Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
The Blues return to the friendly confines of the Trade Stocks Center already feeling the effects of a shortened schedule as they play their fourth game in only six days. All the matches thus far have been against divisional rivals so thankfully travel has been abbreviated. The boys should be ready and eager to rock and roll against the visiting Nashville Smilodons tonight.
Huh? The what's?? Aren't they the Predators???
Well, a Smilodon is a saber-toothed cat (not a tiger), an extinct genus of machairodonts (carnivorous feline mammals), endemic to North America during the Pleistocene epoch. A partial Smilodon skeleton was dug up in downtown Nashville in 1971 during construction of a bank building and the historical significance and resulting civic pride was not lost upon new owner Craig Leipold, a Wisconsin businessman, and local investors when they purchased an NHL expansion team for the city in June, 1997. In September the group unveiled the new (and current) logo, a Smilodon. A fan contest was then held to name the team. Apparently Smilodon would just not do. The three finalists in the contest were Ice Tigers, Fury and Attack. They were all so terrible that Leipold added his own submission, Predators. No one was surprised when it was announced the club would be known as the Nashville Predators. Of course, the absolutely perfect name for this franchise in Music City would have been the Nashville Cats, especially with the logo being that of a cat. Yet, it was just not to be, as perhaps the fear of a lawsuit by the Lovin' Spoonful deterred that moniker.
The NHL realigned in 1998 in order to accommodate the new-born Predators. Six geographic divisions were now organized into two conferences, erasing the last vestiges of the traditional four-division structure. Traditionalists lamented the loss of the Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe divisional names while Commissioner Gary Bettman claimed new, younger fans didn't care and anyway, it didn't sell tickets. Nashville found itself in the Central Division of the Western Conference along with Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, just as it is today.
For an expansion team, the Predators did fairly well under General Manager David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz, both of whom are still with the team fifteen years later. Former Blue Cliff Ronning led the team in scoring that inaugural season. He was joined by former Blues Blair Atcheynum, Darren Turcotte, J.J. Daigneault and goaltender Chris Mason. Nashville made the playoffs for the first time five years later. Any momentum was wiped out by the lockout the following year, yet the Preds came roaring out in 2005, winning their first eight games in a row. Mason led them into the playoffs with home-ice advantage, however, they lost to San Jose in the quarter-finals in five games. The following year Nashville beefed up by adding centers Jason Arnott (free agency) and Peter Forsberg (trade with Philadelphia) yet lost again to the Sharks in the quarter-finals.
As the team (and attendance) floundered in the doldrums, rumors began that the franchise was for sale/relocation. In May, 2007, it was reported that Leipold reached a tentative agreement to sell the club to Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of RIM (BlackBerry smartphone), who would relocate the franchise to either Hamilton, Ontario, or a suburb of Toronto. This was problematic for the NHL as both the Maple Leafs and Sabres would have to be compensated for an infringement on their territorial rights to the region. Also, the NHL hated Balsillie and blackballed him. Another group headed by San Jose venture capitalist William "Boots" Del Biaggio III then stepped in with an offer to buy the Predators and move them to Kansas City's fabulous new Sprint Center. In the end, a local group of investors (including Del Biaggio) headed by David Freeman reached an agreement with Leipold and the City of Nashville in November, 2007, to purchase the franchise for $172M, including repayment of $61M in debt and $2.2M in fees and taxes. Of added interest is that Del Biaggio was later convicted of fraud in 2008 and sentenced to just over eight years in prison.
Attendance didn't improve until 2010-11 when a vastly improved club advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, led by Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne. Although the Predators lost to Vancouver in the following round, it was an extremely successful season with 22 home sellouts (including playoffs). And last year, Nashville averaged 16,691 fans (capacity 17,113), a franchise record high. Both home games this year sold out, perhaps ending rumors and speculation the team will relocate anytime soon.
It would be fun to see old friend Chris Mason start in the Smilodon net tonight, yet wily coach Trotz should employ Blues-killer Rinne again to stifle the Note's high-octane offense. Either way, expect another Blues-Preds barn-burner (with thanks to Gus Kyle).