NASHVILLE — Central Tennessee is in the grips of a heat wave pushing temperatures close to 38 C, not including the soupy humidity. Even the locals mutter things like “Man, it’s hot,” when they venture outside.
Downtown businesses are doing a brisk trade on this mid-July day in bottled water, Gatorade and local favourites like sweet tea and lemonade—or a combination of the two, known as an Arnold Palmer after the famous golfer, as sweaty pedestrians try to cool off. Country music blares out of numerous bars, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
And people are walking down Broadway, Nashville’s main drag and home of the honky-tonk, wearing hockey sweaters.
It’s the annual “Skate of the Union”—a summertime hockey event for Nashville Predators season ticket holders.
The Preds’ home rink, Bridgestone Arena, sits kitty corner across the intersection of Demonbruen Street and 5th Avenue from the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In the concrete square in front of the arena a hired band belts out old soul tunes and slickly-coiffed local TV reporters, who cannot possibly be comfortable wearing tailored suits in the sticky heat, get ready to do live hits for the local supper-hour news.
Jobie Sox, 19, and Victoria Cole, 18, both of Nashville, have come downtown festooned in Predators jerseys. Sox is carrying a hockey stick, which is itself an unusual sight amid the neon signs and whisky-soaked wailings of Broadway’s honky-tonks.
But Cole says blue-collar Nashville, a city which features a statue of guitar legend Chet Atkins, a museum commemorating fiddler Charlie Daniels and a bar owned by blues kingpin B.B. King, is actually a hotbed of hockey fans.
“We’re not your normal hockey town, but we’re really rowdy and loud,” Cole says. Never more so than during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, when the Predators advanced past the first round for the first time, before losing in six games to the Vancouver Canucks. “It was very emotional,” Cole says.
This might sound strange to Canadians, who tend to view expansion teams like Nashville as greedy and pointless forays by the National Hockey League in US markets that are poorer in hockey fans, but richer in cash money, than Canadian locales.
Joshua Cooper, the beat writer who covers the Predators for the Tennessean newspaper, said Nashville doesn’t have the same hockey interest as places like Montreal, Toronto, Boston or Philadelphia.
But it’s also not Atlanta, where the Thrashers did so poorly on the ice and the box office that they relocated to Winnipeg, or Phoenix, where the Coyotes are bleeding money and only government subsidies keep hockey in the desert.
“[Nashville] will never be one of those bigger Canadian markets or Original Six markets, I think that it’s a good hockey market and that the fan base is pretty strong in terms of the die-hards and how they follow the team,” Cooper says.
Bridgestone Arena only seats about 17,000, but Cooper says the Predators come close to filling the place every night.
“With everything else going on [in Nashville], with the entertainment industry being what it is, and the fact that the (National Football League’s Tennessee) Titans take up a lot of advertising space and eat up a big chunk of the sports revenue in the city, I think that it’s pretty tremendous that they’re able to draw that amount of people.”
And while the Titans are undoubtedly the alpha dogs of Nashville’s sports scene, the city’s location in the football-mad American south actually makes it fertile ground for fast and physical professional hockey. No wonder some Predators promotional material makes reference to “Smashville.”
Which brings us to Nashville’s love of Nunavut’s own hockey prodigy, Jordin Tootoo.
“The big thing here in Nashville is people like contact sports… football is big,” Cooper says. “And in a lot of ways, Jordin is like a linebacker on ice. He makes the big hits, he plays to the fans, he’s just a very charismatic person.”
Cole and Sox, the two young Predators fans, can’t even imagine a Predators squad without Tootoo.
“It feels like he belongs in Nashville because he’s been here for so long,” Cole says, while Sox calls Tootoo “the cornerstone of our team.”
For a long time, Tootoo played the role of pest: lots of hits and lots of fights. Opposing fans despised him.
Or as Titans defensive back Cortland Finnegan, a man with his own reputation for vicious hits on the football field, put it during a chance encounter at a downtown restaurant: “He’s a badass dude.”
Last season was a struggle at times for Tootoo, who missed games while he checked in to rehab to battle an alcohol addiction.
But fans and sportswriters alike noticed something different: he was more graceful on the ice, a better passer, more connected with the offence.
Tootoo finished the regular season tying a career-high in points, and setting a career-best plus-minus of +8. “He became a game-changing talent,” Cooper says.
During the Preds’ first-round series win over the Anaheim Ducks, Tootoo played like a man possessed, scoring five points in six games. The performance has raised high hopes for Tootoo going into next season, which also happens to be the last year of a two-year, $2 million contract.
Cooper says Tootoo could become a key contributor for the offensively-challenged Predators next season, if he continues to improve his game.
“Jordin has a lot of natural ability and showed a knack to not only score goals but make plays, make really nice passes and show really good vision,” Cooper says.
“If he can step up and continue that offensive role he had at the end of last year and the playoffs, I think that it could be really important for Nashville next season.”