Attending a Nashville Predators game can best be described as a combination of attending a college hockey game, going to a show at your favorite noisy honky-tonk, and spending your evening at a high school football game under the Friday night lights.
“The atmosphere and experience of a Nashville Predators game doesn’t begin when you enter the arena,” says Justin Bradford, host and lead writer at Penalty Box Radio, director of communications for the SECHC, and author of Nashville Predators: The Making of Smashville.
“It begins when you’re walking downtown—hearing the music from the honky tonks, seeing the neon lights, smelling food from the restaurants you pass and feeling the excitement as you approach the building. You just don’t get that same feeling when you approach a building that’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a parking lot on all sides.”
Bradford credits Bridgestone Arena’s location as part of the reason for the Predators’ longevity in Nashville.
“There are many teams that, unfortunately, have arenas outside of their downtown area and some wonder why they struggle,” says Bradford. “Had the Predators been outside of the downtown area, I have no doubt that the team would have been gone by now. And that’s not to say that the fans support wouldn’t have been there, but it goes into the whole scope of being marketable with entertainment value.”
Getting Your Head in the Game
That entertainment value skyrockets when you hit the door. The Bridgestone Arena experience is noise and lights and excitement, and it’s unlike anything you can find elsewhere around the league. Music is essential; not only is there typically live music in the plaza outside before the game begins, but most intermissions find a musical guest on the stage, rather than more typical intermission fare of videos and advertisements. Bridgestone Arena’s house band, Small Time Rock Stars, are the most frequent performers, but guest acts from myriad genres make appearances throughout the season.
“Teams that have had to build their base from the ground up put a lot of focus on in-game experience,” says Bradford. “Creating an environment that is welcoming and entertaining to new fans, casual fans, and hardcore fans alike is a difficult task to pull off, but Nashville does it.”
And once those fans are hooked, they’re hooked. Predators fans inside Bridgestone Arena are simultaneously some of the most welcoming and the most ruthless fans you will ever watch a game with.
The Predators score? The entire 17,000-plus crowd taunts the opposing goaltender with a carefully-crafted chant that includes a loudly articulated “You suck!” An opposing player who has wronged the Predators in the past touches the puck? That crowd boos as strenuously as they can. Those are only a few examples of the many coordinated chants and jeers carried out by the Predators faithful. It’s not the content of the chants that matter, however, so much as it is the fact that the crowd is in it together.
“Whether someone likes them or not, the fans are in unison when they chant,” Bradford says. “Predators players comment on the atmosphere, and that includes the chanting.”
Chanting, cheering or clapping, thanks to the arena’s unique low ceiling, when the crowd gets loud enough it feels like the roof is going to come off. Players feel that energy, and they feed off of it.
One player in particular seems to thrive on fan energy and feedback, both positive and negative. These days, for him, there seems to be far more of the former.
The Delightful Defenseman
Loud. Flashy. Warm. Giving. Unapologetically authentic.
Is that a description of Nashville, Tennessee, or a new defenseman who, this season, came to call it home? Everything about P.K. Subban makes him uniquely suited to be an ambassador for a team that both reflects and has been shaped by its hometown.
“He made his entrance to Nashville by singing on the stage at Tootsie’s — how’s that for an introduction to Music City?” Bradford says. “Most in the hockey community know Subban for his charitable work, and he’s continued that in Nashville as well. That factor, plus the fact that he’s not scared to show personality, makes him a good fit for the community.”
Subban is the perfect lens through which to view the corner of the hockey world that Nashville has carved out for itself, a living metaphor for everything the team stands for. Despite being from Toronto, Ontario, he embodies everything that people love about the ‘It’ city tucked away down south.
Though last summer’s trade was a shock to most, the thought of Subban as a Nashville Predator didn’t take long to feel as natural as breathing. His big personality echoes the city’s own, full of flash and panache, a man who is unafraid to wear his own likeness on his shirt making his home in a city known for always being just a little over the top.
That first photo posted of Subban in his new Predators jersey and cowboy hat, arms stretched to the sky as if to embrace all of Nashville, seemed a prophetic, a harbinger of things to come — very good things, if the team’s performance thus far in the playoffs, and Subban’s own, are any indication.
Building a Future
The Predators are swiftly approaching their 20th season, and that means they now have fans who literally grew up watching the team. People who were kids when the team arrived are now adults with income, and some of them are members of Nashville’s “Loyal Legion,” the nickname that developed for Predators season ticket holders during the 2012 lockout.
“It takes a generation to solidify a fanbase, and that’s what we’ve seen happen,” Bradford says.
While it takes a generation to build a fanbase, it still has to be maintained carefully, particularly in nontraditional markets where the game didn’t already have a foothold. To that end, the Predators and the rest of the hockey community in Nashville put a good deal of effort into growing the game.
“The team is very involved in community programs to teach young children how to play,” says Bradford. “If you can create a fan while they’re a child, they’ll stand with you for life.”
Like Coming Home
That lifelong devotion that many fans have to the team is just one thing that makes going to a Predators game feel like nothing less than a family reunion.
“While the south is still generally ruled by football, there is a core group of people that have fallen in love with hockey,” says Bradford. “With the recent success of the Predators, and new fans seeming to join the ranks every day, the fans that have been around for close to two decades are finally seeing their dedication pay off. They’re seeing the team they love gain enough popularity to where every media outlet in the city — and some from the suburbs, and from cities a couple hundred miles away — is there to cover a game.”
One thing you won’t find in Nashville is angry ranting about bandwagon fans. The Predators’ bandwagon is a pickup truck with Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” blasting from speakers too heavy with bass, Predators window flags flying, and current fans hanging out the windows yelling at you to get in.
The team’s playoff slogan is “Stand With Us” and the fans want nothing more. Being in Bridgestone Arena never feels like you’re surrounded by thousands of people you don’t know. If anything, it’s more reminiscent of being at a high school football game, where everyone has a relative on the team; while you may not know that woman standing next to the concession stand by name, you definitely recognize her face and wave hello.
“From the experience outside of the arena, to what you see and hear inside of it, Bridgestone Arena is one-of-a-kind,” Bradford says. “And here’s the thing — it’s accessible. From the players to the game to even the media. We’re accessible here. It’s all part of growing the game.”
In the South, a common phrase is, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” The atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena is such that you expect to hear someone ‘holler’ that after you as you leave.
Some nights, they just might.