If all goes according to plan, when the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks hit the ice at Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday night, they will be greeted by a thundering sea of gold.
While it may not be accurate to say the thousands of fans wearing the Predator gold T-shirts the team plans to hand out are symbols of the team finally striking it rich in the home of country music, the metaphor is a little more believable now than it was even a year ago. Winning their first NHL playoff series, in the first round against the Anaheim Ducks, just might mark a turnaround for the Predators, who have struggled financially ever since they joined the NHL in 1998.
"For the most part, we put a check mark beside a lot of our goals," Predators chief executive officer Jeff Cogen said. "We never won a first-round playoff series, we got that box checked. We wanted to sell out 15 [regular-season]games, we ended up selling out 16. We wanted to grow our season-ticket base, we've done that, which stopped a multi-year decline.
"We're not satisfied with [winning one playoff round]but it is kind of a milestone accomplishment."
The stakes are a lot higher for the Predators than they are for the Canucks. The Canucks and their fans were simply delirious about shaking the curse of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and now are aiming at the first Stanley Cup for the team, which joined the NHL in 1970. In Nashville, the goal is not only to survive financially but to finally put the Predators' money problems behind them.
The first owner, Craig Leipold, bowed out in 2007 and bought the Minnesota Wild, saying he lost $70-million (all currency U.S.) in nine years. Local businessman David Freeman put together a group to save the team from being moved to Hamilton by Jim Balsillie but then there was the William (Boots) Del Biaggio scandal when the self-styled investment banker, who owned the largest share of the team, around 27 per cent, wound up in jail for fraud. Then Freeman had to move into the background when his personal financial problems became too great.
Predators chairman Tom Cigarran and the rest of the local investors reluctantly ponied up enough money to buy Del Biaggio's stake and save the team but they are still looking for someone to step up and buy a big chunk of the franchise. If the Predators can keep the current buzz going, that just might happen.
"I told the boss winning helps everything," Cogen said. "It helps sell tickets, helps drive new corporate partners and it should attract additional investment. People like teaming with a winner.
"We're going to show positive year-over-year growth in every revenue category. Savvy investors looks for trends. We can now exhibit that."
Cogen isn't willing to say the Predators are about to turn their second profit in their 13-year history (they made a modest $145,000 in 2007-08), although any loss will not be as severe as in previous seasons.
No Predators official will say this is a make-or-break year, since the team survived much worse in previous years and has only missed the playoffs once since 2003. Head coach Barry Trotz, who is once again one of the three finalists for coach-of-the-year because of his skill in squeezing every drop out of the bargain-basement lineup general manager David Poile adroitly assembles, says missing the playoffs would not have been a killer. But he admits finally winning a playoff series could be big.
"It will have a major effect going forward - just from the standpoint of, 'Okay, we've done it, we've taken it to the next level,' " Trotz said. "Next year, if we didn't make the playoffs, season tickets would be the same, if not higher, because people are embracing the team and hockey all the time here."
The funny thing is, in the first half of the season it looked like missing the playoffs was the more likely fate for the Predators. Their woes actually started a year ago when severe flooding damaged Bridgestone Arena just as the Predators were eliminated from the playoffs. Then goaltender Pekka Rinne, the team's most valuable player, was lost to injury when the season started.
"All preseason, we didn't have a dressing room," Trotz said. "We were dressing down the hallway, in one of the small change rooms the visitors use. On opening night, we were putting the doors on our dressing room.
"It's just been hard - Game 1 [of the regular season] Pekka [Rinne]gets hurt. Game 2, [centre]Matthew Lombardi is out. It was like, every game, there's been somebody out."
Things became much better as the season progressed and the Predators finished fifth overall in the Western Conference. One of the crowning touches was Poile's work at the trade deadline when the hole at centre was plugged with Mike Fisher, who just happens to be married to Nashville resident and singer Carrie Underwood, who is now a fixture in the video shots of the growing number of country music stars at the games.
But the Predators are still in no position to declare themselves a permanent success. As of Friday, next week's playoff home games were not sold out; a hefty chunk of their income still has to come from the NHL's revenue-sharing plan and subsidies from the city (about $32-million in total last season); and their season-ticket base is no better than 8,000, although Cogen says it's growing. He also says success is in sight.
"David Poile said this, 'We don't want to survive in the National Hockey League, we want to compete in the National Hockey League.' " Cogen said. "That's on the ice, off the ice, be nationally recognized and internationally recognized. We think we can accomplish those goals."