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Nashville Predators fans celebrate after the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series Sunday, April 24, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 4-2, and took the series 4-2. (Mark Humphrey)
Nashville Predators fans celebrate after the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series Sunday, April 24, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 4-2, and took the series 4-2. (Mark Humphrey)

ROY MACGREGOR

Elvis is the ringmaster in the Predators' circus Add to ...

Here, even The King is a fan.

"I'm a big hockey guy, big hockey guy," Elvis Presley drawls as he crosses the intersection of 5th and Broadway, jaws dropping, traffic stopping and cameras flashing at the flash of sequins and rhinestones and tiara belt buckle holding together the white jumpsuit.

"I'm a big fan of the game."

He stands out, but not all that much, not in a gathering that includes gold-haired men on stilts, jugglers, marching bands battling stage bands, short-skirted deep-necked cheerleaders, balloon twisters and hawkers offering a churning combination of cotton candy and cold beer.

He has come to "Smashville," the holding room for the fanatics who have come to cheer on the Nashville Predators as they take on the Vancouver Canucks in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a grinding test that now stands at two games to one for Vancouver after Tuesday night's narrow 3-2 Canucks victory in overtime.

Waiting for that puck, they are lining up to pay $5 a swing just to take a sledgehammer to a wreck of an old car that has been repainted in Canucks team colours. They are paying $10 for fake beards that have prepubescent boys thinking they look like Nashville captain Shea Weber and their parents worried their child has turned into ZZ Top.

They are loud; they are proud; and they are brand new at it.

For the first time since the joined the National Hockey League in 1998 - a dozen years of mostly bad teams and mostly bad news - the Predators have moved beyond the first round. Not only that, but they defeated the Anaheim Ducks, a slight favourite to go all the way, and are holding their own against the Canucks, the league's best team in the regular season and the strong favourite to go all the way.

"It's been phenomenal," says Elvis. "What's this, the fifth, sixth year for them making the playoffs? And finally they're into the second round. Everybody loves a winner and they are a winner."

These are not hockey fools, he says spreading a ringed hand over the masses. This isn't Texas, where when Gordie Howe arrived with the Houston Aeros back in the 1970s he was asked "How do they get the air into that there little puck?"

"Nashville's more of a melting pot than people realize," says Elvis. "We got lots of people here who come from the northeast, places like Philadelphia and Boston, people from Detroit and Chicago. Like me, I'm from Detroit. Hockey town!" But…but…Elvis came from Memphis, didn't he? And was born in Mississippi?

The King stops, raises his dark glasses and arches a dark brow.

" Obviously," he says with no little sarcasm. "People know I'm not Elvis. But they call me 'Elvis' and they treat me like I'm Elvis. They pour their love out for him at me. I feel very humbled to be allowed to be part of that."

His real name is Chuck Baril and he does Elvis full time - 60 shows a year along with appearances - and makes enough to raise a family of five. Life is good - he recently got the sparkling "Aloha from Hawaii" Elvis jump suit for $1300 from another 'Elvis' who 'grew out of it" - and the hockey crowd has proved a surprise bonus to his work: "I've made $10,000 in the past five months just from tips from photographs here."

The hockey crowd, and the Predators success on the ice, may be saving this franchise that has seen owners bail, owners end up in jail, potential owners denied and is today owned by a group of businessmen who are determined the team won't end up in Hamilton or any number of other once-rumoured destinations.

"They're great fans," says Predators forward Mike Fisher, who came from Ottawa in February and became an instant fan favourite - in no small part because he happens to be married to country music superstar Carrie Underwood.

"There's probably 30,000 hard-core hockey fans but right now there's more like 300,000. It's really exciting."

"It's loud," says Jordin Tootoo, who has played for the Predators since 2003. "It's just been great to be a part of this ride."

It has certainly gotten better. The team sold out four games last year but 16 this season. Playoff games, of course are sellouts, even scalper tickets at a premium this night when the Grand Ole Opry has Charlie Daniels and Trace Adkins and Brad Paisley and others putting on a special concert in aid of last year's area flood victims.

Jamie Richardson, who flew in from Denver for this week's games, was a season-ticket holder (a single ticket) for years before work took her away. She arrived wearing a Shea Weber jersey and a determined to follow her Predators as far as they can possibly go.

"It's the adrenalin," she says. "The athleticism. You don't see this in other sports. These guys just never quit." Nor, of course, does Elvis, still going strong at 76 despite that minor setback in the summer of 1977.

"I'm having the time of my life," Elvis said as he posed for more fan pictures before the game got underway.

So, too, are the Nashville Predators, who even with last night's loss now genuinely seem to have found a life of their own.

 

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