It’d hard to gauge one’s emotions at a time like this. It’s tough to ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ when you really never have. It’s impossible to determine whether tonight’s Game Four, Western Conference Semifinal tilt between the Nashville Predators and the Vancouver Canucks is the cake, or just the icing.
One thing is for certain: it’s the latest in a series of ‘biggest games in Nashville Predators history.’
Now of course, that’s implying pressure that may or may not really exist; it’s all about whom you’re referring to or which person or persons you’re focusing it toward. From a fan’s perspective, oh BABY, yeah, this is the biggest game eVAR; if from the franchise’s point of view, every game since the Preds’ Round One/Game Six clincher over Anaheim has been nothin’ but gravy. Not that ownership would like anything better than moving as deep into the postseason as possible, but if it doesn’t happen, nobody can or will say that the 2010-11 season has been anything less than a complete success; baby steps are allowed at this point. The catch is, however, should the Preds indeed advance beyond the second round, baby steps are out the door beginning next season. Expectations will be higher. And, of course, we’re speaking strictly in speculative terms here, however that’s the reality of the professional sports world.
Remember the Titans
By way of example, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans struggled through a pair of 8-8 seasons in the transitional years of their move from Houston to Tennessee. Then in 1999, their first season playing all their home games in Nashville, they caught fire, making it into the playoffs as a Wild Card team. They needed a Music City Miracle to move past Buffalo in the playoffs, but they made it to the Superbowl, sending this town into a frenzy, and making everyone believe that it could happen again.
That was eleven years ago. They still sell out every game despite the fact that even in good years of recent vintage they’ve not even come close to returning to the Superbowl.
Not until this most recent season of NFL underachievement has any truly noticeable blush fallen from the rose of fandom for Nashville’s most popular sports team. And that it’s happening at all, I believe, stems as much to from the Predators’ recent success as it does the Titans’ lack thereof.
Fans need a reason to believe; give them one, like a trip to the Big Game, and you’ve got ‘em in the palm of your hand. Constantly bring them to the well without allowing them to drink, and you risk the possibility that they’ll walk away muttering about wasted time, never to return again. We’ve heard a lot from those fans regarding the Predators in recent years.
So while the Predators will be under greater scrutiny to exceed their current performance in subsequent seasons, if they advance beyond their current station, if the support the Titans have received is any measuring stick, the support they’ll receive should give them some wiggle room to continue improving organically and gradually, all while benefiting financially. It’s just the kickstart the franchise has always needed.
The core believers are a necessity to the success of any NHL club — or any professional sports team for that matter — however they’ll never be the force to push that team over the top; that’s the job of the casual fan; the fringe supporter, the guy who may never actually go to a game, but follows closely through the media and reports to all his friends his new-found excitement for his team; it’s the business owner who had never considered using hockey as a potential business incentive, or a means to entertain clients, but now finds himself considering it for the first time, taking advantage of the local buzz. It’s the local sportswriter who admittedly didn’t know a thing about hockey and had never attended a game before, but due to the team’s breakthrough success, attends a single game and becomes instantly hooked. That’s what’s happening in the city of Nashville right now, and that’s the down payment for the future that the Preds are adding with each successive playoff win.
The Predators have an opportunity to continue building a relationship with the fringe fan in this city. Their visibility, both nationally and locally, has never been higher. They’ve already made believers out of media entities who not long ago were avowed enemies to their very existence; however the more important emotion to turn around is simple, local indifference.
Nashville may be playing with house money right now in terms of real accomplishment in the playoff poker game, but every hand they win from here on out is a potential jackpot for years to come.
A Visualization of Preds’ Nation
Imagine for me, if you will, the impact of 35 to 41 home sellouts a year instead of the 16 the Predators enjoyed this season, or the four they had in 2009-10. Imagine if the team could truly afford to spend to the Salary Cap and no longer needed to be a taker in league revenue sharing. Imagine the impact of our city actually becoming a preferred destination for top free agents. Then imagine what kind of vibes might reverberate from all corners of the hockey world, including the one right here at home.
Nashville has already graduated to the status of hockey town, imagine if it were a hockey hotbed.
You really don’t need to imagine all that much, all you need to do is take a gander at the San Jose Sharks, a team that experienced its own difficult beginnings as a non-traditional-market expansion entry in the 90s, yet has now become one of the strongest franchises — in all respects — in the NHL.
Yep, you can say with conviction that just getting to Round Two was the real victory of 2010-11. After all, the Predators are now battling the Stanley Cup favorites, the President Trophy winner, the team everyone expects to be successful; nobody will be surprised if the train stops here.
Nevertheless, the Little Hockey Club That Could continues on up that hill; it hasn’t given up on the journey just yet, and every mile of track it chugs through, carries it exponentially further toward its goal.
Tonight’s isn’t the biggest game in Predators history — every playoff game is; now, and for the future.
I still think I can, I still think I can.
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