended up doing the organization a huge favor by shedding some light on the true validity of certain statements and intentions made by Mr. Balsillie and his lawyer. By June 24th, Craig Leipold had heard enough and pulled out of the sale process with the RIM Technologies CEO and began entertaining other offers. A local ownership group, something that Leipold had been hoping for, made its way to the stage shortly after and negotiations began. A rally organized in part by Save the Predators, a group of fans and Nashville businessmen, was held on July 19th and drew thousands and thousands of Predators supporters to the Sommet Center in what would become a turning point in the momentum of local support. The rally also proved to some naysayers that Nashville was truly a viable place for hockey, contrary to the popular belief that an NHL franchise could not survive in such a non-traditional market. Comparisons were also made to the Edmonton Oilers ground swell of fan support in 1996, when they faced a similar dilemma with their own hockey club. Edmonton became a stronger, more successful franchise through staring down the face of adversity and Nashville was determined to mirror that success. The local ownership group signed a letter of intent with Craig Leipold before the start of the 2007-2008 season and things were finally starting to look up for Predators fans.

But unfortunately our roller coaster ride was far from over. After an impressive two game start, the team went on to garner one of the worst records in the league in October with a six-game losing streak from October 10-25th. Then things started getting better in November and then a little bit not so good again in December and so on and so forth. All the while, Coach Barry Trotz decides to start playing “Rotate the Goalies” when starting goaltender Chris Mason began to lose the confidence of the coaching staff in his ability to be a true starter. So we played backup Dan Ellis until his hot streak ended and then we switched back to Mason and then back to Ellis. Then in March, Trotz called up goalie Pekka Rinne from the Predators AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals to replace both Mason and Ellis in net. Flight delays due to weather and missing equipment issues forced Rinne to the sidelines and Trotz again called upon backup Dan Ellis to rise to the occasion. Ellis has since been privileged to boast the league’s best save percentage and proven himself to be Nashville’s starting goaltender, with Mason watching from the bench.

And now somehow, like the Little Engine That Could, we’ve successfully secured ourselves a spot in the playoffs. If you had asked any of the Predators fans at the start of the season if they could see us in the playoffs again this year, most would have said no. We heard all season long that this was a “rebuilding year” and we would just play out the year and work towards making strides for a better season all around starting in 2008-2009. I, however, would not have been one of those people. I root for the underdogs and I don’t think there could have been a bigger underdog team than the Predators seemed to be this season. Take a bunch of essentially no-name players (well, no-name to people that don’t follow hockey in Nashville), throw in the uncertainty of ownership and a healthy dose of attendance woes and you’ve got a recipe for a generally disappointing season. Yet here we are, ready to take on the Red Wings in a post season appearance that is sure to keep this Predator fan on the edge of her seat for as long as the team will take me along for the ride.

P.S. Props to you if you made it all the way through this post. I feel like I should buy you a cookie now.


Shan said...

Good post. Chocolate chip, please.

It is quite impressive that Nashville made the playoffs. Everyone expected them to be sitting in the West basement.

Anonymous said...

Great Post. I'm rooting for you guys in the playoffs. If we can go 5 and 2 (1 more game left) against the Red Wings then I have faith in you guys.

(I have a taste for ginger snaps. :P)

Kerri said...

It's fun to be the best team in the league, and come in first, and take a stab at the Cup, just like you were predicted to since September.

But there is nothing, short of making it to the Stanley Cup finals, than being predicted like 27th out of 30 and squeaking it into the playoffs. It's such a feel good story, and the players are usually so likeable and they have such a work ethic... I usually root for the Red Wings and probably still will, but best of luck to Nashville, and even if you get swept in the first round, you'll consider this one of the best seasons in your hockey memory.

Shan said...

Yeah, but that feel good story would've felt a little better had it been the Oilers. ;)

Lucky13 said...

I'm jacked that my Western Conf team got into the playoffs. Imagine a NYR-NSH finals!!! I think I would implode.

I feel bad for Jed - he has to sit while his team forges ahead in the post season...

ModelCK said...

Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. Indeed, the whole of Nashville roots and rallies behind what is labeled a lackluster season BUT indeed an overwhelming acknowledgement that the Preds are a force in NHL hockey clubs country wide.

I like White Chocolate and Macadamia Nut cookies. Send them to my address. I'll purchase the milk.