Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
The visiting Nashville Predators were granted an expansion franchise in June 1997 and can celebrate a 20th anniversary next year, although they will most likely wait until the 2018-19 season to put a 20-year patch on their jerseys since the team began NHL play in the 1998-99 season, joining the Blues, Blackhawks and Red Wings in the Central Division, the only division the Predators have been in since inception.
In September 1997 owner Craig Leipold and team president Jack Diller held a press conference in order to unveil the franchise’s new logo, a saber-toothed cat (Smilodon floridanus), a reference to skeletal remains unearthed in Nashville when the First American National Bank was built. A fan contest to name the club resulted in the top choices being Ice Tigers, Fury and Attack. Leipold added his choice, Predators, to the mix. In November, the results of another “public vote” showed that Leipold’s choice, Predators, had won.
Just between you and me, I have never fully understood the need to add “Ice” to the animal name of a hockey team. So, how could Ice Tigers be a finalist, and why are there teams that are named the Rockford Icehogs (the primary AHL farm team of the Blackhawks), the Worcester Icecats (a farm team of the Blues from 1998 to 2005), the Louisiana Icegators and the Niagara Ice Hawks? Do hogs, cats, gators or hawks ever go on a frozen pond or lake? I didn’t think so.
The city government of Nashville was eager to add an NHL franchise and put its money where its mouth was by paying one third of the $80 million expansion fee to the league. The city also allowed a subsidiary of the hockey club to operate the Bridgestone Arena, jointly owned by the Sports Authority of Nashville and Davidson County. Opened in 1996 at a cost of $144 million ($218 million today), the then-called Nashville Arena was constructed in the heart of downtown Nashville. The Bridgestone Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of automobile tires, purchased the naming rights in 2011.
Although the Predators finished last in the division and did not qualify for the playoffs in 1999, attendance was pretty good with over 16,000 fans regularly attending games, a number good enough for 17th in the league. The following season saw an increase of around 600 fans, moving the franchise up to 13th place in the NHL. However, by 2003, after five years of no postseason play, attendance dipped to just over 13,000, worst in the league. Nashville earned playoff spots in each of the next four years, yet lost every opening-round series. When they failed to make the playoffs in 2009, attendance averaged around 15,000, a sorry 27th out of 30 teams.
By the end of the 2015-16 season, the average number of fans at games was up to almost 17,000, ranked 20th in the NHL. That year the team qualified for the playoffs and won the opening-round series against Anaheim, but lost to Western Conference champion San Jose in the quarterfinals.
By comparison, the Blues were ranked 13th last season with an average of 18,500 fans. So far this season, St. Louis is ranked 8th with 18, 500 and Nashville is 20th with an average of 17,200. Currently fourteen NHL teams, including the Predators, operate at 100% capacity, with six, including the Blues, over 95%.
The Blues and Predators have never met in postseason play.
St. Louis and Nashville have made only six trades in 18 years. The first was in June 1998 before the Predators began play. The Blues sent center Darren Turcotte to Nashville for future considerations. Turcotte played parts of two unmemorable seasons for the Preds and then retired. The following year, St. Louis acquired winger Blair Atcheynum from Nashville for a sixth-round draft pick in 2000. Atcheynum played parts of two seasons wearing the Bluenote, notching 13 goals and 30 points in 73 games. He was part of the “CPA” line with Craig Conroy and Scott Pellerin. Chicago signed Atcheynum as a free agent in 1999.
A minor trade in February 2000 involved defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick departing to Nashville and defenseman Dan Keczmer arriving in St. Louis. Fitzpatrick played two games for the Preds while Keczmer played 25 games for the Worcester Icecats and then retired. In January 2006 veteran center Mike Sillinger left the Blues in exchange for winger Timofei Shishkanov. Shishkanov lasted 22 games in St. Louis (three goals, five points) before returning to Russia to play in the KHL. Sillinger lasted 31 games in Nashville (10 goals, 22 points) before moving on to the Islanders. Sillinger played for 12 NHL teams in his 17-season career, an NHL record.
When you welcome goaltender Chris Mason back to St. Louis to play in the Winter Classic alumni game, remember that he came here from Nashville in June 2008 in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. Mason played two very respectable seasons for the Note as the number-one goalie. In July 2010 Mason elected to sign a two-year, almost $4 million contract with the Atlanta Thrashers. Following the franchise’s relocation to Winnipeg in 2011, Mason played out the second year of his contract as a Jet before returning to Nashville on a one-year deal. After a year tending goal in Italy and one year in Germany, Mason hung up his skates and is currently a color commentator for Predator radio broadcasts.
The last trade between St. Louis and Nashville was in June 2009 when the Blues got a seventh-round pick in 2009 for a seventh-round pick in 2010, not exactly a blockbuster deal that greatly improved either team.