Nashville Goes Nuts For Hockey And The Predators A decade ago, the NHL's experiment with hockey in Nashville, Tenn., was in trouble. Now "Smashville" fans are in love with the Predators, who are playing in their first Western Conference finals.
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Nashville Goes Nuts For Hockey And The Predators

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Nashville Goes Nuts For Hockey And The Predators

Nashville Goes Nuts For Hockey And The Predators

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The biggest shock during this year's Stanley Cup playoffs hasn't come from a traditional hockey powerhouse. It's been the Nashville Predators. Heading into last night's game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Predators had won 10 consecutive playoff games at home. The Ducks managed to break their streak, winning 3-2, but a lot of credit for the Predators' amazing run is going to the team's fans and the electric atmosphere on the team's home ice. Here's Chas Sisk with member station WPLN.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Two hours before a playoff game against the Anaheim Ducks, and the party is already underway on the plaza outside Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING, CHEERING)

SISK: This is Smashville, and Predators fans are kicking things off by taking a sledgehammer to a junk automobile, painted over with the Ducks logo and color scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING, CHEERING)

SISK: Jay Mayfield is one of the people working out his aggression. He lives two hours away in Chattanooga and says he's been a Preds fan since the team's inception in the late 1990s.

JAY MAYFIELD: When I tell friends who are from up north that I'm a big hockey fan and I live in Tennessee, none of them really believe me or process that it's true.

SISK: They have good reason. In Tennessee, winter ice is considered a crisis, and playing the game - well, let's just say that's not required.

Can you skate?

MAYFIELD: I can't skate to save my life.

SISK: But this is hockey with Nashville flair, and Mayfield loves it, the fans spewing out of the country music bars just across the street, Grammy winners like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood singing the national anthem, pro wrestlers leading the cheers.

MAYFIELD: The entire experience is very distinctly Tennessee. It's not something you're going to see, and it's not something you're really going to see in D.C. or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or anywhere else.

SISK: This spectacle is a major reason why the Predators sold out all 41 of their home games this season, which is a big deal. A decade ago, attendance here was so poor, the team stood on the verge of relocating, either to Canada or Kansas City. Now, some experts say the Preds are the best show in the NHL. Its fans are among the loudest. And at home, the team is practically unbeatable.

TERRY CRISP: They thoroughly believe that when they make that noise and that chant and what they do, it boosts them, and they're dead on right.

SISK: Terry Crisp is a former NHL player and coach. He's been a broadcaster for the Predators since their inaugural season in 1998. Back then, Crisp had to tutor fans on the rules of hockey. Now, he says, they're as engaged as followers up north.

CRISP: But when you're sitting on the bench and you just finished a shift or you're just going to go on for a shift and they start that uproar and they start that noise coming, the hair in the back of your neck rises. You get goosebumps everywhere. And they definitely pick you up.

SISK: Like other Sun Belt teams, the Predators have worked to spread the game through youth hockey teams and building rinks. Team officials say they now have a generation of fans who grew up on the team. But the Preds' real age is location. The team plays in the heart of Nashville's honky-tonk district, a place where people have come for decades to cut loose. Danny Shaklan is the Predators' VP of marketing.

DANNY SHAKLAN: The party doesn't start when the puck drops. The party starts, like, three hours earlier.

SISK: For Game 3 against the Ducks, the Predators brought in players from the city's pro football team, the Tennessee Titans, to get the crowd riled up. As fans watched on the video monitors, a lineman stripped his shirt and shotgunned a beer. The game itself was tight, with the score tied late in the third period. Then the Predators amped up the pressure. Play-by-play man Pete Weber with ESPN 102.5 The Game in Nashville made the call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE WEBER: Fifty seconds left, and the puck is knocked down. Josi scores.

SISK: Another home victory in the books, for the Nashville Predators and their growing cadre of fans. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRONTIDE'S "SANS SOUCI")

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