Players, city excited as return of NHL looms

Predators, Nashville excited as lockout ends and start of long-awaited NHL season is on the horizon.

NASHVILLE –- And on the 113th day of the lockout, they said let their be hockey.

They are NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, who emerged early Sunday morning from a final 16-hour bargaining session in New York City to decree the lockout over and that league players and owners would soon ratify a new collective bargaining agreement just in the nick time to save the season.

And there was great rejoicing in the streets, especially on the ones near where Bridgestone Arena sits in downtown Nashville. That’s where the Nashville Predators will return to action soon, probably as early as Jan. 19 for a home game to open the season. It will begin an abbreviated season of 48 games that will include half as many home games.

“Happy new year to us,” said Rippy’s Smokin’ Bar & Grill manager Terry Weakley, whose business sits on the corner opposite the entrance to Bridgestone Arena. While there are concerts and other downtown Nashville events to go with the tourist lure of the honky tonks on lower Broad, there is nothing like having the Predators playing 45 home games for a full season, counting preseason games, to bolster the coffers.

“Predators fans are real loyal,” Weakley added. “For home games, their fans come in here and just fill this place up. On days when they were supposed to play and didn’t, we’re lucky to have 50 people in here.”

Weakley said his staff grows by eight or more for home games. That reflects the economic impact all of Nashville feels because of Bridgestone Arena events -- especially the marquee tenant Predators -- that is estimated at $410 million annually. Just at Bridgestone Arena alone, there are some 2,300 full- and part-time employees, many of whom work events only and who have felt directly the impact of not having Predators playing home games.

“For the weekday games without the Predators, we are dead,” Weakley said. “It will
be good to have them back. When I heard they were coming back, I was smiling.”

Across the way Monday afternoon in the bowels of Bridgestone Arena, Predators general manager David Poile addressed the media for the first time since the lockout began on Sept. 15. While he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the new CBA, he did offer his feelings on how the lockout had impacted his franchise and its relationship with a fan base that had grown dramatically the past few seasons as the Predators enjoyed postseason success.

“On behalf of myself and our organization, I would like to apologize to the fans and anybody who cares about hockey and, especially, the Nashville Predators,” Poile said. “This was a situation none of us really thought would ever happen. I think we are all disappointed that it turned out the way it did.”

Training camp will most likely open either Saturday or Monday for the Predators, who return the nucleus of a team that finished fourth in the Western Conference standings last season. After eliminating Central Division rival Detroit in the first round, the favored Predators stubbed their toe in the second around against Phoenix despite having home-ice advantage. Still, it marked the second season in a row the Predators had advanced into the second round of the playoffs.

Departing the Predators via free agency to Minnesota during the off-season was star defenseman Ryan Suter. But the Predators did step up to sign its bigger star defenseman, captain Shea Weber, to a 14-year deal worth $110 million. In Pekka Rinne, they have one of the best goalies in the NHL, and the forward lines are solid again behind veterans such as Martin Erat, David Legwand and Mike Fisher.

With little roster turnover and the coaching staff returning intact led by Barry Trotz, the only head coach the Predators have had, acclimating to a short turnaround from training camp and a condensed schedule might benefit the Predators.

“When we left off last year, we were on a pretty good high,” Poile said. “We were disappointed to lose in the second round to Phoenix. We have a lot of belief in our team, and that is shown by the fact we have only a couple of changes in our lineup.”

Earlier in the day across town at Centennial Sportsplex, the official practice facility of the Predators, nearly a dozen players showed to unofficially practice amongst themselves. That group included team captain Weber.

“It’s exciting,” said Weber, who has been in Nashville leading player workouts at a different facility for several weeks. “We’ve been practicing, but it’s not the same. Now, we have something to work for.”

The remainder of the Predators will filter into Nashville over the next several days for the opening of training camp. Four Predators have been playing overseas, including Rinne in the KHL, Russia’s top pro league, and there are several roster regulars currently playing at minor-league affiliate Milwaukee.

“Obviously, we’re very pumped about getting going here soon,” Fisher said. “We know we have to be prepared right away, but every team is the same. We are all in the same boat.

“ … There is no excuse for not being in shape. We all should be ready to go.”

But are the fans ready? In a non-traditional hockey market like Nashville, the psyche of the fan base and corporate support have always been monitored, mostly by those looking from the outside in. Those issues had eroded in recent years on the strength and commitment of strong local ownership led by Tom Cigarran and energetic front-office management on the business side led by chief executive officer Jeff Cogen.

“Sure, I am happy hockey is back, but it shouldn’t have taken this long,” Predators season-ticket holder Marie Meisel said. “I am interested to see how the compressed schedule works out. Every game is going to count. It will be like watching playoff hockey before the playoffs start.”

Meisel said she was coming back as a fan once again for this season because she was committed to helping make the Predators work in Nashville long term.

“I love the fact we have the NHL in Nashville,” she said. “I love the sport. And I can see some of the greatest athletes in the world just 10 minutes from my house.”

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