It Can Help To Be in Nashville
NASHVILLE--It's been more than 13 years between trips to Music City, and it's interesting to see how it's all turned out.
The last time was back in December, 1997 before the Predators had even played a game, and I was dispatched south to see what this new market in Tennessee, home to the NHL's 27th franchise, might be all about. At that point, the Predators, bought for $80 million, still had to sell 12,000 season tickets by March, 1998 to be allowed to begin operations the next season.
Back then, it was no sure shot, and it has been a long, bumpy ride. This was before the Titans had arrived, and it wasn't clear whether the town was ready for major pro sports, although interviewing Danny Geoffrion, son of Boom-Boom and by then already a Predators season-ticket holder, yielded some prophetic words.
"You have to understand, as I have learned, that in Tennessee things don't happen overnight. Things take time, " he said.
True enough. With my column, we ran a picture of Danny with his kids, including 9-year-old Blake, who is now a 23-year-old forward with the Predators as they try to figure out a way to fight back from a three games to one deficit against Vancouver in the club's first ever foray into the second round of the post-season.
Then, there was one public rink in Nashville and about 400 children playing. Today, there are three rinks and about 2,000 kids registered, and Blake Geoffrion is the first bona fide product of that system to make the NHL.
In Tennessee, things don't happen overnight. But with a little patience, maybe things do eventually happen that last.
Any hockey market - heck, even Phoenix - can look viable and worthwhile at playoff time when excitement is high and the seats are filled. Here, there's tons of enthusiasm, and while you wonder about the viability of a market in which you can buy lower bowl tickets for a Stanley Cup playoff game for $100, they seem to be making it work with continued subsidies from the city, more activity in Bridgestone Arena and, of course, revenue sharing from the NHL.
If there is an advantage to running a team out of here, however, it's the patience a hockey man can have.
GM David Poile, you may or may not remember, turned down overtures from the Maple Leafs to take the job of starting the Preds from scratch. His draft-and-develop, take-your-time, no rush here approach has probably been exactly what has been required given the financial restrictions faced by the team over the years.
It's also easier to take that approach here than it would have probably been in Toronto. You can bring young players along slowly without them being declared instant superstars or total flops before they've even learned what it's like to be a pro.
Take the case of forward Colin Wilson. The Preds took him seventh overall in 2008, two slots after the Leafs took Luke Schenn, three shots before Vancouver drafted Cody Hodgson.
While Schenn and Hodgson have already attracted miles of newsprint for their development paths, Wilson's progress has barely been noticed outside of Nashville. This season, he played 82 games for the team and scored 16 goals, but when the post-season began he found himself a healthy scratch for the first 10 games.
"He didn't take it very well at first," said head coach Barry Trotz, the only coach the team has ever had. "He's doing better now. It's all about the maturation process."
In bigger markets, that would have been a huge story. Coaches would have been roasted for not giving the kid a fair shot, opinions would have been aired as to whether the team had blown the pick, and Wilson would have either had to hide or answer daily queries about why he was on the outside looking in.
He did get into the lineup for Game 4 as an injury fill for Steve Sullivan, a gametime note, rather than a major story locally. Compare that to the experiences of Nazem Kadri, drafted in the same No. 7 slot a year later, and you begin to understand that with less scrutiny and attention comes the ability of teams in certain markets to develop young players without a cloud of controversy and analysis accompanying their every move.
Paul Maurice said much the same earlier this year about Jeff Skinner in Carolina, about how if things weren't going well in a game he could bump Skinner to the fourth line for half-a-game and no one would notice or make a big deal about it.
It's neither good nor bad, just the different challenges, advantages and disadvantages of different hockey situations.
In Nashville, there haven't been many advantages since the team played its first game in October, 1998.
Being able to develop hockey players gradually, however, would be one in a market where things don't happen overnight.