By: Jeremy Perrigo
It is likely that most people who will read this article will not be fans of the Nashville Predators. In fact, your favorite team may even be in the same division as the Preds, making them a rival you face up to five times a year. I’m not asking anyone to jump on the Nashville bandwagon as they advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history by beating the St. Louis Blues 3-1 on Sunday. What I would like hockey fans to do is be excited for Nashville, as their success is a very good thing for the NHL as a whole.
The Nashville Predators joined the NHL for the 1998-1999 season finishing second to last in the Western Conference. The Preds did not make the playoffs until the 2003-2004 season when they finished in 8th place in the West. They matched up with the Detroit Red Wings that year who defeated them in six games. However, in the 12 seasons since then Nashville has only missed the postseason three times. It is true that they had never managed to make it past the second round of the playoffs until this season, but for a team that is less than 20 years old, having 10 trips to the postseason under your belt is no small achievement. This compares to the Columbus Blue Jackets who, while joining the league two years after the Predators, have only made it to the playoffs three times. The Minnesota Wild, who also began play in the 2000-2001 season with Columbus, have registered eight postseason appearances. The Winnipeg Jets, who joined in 1999 as the Atlanta Thrashers before relocating to Manitoba in 2011 have only played in the playoffs twice, once as the Thrashers in 2007 and once as the Jets in 2015. The Wild are the only recent expansion team that has even come close to appearing in the playoffs as much as the Predators, and neither team has made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Predators, who were given little chance by top analysts to go far in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, have swept the Chicago Blackhawks, defeated the St. Louis Blues in six and are currently waiting to face either the Anaheim Ducks or the Edmonton Oilers for a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final.
According to www.tennessean.com two of the Predators most watched games in franchise history have come during the 2017 playoffs. Nashville’s Game 4 sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks became their second-most-viewed game ever. That was until the Predators’ Game 3 second-round matchup against the St. Louis Blues topped the local ratings making it the most watched game in the team’s history (this does not take into account games played since that Game 3 against St. Louis).
More people are tuning in locally to watch Preds games than ever before, and this is a strong indicator that hockey is growing in the Nashville area. Take out some fair-weather fans and there is still a good chance that a percentage of the viewers watching now go on to become long-time Predators fans, undoubtedly getting their children into hockey and continuing to grow the sport on a local level.
There has yet to be an NHL player born in Tennessee, but if I had to put money on it I would say that will change in the coming years. As much as Auston Matthews has been in the headlines this season for his sensational play during his rookie debut, what is sometimes overlooked is that Matthews got his interest in hockey from watching the Arizona (then Phoenix) Coyotes. The case of Matthews, who was the first overall draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016, has to be one of the greatest results expansion efforts have had in the United States in recent years. The former Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona to become the Coyotes in 1996, a year before Matthews was born, and they are already responsible for producing what is sure to be one of the stars of this coming generation.
Hockey fans should look at Nashville and Arizona as examples of expansion teams that have been successful in growing the game in their local communities. While the Coyotes’ TV ratings have not achieve the desired results in recent years, Auston Matthews is a testament to the fact that kids are growing up in Arizona wanting to play hockey, a phenomenon that likely would have never occurred without an NHL franchise in the area.
If Arizona is able to produce a first overall draft pick, then surely recent expansion franchises such as Nashville have a promising future as well. With more kids picking up the game from a young age, the pool of potential NHL players is expanded. This means the level of competition in youth hockey will rise as well, eventually producing higher quality hockey at the professional level.
Any fan that wants to watch the game grow should be excited when they see a fanbase like Nashville’s. It means that expansion is doing exactly what many in the hockey community hoped it would do, and that is get more kids involved in the game. The initial plan for Nashville, back in 1996, was to bring an NBA team to the city, and when that deal fell through, they went after an NHL franchise. Little did they know what a success story that NHL club would turn into years later. With the Vegas Gold Knights coming next season and rumors of another expansion on the horizon in U.S. cities such as Seattle, take into account these stories, and what good a new NHL franchise could do for the hockey world.