View From The Bandwagon: Reflecting On That Time Nashville Became A Hockey Town

View From The Bandwagon: Reflecting On That Time Nashville Became A Hockey Town

We were somewhere around Broadway…

There is a certain appeal associated with downtown Music City, USA. A charming mix of tourists and tour guides and musicians and a few locals who dare venture into the madness post 5pm Friday, Nashville caters to everyone.

It’s normal for there to be a crowd, lines even, to get into certain honky tonks and sing along with a cover band that can outplay most any on the planet.

But for six weeks, the streets were Yellow and Blue with spatterings of red and black, then blue and yellow, then orange and black, and finally, black and yellow. The focus pulled away from the bachelorette parties on peddle taverns and into an intense atmosphere surrounding an arena that sold out every single home game for the first time ever.

Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the first ever hosted by this unabashed city, was a wonderful shit show—a spectacle that came with no admission price. If you could get there, you were welcome. No purchase necessary.

Everyone wanted to be a part of it. The national media ran feel-goods on the history of country music and hot chicken and sort of sneered, surprised, that a southern town could host a major league hockey team. If you timed it right, you could walk down Broadway and find Rob and Rex Ryan—a couple of good ol’ boys and bad old coaches—sitting at a table with a sidewalk view at Margaritaville. And if you stuck around long enough, you might even have the chance to get into a fight with them.

The stage turned screen on Broadway

That’s Broadway for you. One night, you’re watching the Nashville Symphony do a mashup of Radiohead and Johannes Brahms in the remarkable Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the next night you’re slamming shots with Kid Rock at Paradise Park.

So you can see how easy it is to be a bandwagon fan of this city. It has a certain positive spirit that’s as energizing as it is addicting. Mix in a title run, and you’ll find the biggest party any town could possibly throw.

Broadway, of course, looked a lot different years ago. Talk to anyone that was around here throughout the last several decades, and they’ll tell you how much it has changed. Downtown wasn’t always a destination, to put it lightly. In fact, even just 10 years ago, Broadway was a different place.

Back then, we used to slip into a shitty little bar on 2nd Ave—our haven from the tourists and country music and a place to get cheap beer and smoke cigarettes and pump dollars into a jukebox that hadn’t been updated in 20 years. One night, specifically on October 7, 2010, that bar played host to my first run-in with the Predators faithful. I remember that date for two reasons: 1) the Twins were hosting the Yankees for Game 2 of the ALDS, and 2) a group by the name of Band of Horses was playing Live on the Green. The show was free, of course, because Nashville.

I figured I could see most of the game before Horses took stage. But then, somewhere around the third inning, all the TVs switched to a hockey game.

“A fucking hockey game??” I remember saying under my breath as I slowly shot an angry gaze at the bartender. Since when does a hockey game take precedence over a playoff series? It was then I caught, out of the corner of my eye, the bright knitted fabric of a hockey jersey. (Or is it called a sweater?)

It dawned on me, this was not the time nor place to question the barkeep’s decision. In fact, I may have been the only one not wearing yellow and blue. (Quick note: the name of the bar was Piranhas, and it’s widely known to be a Pittsburgh bar.) Equal parts impressed and disappointed, I asked for my tab and journeyed down the street hoping to find an establishment willing to satisfy those of us that wanted playoff baseball.

The Twins would go on to get swept, predictably, by the damn Yankees. But the Predators? They would go on to win their first ever playoff series, outing the damn Ducks in six. And me? I, along with my roommate and eventual wife and various other characters, would watch every playoff game that postseason.

Predators hockey wasn’t easy to tune out after that. Even after missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons between 2012 and 2014, sports talk radio kept the buzz alive and the city was painted yellow for every home game. Were tickets easier to come by then? Sure. But that was no measurement of the passion brewing from the heart of Nashville to the millions in the suburbs. Same as now.

Welcome to Hockey Town USA.

All of that passion could be felt as we pushed our way through the crowds for Game 3.

And crowds there were; 50,000 of us, not including the 17,000 with tickets. Some folks camped out next to the closed off sections of Broadway for hours, fighting off the sun and the urge to pour into one of the many establishments that decorate the heart of this city.

The yinzers had a presence. A small one but proud nonetheless. I suppose they kept to the open air of Broadway rather than mixing up with the faithful southerners who are adept at long sessions of overconsumption and sweating out an entire Saturday in crowded honky tonks.

We were there by 2:30pm and nearly every bar and restaurant was at capacity. Five hours until puck-drop. We found refuge at a fairly new spot simply called “The Diner”. It has six floors, two of which are sports bars—the sixth being a fine spot to catch a view with downtown Nashville to your left, and Nissan Stadium to you right, while slurping down oysters and seared ahi tuna.

Things could have gone any which way. What if they lost? Would we destroy this place? Would we drink until every bottle was dry and the streets filled with bodies? How, in the name of sanity, would we find our way home? I could tell, from the nonsense on Broadway to the soft faces in the bar, most of these folks had never experienced anything like this. And with the right spark, things could go terribly wrong.

Or terribly right. The Preds arose victorious on that historic day. In fact, they beat the snot out of the defending champs to the tune of 5-1 while also tossing five catfish onto the ice. Already down two games to none in the series, this one felt like the greatest victory in the history of this city, at least of those that spill into Broadway. I know, many of you are peering down at the screen over your glasses with the same sneer that outsiders express when they learn Nashville has a pro hockey team. The Music City Miracle is, without a doubt, one of the most important sporting moments of this great city. But it was merely 16 lucky seconds of an entire season. Whereas the Game 3 victory was 60 minutes of Nashville greatness—one that was built on the back of sweeping the Blackhawks to open the postseason, and one that dwarfed a full day of bedlam outside of the arena’s gates, including free celebrity concerts and an excess of pomp and circumstance. Never has downtown been so loud. So alive. So taken with novelty, that even non-sports fans couldn’t help but scream a little. A spectacle of which no words will satisfy.

We probably should have gone home right then, but naturally, we celebrated by cramming into Bar Sovereign and lifting cocktails made by pros who never in this world thought their glorious bar would have a line around the corner. Outside, the temperature dropped just enough to make way for the buzz that laid claim to this city weeks ago, as if Game 4 was already in the books and we were on our way to Pittsburgh, two-all.

The whistle heard around the world.

As we took the elevator to the sixth floor of The Diner for Game 6, things felt different. There were, after all, some 70,000 people in town for CMA Fest. And this time, we had to win.

It was packed, of course. Even the famous catfish thrower of Game 1 was there. We managed to cram a pair of bar stools together between fans that were resting until the big acts took stage later in the evening. Country music is a hell of a thing. A festival that gathers tens of thousands of folks in a central location that celebrates country music is another hell of a thing. A Game 6 on the same grounds and in the same bars? My word. “And someone’s giving booze to these goddamn things!”

I challenge you to find a similar occurrence of pop culture, music culture, and sports culture colliding on a single afternoon in the blazing sun. If Game 3 was a shit show, Game 6 was the shit circus.

Cell service was of no use. We planned on that. The bartenders were overwhelmed. We planned on that too. The clientele was overstimulated. That’s actually normal. But I can tell you that whatever you do for a living, whatever you’ve been through, until you’ve worked the sixth floor of a packed bar with inexperienced tourists yelling at you for drinks from a crowd six or seven deep, and 100 hockey fans camping out taking shots of every bottle in sight, you’ve never taken a breath of hell’s kitchen. You don’t even know what it smells like. And it should be noted that our bartender, a beautiful woman from, I’m guessing, deep Alabama, was several months pregnant. Take a minute and let that wash over you.

The atmosphere downtown was, in a word, chaotic. Folks were nervous. The disaster from Game 5 never left the lips of thirsty cup-seekers. Confidence was high, but so was apprehension.

The bar fell to silence as Faith Hill took center ice and sang the national anthem. Everyone, from hockey fans to country music fans agreed that for this brief period of time, we were united. CMA festival goers and Smashville-faithful nearly holding hands as her beautiful voice filled every bar and every ear. We did not speak. Some didn’t breathe.

It didn’t occur to any of us, at least not at this bar and not at this time, that she was the same Faith Hill who sung the national anthem for Super Bowl XXXIV in the year 2000, the Titans’ one and only Super Bowl appearance. The one they lost by falling three feet short of the goal line. One. Miserable. Yard.

How tragically poetic. How impossibly familiar. How eerily ironic.

Sissons alleviated all of it when he, after a full period in which the Predators looked like the better team but both remained scoreless, punched the puck into the back of the net. But unlike Kevin Dyson coming just a few feet short of breaking the imaginary plane, an imaginary whistle found its way out of the ref’s throat, one who was out of position and assumed a frozen puck.

My friends, I cannot remember a time when Nashville was so collectively angry. So ready to challenge the system and burn the books and smash the ceilings. Dumbfounded. Again. The bar, now a little thinner and a little drunker, was not pleased.

But we caught our breath as the second period expired. It was a fine time to take in the scene. Tied at zeros, I found a small balcony at the back of the bar. By leaning out, you could hear the murmur of an anxious hockey crowd to the left, and to the right, you could see a booming light show of CMA Fest headliners at Nissan Stadium, as thousands of fans traversed the Cumberland River by way of the pedestrian bridge.

A few blocks up Broadway the Predators were 90 seconds away from forcing overtime and maybe, dare I say, most likely, a Game 7.

And that’s when the music stopped. That’s when the unthinkable ripped itself from silence and claimed a plot in the graveyard of painful sports moments belonging to the great state of Tennessee. That’s when the puck found its way behind Pekka Rinne and into the bottom of the net. The whistle did not blow. Offsides was not called. Instead, white jerseys gathered in front of an exhausted goalie whose biggest crimes were left in Pittsburgh.

The crowd fell silent with anger and mumbling, like The Tackle was being played over and over again. This time, it wasn’t a yard that separated victory and defeat. It was a series of failed opportunities, and a pair of goals that were deemed unworthy. One in Game 1. And another in Game 6.

That’s how we’ll always remember it.

Downtown Nashville is a hell of a sight even on a normal Sunday night. On this night, it was a different creature. From lower-Broad to rooftop bars near the Gulch, I swear you could hear a universal “let’s go Predators chant” long after the game expired and the series ended. Or maybe it was “thank you Predators.” I couldn’t tell; maybe a bit of both. I just know it broke out in the bar even after so many fled to their homes to await a miserable Monday morning. For just a few minutes though, as we made our way through the crowds and found solace on the corner of Korean Vets Blvd and 3rd Ave., one long block away from the Stone, the spirit of a season like no other, in a city like no other, took center stage for one last time before giving way to business as usual.

If you were to go downtown right now, set the over/under of the number of bachelorette parties to 20 and take the over. That’s the kind of place this is. One that opens its arms to everybody and provides a Las Vegas atmosphere minus the degenerates and elitists.

And good luck hating this city. It’s no shock that 100 people, on average, move here every day. So I guess it shouldn’t be a shock that we all jump on the local team’s bandwagon during the middle of a title run. And staying true to form, the hardcore fans welcomed their bandwagoning counterparts without judgement. Southern hospitality at its finest.

Congrats Penguins. We envy your back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. But that’s about it.

Oh, and good luck, everyone, buying Predators’ tickets for the next decade. This is, after all, a hockey town.



Published by Justin Bonnema

My name is Justin. I write for a living and sometimes for free. I enjoy cats, sports, cocktails, food, TV, movies, and technology. Most agree that I'm a margarita expert.

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