Preds play for keeps in Nashville

Country music. Honky tonks. The Grand Ole Opry.

Hockey?

More than 14 years ago, many shook their head as the NHL awarded expansion franchises to the untapped markets of Nashville and Atlanta, a pair of cities sitting a mere 250 miles apart in the Cotton Belt — and another 1,000-plus from the sport’s traditional beginnings.

Today, one of those clubs is thriving. The other no longer exists.

"Our city is a great city that embraces sports and I think where our rink is downtown, you have a really good vibe downtown and it became the place to come to," said Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz. "Atlanta doesn’t have the same downtown atmosphere. The city has really embraced us, they recognize us as one of their own."

Yep, there’s a tradition developing in Nashville, and it’s suddenly becoming as regular as a tour stop by Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood: watching Predators playoff games. After losing its second NHL team in 31 years, Atlanta has also developed a tradition, but one, thankfully, with no future: being a feeder system for Canadian franchises.

Powered by an unprecedented organizational stability and an underrated fan base, the Predators have proven that hockey does, in fact, belong in central Tennessee. And while no one is about to confuse David Legwand for Tennessee Titans star Chris Johnson, the Preds have created their own niche, and actually been more consistent than their mainstream brother, the Titans, who moved to the city at the same time.

Even though the true measure of success in the NHL is a Stanley Cup — and the Predators haven’t come close to that yet — it’s hard to argue that the club hasn’t already surpassed expectations in Nashville.

A rabid and still growing fan base sold out Bridgestone Arena 16 times during the 2010-11 regular season — 12 more than the year prior — plus another six times during the playoffs. The Predators have become a postseason mainstay despite consistently ranking near the bottom of the league in payroll. They are one of only four teams (Calgary, Detroit, San Jose) to win at least 40 games every season since the 2004-05 lockout and are coming off their first appearance in a conference semifinals.

But where the Predators have truly set themselves apart from just about every other professional sports franchise is their remarkable stability: Nashville has had only one general manager, head coach and goaltending coach since the team’s 1997 inception.

GM David Poile joined the Predators after serving in the same capacity with the Washington Capitals for 15 years and hired Trotz to be the team’s first — and, thus far, only — head coach. By contrast, the New York Islanders have had 11 coaches during Trotz’s time in Nashville, and even Calgary — a far more successful team — has had eight, including three Sutter brothers.

Trotz, the second-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, holds the record for most games by the first coach of an NHL franchise. He was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the second consecutive season in 2010-11.

"When I got the job, I was just looking to be coach for a year," Trotz said. "But we did OK, and we were more competitive than people thought we would be. We went through some tough times but we had a very competent general manager."

The stability doesn’t end in the front office or behind the bench.

Legwand was the team’s first draft pick in 1998 — taken second overall behind Vincent Lecavalier — and is entering his 13th season with the club. Not surprisingly, he is the franchise leader in virtually every offensive category.

"There are no knee-jerk reactions," Trotz said. "If you look at winning percentages since the lockout, the most stable front office, coach, GMs, those type of situations, those teams probably have the best combined records since the lockout."

Trotz hasn’t had many stars to lean on, but has found ways to win with lesser-known role players and a defense-first system. Sure, Paul Kariya was around for a couple of seasons and Peter Forsberg played 17 games for the team in 2007, but those two were nearing the end of their respective careers by the time they arrived in Music City.

Defense and goaltending are what really have carried the Predators, and an unsung hero in that regard is goalie coach Mitch Korn, who joined Nashville after helping Dominik Hasek win four Vezina and two Hart Trophies for the Sabres in the ’90s.

It’s not hard to see why the Predators have kept Korn around. Under his tutelage, Nashville has become something of a goaltending factory, producing quality netminders year after year. Starting with Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun — and on through Chris Mason, Dan Ellis and current starter Pekka Rinne — goaltending has always been a major strength for the Predators.

Rinne — an eighth-round draft pick in 2004 — was a Vezina Trophy finalist this past season, finishing third in the league with a 2.12 goals-against average while adding six shutouts.

"I think he’s just one of those exceptional teachers," Trotz said of Korn. "He’s one of those guys that takes a goaltender and says ‘OK, these are your strengths and these are your weaknesses,’ and comes up with a game plan to hybrid their style to be effective for them."

That’s in stark contrast to what happened with the NHL’s second foray into Atlanta with a Thrashers team that perennially struggled to find quality goalies — and attract quality fans.

Atlanta is a sprawling metropolis of over 5 million, whereas Nashville maintains a relative small-town feel with a population of 1.5 million. Because of this, Predators fans feel more connected to their team than Thrashers fans ever did. Atlanta’s well-earned reputation as a second-class sports town certainly didn’t help either.

The Predators started as a low-budget, hardworking team and have maintained that identity, making them easy for people to embrace. The Thrashers, meanwhile, never settled on what type of team they wanted to be despite having stars Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.

Still, there remains no better way for a young franchise to cement itself into the fabric of a community than success. Atlanta was consistently one of the NHL’s worst teams and made the playoffs just once in 11 seasons, never winning a postseason game. That, and a lack of committed ownership, spelled doom and led to the Thrashers being sold and moved to Winnipeg in June — 31 years after the Atlanta Flames went to Calgary.

"We’ve been extremely good at fielding a competitive team," Trotz said. "We haven’t been a team that was ever lousy or hit rock-bottom, we’ve never done that. We’ve always inched our way forward."

Besides the work involved in building a quality club from scratch, Poile and the Predators faced other obstacles trying to make hockey work in a place where natural ice is in short supply. Most fans in Nashville had never seen the sport, so original owner Craig Leipold made educating fans a top priority.

"When we first got there, people had never seen hockey and I remember they used to stand the whole warmup. They didn’t understand. We had to do a ‘Hockey 101’ clinic the whole summer," Trotz said. "I think my coaching staff and players have embraced Nashville and Nashville has embraced the players and it’s become a win-win situation."

Fans almost didn’t get a chance to develop that relationship when Leipold decided to sell the team in 2007, sparking rumors that the franchise would move to Kansas City or Southern Ontario. After months of back-and-forth with several potential buyers, a local group headed by David Freeman reached an agreement to purchase the team and the sale was approved in November of that year.

"Our mayor when we came to Nashville originally, and the mayor that’s there now, mayor Karl Dean, has really recognized what the Preds bring to Nashville economically and with the little bit of swagger," said Trotz, a Winnipeg native who is well aware of the far-reaching effects of a city losing a sports franchise.

"I think when (Winnipeg) lost its team, it lost its swagger . . . I was (recently) in Winnipeg for my mom and dad’s 50th. Winnipeg’s got its swagger again. Pro sports in communities, especially in smaller communities, they get a little swagger from it."

With hockey now entrenched in Nashville, it’s time for the team to take the next step and contend for the Stanley Cup. Whether that happens or not depends on the same people who have brought the franchise to this point — Poile, Trotz, Korn, Legwand and captain Shea Weber, who was recently awarded $7.5 million for the upcoming season, the highest amount handed out in NHL arbitration.

"His goal, as is the Predators’ goal, is to win the Stanley Cup," Poile said. "My vision, hopefully in the near future, is Shea raises the Stanley Cup in a Predators uniform."

That would bring enough swagger to make even Dolly Parton proud.