Numbers don't lie, Preds creating buzz

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- We recently suggested to an NHL general manager that Nashville GM David Poile faced a kind of "Sophie's Choice" when it came to defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.

At some point, Poile will have to make the almost impossible choice between two of the top defensemen in the game, one of whom (Suter) can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, while the other (Weber) will become a restricted free agent. Whether or not Poile can do enough to impress upon Suter and Weber that the Preds are on the right track could determine the franchise's path for years to come.

But this GM insisted the analogy didn't work because the Predators aren't necessarily facing a life or death situation a la Meryl Streep. Instead, he allowed that while the team faces a difficult situation to be sure in trying to lock up both defensemen long-term, it doesn't necessarily have to have a cataclysmic effect on the team.

In short, life will go on in Nashville regardless of how this plays out, a signal that the team may be at its zenith in terms of health and promise.

It is a fine distinction to be sure, but isn't life full of such fine lines? Is not the line between winning and losing, between contending and pretending, likewise razor thin?

Sitting up in the stands at the Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville, Poile is watching the team he has managed since day one in this town, contemplating such lines and which side this team will find itself on in the coming weeks and months.

Gone are the days that the Predators were routinely mentioned as a team that would be, could be or should be relocated, as though Nashville was some sort of way station on the road to Hamilton or Kansas City or somewhere else.

Gone are the days of ownership mayhem: remember the ill-fated Boots Del Biaggio era? Or the shameful fire sale held by former owner Craig Leipold before he took over as owner of the Minnesota Wild? Or the days when Gnash the mascot chained himself to the television tower perched on top of the team's home rink in downtown Nashville until the team sold out some home games down the stretch, before being chased down by a tornado?

Today there is unprecedented stability in Nashville.

The Predators have sold out 17 games this season and have already sold out the last three Saturday games of the season. The team's all-time sellout record is 20.

Last season, the Predators' revenues increased by between 25 and 30 percent, and their television ratings have gone up 50 percent over a year ago and are continuing to grow.

Ever so slowly, the Predators are moving toward that magical moment when the buzz surrounding the team creates a demand for tickets that outstrips actual seats in the house.

"I believe nothing happens [with a franchise] until the building's filled," CEO and alternate governor Jeff Cogen told ESPN.com recently.

Sponsorship numbers continue to grow as the fan interest has grown. Bridgestone, with almost three years left on its naming deal with the team, extended for another five years with an option after that.

The team is exploring a customer loyalty plan that would pattern itself on airline and hotel chains in rewarding ticket buyers with different kinds of benefits.

"They see what's happening on all our business fronts," president and COO Sean Henry said of the team's business partners. "It's just a whole different mindset."

Last season, for instance, the team identified 15 of its 41 home dates, many of which included Saturdays, and focused its marketing attentions on selling out those games (which it did plus one other). Now the team has taken Saturdays off as single-game ticket options and are using them to leverage more multiple game sales, so fans wanting some of the remaining tickets for peak games have to buy three other games.

"I think that's a real sign of growth and maturity," Cogen said.

"These are benchmarks in black and white that say we are gaining some traction, that we are doing the right thing."

Cogen and Henry arrived in Nashville within days of each other about 18 months ago.

Cogen was president of both the Dallas Stars and MLB's Texas Rangers before coming to Nashville, while Henry was with the Tampa Bay Lightning for 11 years. Both Dallas and Tampa represent non-traditional markets that had to work diligently to incorporate hockey into the fabric of the sporting community. Both markets were assisted in no small way by winning championships, Dallas in 1999 and the Lightning in 2004.

A new ownership group in Nashville, almost all of whom were season-ticket holders from the team's arrival for the 1998-99 season, has made it clear to their new business executives that they have a single-minded purpose: to make Nashville a Stanley Cup winner.

And the right thing -- as mandated by ownership -- is to build a championship team.

Last year's sellouts and revenue increases, for instance, begat Mike Fisher, Cogen said.

This year's sellouts and revenue increases? Well, Poile added veteran Cup-winning defenseman Hal Gill and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. And, of course, if everything goes according to plan those monies will help ink Suter and Weber and solidify this team as a Cup contender for years to come.

If everything goes according to plan.



Nashville is no different than many markets where there is a symbiotic relationship between the job that Poile does in putting a competitive team on the ice and the job that those selling the Predators do.

Expectations for this team are at an all-time high after last year's playoff run and with the team now being in contention to earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and possibly the Central Division crown.

The buzz around the city is palpable; fans sporting Predators gear, local bars and restaurants with placards supporting the team and television screens tuned to hockey even when the Predators aren't playing.

The buzz runs the gamut from young to old.

Back in the day, the Dallas Stars blazed a trail by building sheets of ice and sponsoring youth hockey throughout the Dallas area. Those days, what Cogen calls the "halcyon days" of the Stars, are hard to replicate now given the rising cost of brick-and-mortar facilities. That said, the team about once a month discusses with some entrepreneur the potential of building more ice surfaces in the Nashville area to accommodate the growing demand.

The Predators remain highly involved in growing the game in the community.

The high school hockey program buttressed by the Predators has grown exponentially in recent years and now features 16 teams in two divisions, up from three teams in 1997. Many of those high schools are now icing junior varsity squads also.

A youth hockey team recently won the prestigious Silver Stick tournament in Canada in the mite division, and a group of 14-year-olds recently lost in the final at a top-level tournament in Atlanta against competition from around the United States. A couple of those players have drawn interest from USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and taken part in national development camps.

The learn to play hockey programs are chocked full of youngsters and the team has added another staff member (there are two now) to oversee the community hockey program.

And every year the Predators make the playoffs, the interest in the game grows.

"They do a great job in the community and everybody talks about it," said local businessman Brian Dorfman, who has been in Nashville for 14 years and also happens to be on the United States Hockey League's board of directors.

"They're really involved in parts of the hockey world that they never were before."

It's not perfect, of course.

The Predators thought they were going to sell out a Valentine's Day date with Chicago and fell a few hundred short. And 25 sellouts, or whatever number they reach this year, still isn't 41.

Television ratings and revenues still sit in the bottom half of the NHL in spite of the increases.

They'd like to see season-ticket numbers go from a little less than 10,000 to 12,000.

And so we come full circle to the question of what next.

The foundations are on the ice and in the boardrooms.

It is one thing to set the bar high, it is another to meet those expectations. It is something the team, one Poile calls "the youngest, best team that we've had," has never been able to do.

The team is tracking forward but how much of what might be achieved is related to Poile's ability to keep Suter and Weber in the fold? What does Poile have to do to impress upon them that they are all on the right track?

"I have a Plan A. I really like Plan A. It's one that I know if it happens will keep us competitive and allow us to compete for the Stanley Cup," Poile said told ESPN.com recently.

Plans B and C, plans that don't include both Suter and Weber, are much less attractive and fraught with much more uncertainty.

"But sometimes you don't always get what you want," Poile noted.

Poile, one of the most even-keeled of managers in the business, understands his predicament is not unique. But if this is not a "Sophie's Choice" situation unfolding, it is certainly a seminal moment for this franchise, a moment that will determine the path it will follow for the coming years.

"We clearly have that plan in place, we just haven't been able to get the players to commit to the plan," Poile said.

"Right now we're in a gray area," in terms of that commitment, he added.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.