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How the Nashville Predators built a fan base in the heart of college football country

Seventeen years after they were conceived as an NHL expansion franchise, the Nashville Predators have carved out a devoted, loyal, uniquely southern fan base -- hockey purism be damned.

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NASHVILLE -- The man walks out, microphone in hand, and the national anthem begins with little warning. Most of the assembled fans expected any one of the usual local country music staples, but instead Nashville mayor Karl Dean quickly urges the entire crowd to join together and sing along.

This infuriates the small pockets of red. Chicago Blackhawks fans have a custom of cheering loudly through the national anthem, and the noise carries when their bandwagon travels. Nashville has plotted all week to again "Keep The Red Out," a seasons-long initiative to stifle visiting and transplanted 'Hawks fans from being seen and heard inside Bridgestone Arena. Physical copies of Western Conference Playoff tickets were first sold exclusively at local grocery stores. Online purchases required a credit card upon entry, an attempt to block secondary market sites like StubHub from letting Chicago fans swarm scalpers. StubHub responded in turn, rallying to help Chicago fans get into Games 1 and 2 in Nashville.

The tactics have been playfully downplayed in public. On Monday Predators president and COO Sean Henry smiled away a suggestion of any coordinated campaign against a national fan base like Chicago's.

"I'm not sure what the byproduct of growing your own culture might be," Henry said. "Nashville is a fantastic hockey town. For any team that has such strong local support as this one, the most dominant color in an arena is your own logo. So, hey, I don't know what that means for someone not wearing gold."

Nashville has sold out a club record 30 NHL games this season. The franchise has put $36 million back into Bridgestone Arena, America's "Venue of the Year" as voted by Pollstar. That's significant because of the new structure of the team's deal with the arena and the city. When Bridgestone Arena is busy housing concerts or the SEC basketball tournament, the revenue goes back to the building's primary tenant -- the Predators, now a profitable entity according to Forbes.

Just as the crowd's rendition of the anthem reaches the crescendo of "home of the brave," one of three blonde women, each in form-fitting Patrick Kane jerseys, each clapping loudly in vain, has had enough.

"So ridiculous. It's disrespectful," she says.

"Lord, really? Y'all gotta be kidding me," a Predators fan above her replies. He has previously polled everyone in his section for Skoal, and has turned up nothing thus far.

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At the far end of the arena, a fan sneaks down to the glass and heaves a catfish -- presumably deceased -- onto the ice. A maintenance member scoops it up and raises the fish above his head. The crowd roars. The catfish heave was born as a response to former division rival Detroit's octopus tossing, as the first roots of Nashville's hockey fandom were built largely on the Michigan auto workers who emigrated to the nearby General Motors plant during the 1990s. That group is affectionately known as "Predwings." Henry says they're now almost totally converted to gold.

Six minutes and seven seconds later, Nashville center Colin Wilson takes a deflected puck and charges down the ice, splitting Chicago defenders and scoring the game's first goal. The building erupts and fans wave gold T-shirts with the word NISSAN across the back, another major employer in the area.

A chuga-chuga drum beat starts from the Jumbotron. Chicago fans start to notice. Is that... in a black cowboy hat... and a bright gold Predators jersey...

"Is that Tim McGraw?" says a Chicago fan.

"I like it / I love it / I want some more of it"

"I try / So hard / I c'aint rise above it"

The Nashville fans sing along.

"Don't know what it is 'bout those Predators scoring / But I like it / I love it / I want some more of it."

The audio cuts to the bridge of "Gold on the Ceiling," by Nashville residents The Black Keys. Instead of clapping to the beat, the fans have developed their own tradition.


Thirteen minutes later Chicago goalie Corey Crawford is drawn far out of position and Viktor Stalberg flicks in the second goal. It's now 2-0.

Arena security guards start high-fiving. A group of 'Hawks fan in line for beer stand in silence as the ritual starts again.

Chugga chugga chugga...

"Oooh, my gad. They play Tim McGraw. Every time," one says.

Behold, this hockey purist's hell: Catfish tossing from NASCAR fans debating icing calls. Ribbon video boards on every feasible surface that help push revenue: loud, flashy advertising touting the pillars of middle Tennessee's economy -- Nissan, Jack Daniels, Vanderbilt Hospitals and even Goo Goo Clusters.

And music. The building's mandate is that if there isn't live hockey at any given moment, there's live music: As fans enter the arena at the mouth of 5th and Broadway, Nashville's honky tonk tourist strip, there's a live band at the front entrance. Inside the arena there's a stage perched above the lower bowl so that between periods a rotation of local musicians deafen the building at a concert level . Tonight it's former Kansas lead singer and local record producer John Elefante, taking "Dust In The Wind" straight in to "Wayward Son."

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When the Predators score, the building jumps. When they're playing flat (and soon will be), the crowd surreptitiously picks a moment during play stoppages to start a standing ovation for the team, confusing the hell out of the visitors. This demeanor of homegrown Nashville hockey fans has become a curiosity to the sport's national media and a point of ridicule among "classic" fan bases. Like Chicago.

"Canadians treat hockey like a religion because Canadians believe they invented the sport, which they basically did. But when you treat hockey like a religion, the atmosphere is the same, like going to church," said Terry Crisp, a two-time Stanley Cup winner in the "Broad Street Bullies" era Philadelphia Flyers and the first head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Crisp, an Ontario native, has spent the better part of his career as a coach and analyst in "non-traditional" markets. He and Predators' play-by-play man Peter Weber were tasked with conducting "Hockey 101" seminars for fans when the team was founded.

"I tell ya, I wish we would've taped 'em, I really do, just to see how far our fans have come. There was never a doubt that sports fans in the South weren't smart. Look at all the kinds of sports they love. It took some time, especially on-the-fly shift changes. It wasn't icing that they didn't understand, it was changing a line during play. There's no comparison for that in football or baseball or basketball," Crisp said.

Rousing as it might be, the greater "Tim McGraw experience" isn't why the Predators have survived. That would be GM David Poile, known nationally as the architect of the 2014 U.S. Olympic hockey team and in hockey circles as a wizard of doing more with less, often in the face of great uncertainty in the owner's box.

There was never a doubt that sports fans in the South weren't smart. -Preds broadcaster Terry Crisp

When Nashville landed a NHL franchise in the league's four-team 1997-'98 league expansion, the move defined the hubris of hockey's aspirations of Sun Belt manifest destiny. At the time Nashville was the smallest "Southern" market to house a NHL team at just at a million residents in the metro area. A good gauge on the Predators' long and tumultuous ownership history: At one point the team had a minority shareholder named Will "Boots" Del Biaggio, a California tech financier who scammed multiple banks out of over $50 million and is now in federal prison. "Boots" spoke openly about wanting to move the Predators to Kansas City in 2007, even soliciting interest in luxury box sales at the newly built Sprint Center. And yet, "Boots" Del Biaggio is, at best, only the second-most loathed man in franchise history.

The first will forever be Jim Balsillie, an Ontario businessman and central casting corporate villain who failed three times to purchase a NHL franchise, once in Nashville. The self-described "quant-jock from Peterborough who never quits" wanted a franchise in suburban Ontario so badly that he set up a Hamilton Predators web site, selling over 15,000 deposits on season tickets. Balsille also sold out 80 corporate luxury suites, all without actually purchasing the team. The stunt backfired in 2007 when the NHL took him out of consideration and Nashville rallied city-funded incentives to help keep the ownership group local. Meanwhile, Poile scrambled to keep a winning team on the ice while free agents like Paul Kariya bolted for more stable franchises.

Wednesday marked the Preds' eighth trip to the playoffs in 16 seasons, with this season's 104-point finish bearing Poile's latest reclamation: Barry Trotz, head coach since the franchise's inception, was let go after a two-year playoff drought in favor of former Philadelphia Flyers head man Peter Laviolette. Long known for stalwart defensive play -- defenseman Shea Weber is arguably the franchise's most important player in history -- the grinding, forechecking Predators became faster and more offensive. And as a byproduct, the team on the ice became more fun to watch for casual fans.

"Winning pays the bills, first and foremost. And Barry will forever be loved, but action and offense generates interest," said Charley Jordan, a Predators fan since '98.

Jordan is an U.S. Army pilot who drives 65 miles from Clarksville, Tenn., to watch each game wearing blue and gold face paint and a gold kilt.

Peter Laviolette's offensive style is certainly easier to sell than the beloved Barry Trotz's grinding defense-first mentality. (USA Today Sports Images)

"You might hear a question once in a while about an offsides call, but things have changed so much since the beginning." Jordan's grandfather was a North Dakota native who loved the Minnesota North Stars. When they moved to Dallas, Jordan picked the local team instead. He's watched the fan base wane and rise through uncertainty, and he's a proponent of the Tim McGraw mystique.

"You have to win, and then after that you have to entertain. When Sean Henry and his guys came in, they got it. Those guys are masters at motivating energy in that arena."

There's no greater demand for that when the Blackhawks swap goalies down 3-0. Scott Darling replaces Crawford and Nashville loses center Mike Fisher to a lower body injury in the second period. In one period Chicago comes back to tie the game. Then, silence on the ice. The music goes, the crowd prompts itself, and everything goes to script except for the hockey. Through double overtime, Chicago and Nashville remain scoreless. Darling stops 42 shots, and a long Duncan Keith shot broke through to end the game. The Blackhawks took Game 1 in a four-goal comeback on the road.

Outside the arena, transplanted Chicago fan and Tennessee resident Sean Mojzis smoked a cigarette while poking holes in the "Keep Out The Red" attack. Friday's Game 2 will bring many, many more 'Hawks fans into the building both by virtue of the series' momentum and the weekend.

"Nashville's a great town. I love it here. They're still new to all this, and the ploy to try and take home ice advantage ends up being kind of funny and childish. This is a well-traveled city. Why not let people come visit it?"Blackhawks chants come with frequency and volume. The band stages are broken down, the visiting team's fans are set to invade the Lower Broadway bars. A woman in a homemade yellow T-shirt honoring Predators goalie Pekka Rinne -- "CHICKS DIG A BIG PEKKA" -- tries to start a chant against the Chicago celebration.

There is gold everywhere, a fact of itself that qualifies as a win for the organization. And the sweaters. Oh, that ugly, ugly Nashville Predators hockey jersey. The logo itself stems from the discovery of a sabre-toothed tiger fossil in downtown Nashville in 1971.

When Henry and new chairman Tom Cigarran revamped the team's branding in 2011, the dominant color became bright yellow -- "gold" per the marketing team -- with piano keys lining the collars and a guitar pick on the shoulder. The goal wasn't to shy away from the gaudy look of a non-traditional logo in a non-traditional market. Nashville wanted to lean in to the concept of non-traditional. To explain, Henry pulls out his cell phone.

"Here's a picture of my son at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit wearing a Predators jersey? See that? You can't help but see that gold. It's just like down here in the SEC. Fans might not love orange, and some fans hate it. But they know what it means -- Tennessee. It's the same concept. Whether you're in Nashville or anywhere else in the NHL, now you can't help but see the Predators."