NASHVILLE, TENN. -- "You go way back there. I can't even see you all," Alan Jackson said as he addressed the crowd between songs.
The country superstar wasn't pandering to the crowd as he performed a free outdoor concert just a stone's throw from Bridgestone Arena, which by then was mere hours away from hosting the first Stanley Cup Final game in Nashville's history. As the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins were just arriving at the arena in anticipation of Game 3 Saturday night, downtown Nashville already had been rocking for hours.
That tends to happen when the nearby bars, stacked side by side along Broadway, open at 9:30 a.m.
By the time Jackson took to the stage in the late afternoon, the iconic strip lined with countless honky-tonk bars, closed off to traffic for the special free concert, was packed with Predators fans nestled shoulder to shoulder in a sprawling, seemingly endless sea of gold. And the city's countless famous watering holes, from Tootsie's to Acme Feed & Seed, were absolutely bustling. A reported 50,000 filled the area around Bridgestone Arena before the game; a total of 17,283 filled the rink for the game.
"Anybody want the Preds to win tonight?" one bandleader asked over at Honky Tonk Central. "I tell you what, the Preds win tonight and Nashville's gonna go crazy."
In Game 3 against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Predators obliged.
Before the puck was even dropped, the arena was near capacity when both teams took to the ice for warm-ups. By the time the Predators mascot, Gnash, was rappelling down from the rafters just before puck drop, the seventh man was plenty ready for the biggest hockey game in the city's history.
Even after falling behind 1-0 on Jake Guentzel's goal 2:46 into the game, the Predators continued to feed off their rabid fans.
With Nashville still trailing during a television timeout with 9:09 remaining in the first, the crowd at Bridgestone Arena came to its feet. During a break in action when most fans rush to the bathroom or hit the concessions, Predators fans waved their towels and erupted in a full-throated "Let's Go Preds!" chant. All this while the team was losing.
The iconic catfish that have been tossed on the ice in this building for more than a decade made an appearance in warm-ups and then in the third period, followed a few minutes later by a cowboy hat and the requisite request that fans not throw items on the ice.
Fans were still on their feet when Predators defenseman Roman Josi tied the game on the power play 5:51 into the second period. By the time Frederick Gaudreau gave Nashville the lead 42 seconds later, it was pure bedlam. When it was all over, the Predators would win 5-1 to cut Pittsburgh's best-of-seven series lead to 2-1, and Smashville had officially said "howdy" to the rest of the hockey world.
"Nashville's just weird, we're just weird, and we want to keep it weird," said Thomas Kaho, a student at Auburn University whose family is part of a group that has owned Predators season tickets for over a decade. "We want to keep that weird loud."
The weird doesn't end with the catfish and the honky-tonk. Over the course of Nashville's run to the Stanley Cup Final, the surrounding community has embraced a number of unique rituals that Nashville can call its own.
Few seem to attract more of a crowd than the Smash Car parked outside Bridgestone Arena. An old junker decorated in the logo and colors of the opposing team each series, fans pay for the opportunity -- some might say privilege -- to take a sledgehammer to the helpless vehicle. Five dollars gets you a hit while $20 gets three hits and a cowboy hat. All the money collected benefits the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund, and the spectacle has been a rousing success. Before Game 3, twin brothers and former NFL coaches Rex and Rob Ryan even got into the act.
"This is the best building in the league," said Rex Ryan, who along with his brother donned Predators jerseys as they attended Game 3 Saturday night. "The fans are super passionate, and obviously it's new and all that but everybody loves it."
So there's a few people on Music Row checking out the Alan Jackson concert. pic.twitter.com/C9IExKaNrc— Tal Pinchevsky (@TalPinch) June 3, 2017
Ultimately, the Predators weren't going to be fully embraced in Nashville until they were adopted by the surrounding musical community that has been the lifeblood of Music City since long before the Predators came to town in 1998. And the countless musicians who call Nashville home have gone whole hog on hockey.
The singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at each home playoff game has been a who's who of country music royalty, from Keith Urban to Carrie Underwood (wife of Predators captain Mike Fisher) to Martina McBride, who sang the national anthem Saturday night. Outside the arena at the bars lined up and down Broadway, the local musicians have found a way to get involved as well.
"Every time the Preds score at a home game, they play Tim McGraw on the jumbotron singing, 'I Like It, I Love It,'" said Bobby Cutshaw, a local musician who's lived in Nashville for 16 years. "When we're playing shows during a game, every time the Preds score, no matter what song we're in the middle of playing, we'll stop that song and break into 'I Like It, I Love It.' It's been a fun little thing."
But Preds fever hasn't been confined to a 10-block radius around Bridgestone Arena. Every indication is that the team has captured the spirit of the entire city and the imagination of its citizenry. Drug stores several miles away from the arena have been selling Predators hats and T-shirts. Residents all around town can be found donning their golden gear and yelling "Go Preds!"
One local Uber driver had even been driving people around wearing a P.K. Subban jersey, happy to discuss the local team that is finally having its moment.
"Gotta rep my boy, P.K.," said the Uber driver, Frederick, a longtime Predators fan who concisely predicted what might happen if the Predators win it all.
Harry and Lloyd made it out to Bridgestone. pic.twitter.com/TcxjrLNcKu— Tal Pinchevsky (@TalPinch) June 4, 2017
"If the Predators win the Stanley Cup, it will be Mardi Gras in Nashville for a week," he said. "We threw a party for the Titans when they lost the Super Bowl."
Should that happen, Jackson, who is also the owner of A.J.'s Good Time Bar on Broadway, might want to consider coming back for a second show. Then the celebration will really start in Nashville.