The Predators' journey to the Stanley Cup finals began nearly two decades ago when they set out on a mission to fill Nashville's honky-tonks with hockey talk.
Though the warmth of the city and the enthusiasm of the fans were present from day one, turning the country music capital of the world into a hockey town was a challenging transformation. Former team captain Kimmo Timonen was a rookie arriving from Finland for training camp in 1998 before the Nashville Predators' inaugural season.
"I was like, 'Wow, what is this place?' It looked like something from an old country movie," Timonen said. "It didn't look like a hockey town that day."
After training camp started, Timonen got an idea for how far the affable citizens of Nashville had to go in their hockey knowledge.
"There was a guy with a microphone explaining the rules. 'That was icing. That was offside,' " Timonen said. "Then there was a couple fights and he would say, 'That's normal, they fight, don't worry about it, it's normal, they fight.' I was like 'Wow, this is different.' For me, it wasn't the feeling that I am actually in the NHL."
The Predators' first challenge was to educate the fans.
"Sometimes they'd cheer when we got a penalty because they thought the other team took a penalty," said Andrew Brunette, who scored the first goal in franchise history.
Scott Hartnell, who joined the Predators in their third season, recalled similar things in his first year with the club.
"I remember one of the guys took a slap shot that missed the net high and it made a real loud noise against the glass, and people were cheering for that," Hartnell said.
But the Predators persisted, with broadcasters Terry Crisp (a former NHLer and NHL coach) and Pete Weber conducting "Hockey 101" courses while their players, notably captains Tom Fitzgerald and, later, Timonen, and coaches did considerable outreach into the community and surrounding areas.
The Predators did not have the same favorable expansion draft parameters that the Vegas Golden Knights will have next month, and their team was not brimming with marquee talent. It had a mix of a few veterans and mostly young players, such as Timonen, a future four-time Olympic medalist, and Sergei Krivokrasov, the franchise's first All-Star.
"Sergei captured the fans' imaginations," Weber said. "When I was downstairs after a game and I heard, 'Hey, Sergei! Sergei! How 'bout an autograph?' I knew that they were onto something here."
The first roster had a cop, Patric Kjellberg, who took a leave of absence from a Swedish police department to pursue his NHL career, and a robber, Patrick Cote, who led the league in fighting majors in 1998-99 and had 242 penalty minutes but was later jailed twice for his involvement in bank heists. Cote was the franchise's "first cult hero," according to Weber.
Nashville's first roster had two notable veterans: Cliff Ronning, who was 33 and had been part of the Vancouver Canucks' run to Game 7 of the 1994 finals, and captain Fitzgerald. At 30, Fitzgerald had already sewn the seeds in South Florida with the expansion Panthers, whom he played for during their inaugural season in 1993-94 and their 1996 finals appearance. They also had David Poile, the general manager who had previously salvaged a fledgling Washington Capitals franchise and who remains the Predators' GM to this day.
Fitzgerald was a free agent with numerous offers from high-profile franchises, including Toronto, and Poile had an offer from the Toronto Maple Leafs to become their GM. Fitzgerald had not considered Nashville and was conflicted as to where he would play when Poile reached out to his agent.
"Maybe like me, maybe he had a feeling that it wasn't right for him," Fitzgerald said. "There were a lot of parallels in his decision going to Nashville and in my decision to go to Nashville."
Poile never went to the Stanley Cup finals with the Capitals and, ironically, they made their lone finals appearance in 1998, immediately after he left. His father, Bud, was the first general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, building much of their two Stanley Cup winners in 1974 and 1975. But by then, Bud had already moved on to the expansion Canucks. Bud had won a Cup as a player with Toronto, however, and expected his son to jump at the opportunity to run its organization. David opted for the expansion Predators and Nashville, a market still very much in development.
"I thought there was something neat about starting your own franchise and being part of something from day one," David Poile said. "I didn't want to say I want to be exactly like [my father], but I guess that's maybe deep down what it is."
Nashville was eager to have something of its own, and in the Predators it got it, and soon after they also welcomed the Oilers, now the Titans, who relocated from Houston. But initially, the Preds were uniquely Nashvillian, even if the sport they played was not.
"The first game when we were playing against the Florida Panthers, it was insane," Krivokrasov said of the franchise's inaugural game. "They brought five guys at a time in on Hummers to the rink. The way we walked in, the fans were going crazy."
After his short stint with the Predators, Krivokrasov never quite returned to All-Star form.
"I had my best years in Nashville because of the way people made me feel," he said.
The Predators finished 28-47-7 and with a goal differential of minus-71 that first season, but a huge win over the two-time defending-champion Detroit Red Wings galvanized the fan base, and the hard-working identity of the team caught on quickly. Ronning was the team's leading scorer, with 18 goals and 35 assists for 53 points in 72 games.
Fitzgerald also said the words "Southern hospitality" were redefined during his time in Nashville, exemplified by the generosity of country music stars Vince Gill, Amy Grant and Barbara Mandrell. Visits to Mandrell's cabin with his family were among the unique perks of playing in Nashville. Beyond the locals, Poile, long-term head coach Barry Trotz and the organization also made the Preds' environment a familial one.
"I am almost 100 percent sure that we were the first team to have a fathers' trip," Fitzgerald said of a tradition that has taken hold leaguewide.
Fitzgerald also said he would regularly bring his sons to the rink, where they would play around under the supervision of their adoptive parents, the team's equipment managers. Two of his sons were drafted by NHL teams, and both got their start playing youth hockey in Nashville.
"Myself and Fitzgerald, we'd go out and play, trying to get the kids to play hockey," said Ronning, who marveled at the progress of the organization when he returned for alumni events. "Eventually you'd see kids not only following the game but out playing road hockey."
Progress in Nashville has not always been linear. At the trade deadline in 2007, the Predators were facing an uncertain future but playing their best hockey to date. Poile made an aggressive move to land Peter Forsberg, but Forsberg had limited impact and the Predators failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs once again.
The following summer would be tumultuous, with BlackBerry owner Jim Balsillie attempting to buy the Preds and move them to Hamilton, Ontario. The attempt ran afoul of the NHL's rules on relocation and the sale was ultimately steered the sale in a different direction. But that was also not without turmoil, as one of the new minority owners was sentenced to prison soon after in connection with forged documents related to the purchase of the Predators. All the while, fans rallied to keep their team in Nashville and boost season-ticket sales.
"[On the ice] everything was going smoothly, but that was the time when they didn't know if the team was going to be sold and go somewhere," Timonen said. "It was a tough summer after that year."
Today, Nashville's situation has stabilized and the results are palpable.
"I love that our fans are loud, proud, and never give up, and a bunch of rednecks who have realized that hockey is basically football on steroids," said Chris Weingartner, an investment banker and former Preds season-ticket holder and Nashville resident. He still makes the pilgrimage to Bridgestone from Birmingham, Alabama.
"I was in Nashville the past weekend and a buddy of mine who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and couldn't tell you offsides from icing last year was calling out [Pontus] Aberg and [Mattias] Ekholm by number alone."
Nashville has grown by leaps and bounds as a city, making it a Hartnell favorite to visit, now that he's with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Like the other players from their early years, he said that the people of Nashville were welcoming, rowdy and eager to learn about the game.
What was then the Gaylord Entertainment Center is now Bridgestone Arena, and it has turned into one of the most renowned atmospheres for an NHL game. Their fans have more to holler about than ever with the Predators making their first finals appearance, taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I was there when everything started, and they've come all the way to the Stanley Cup finals almost 20 years later," Timonen said. "I'm proud of the team and the city. You know who I'm going to be rooting for in the finals."