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(Frederick Breedon/2011 Getty Images)
(Frederick Breedon/2011 Getty Images)

Nashville gets ready <br>for its NHL closeup</br> Add to ...

Most of the attention the Nashville Predators have historically received in Canada has been for ownership fiascos and Jim Balsillie plots to relocate the team.

But tonight, with Hockey Night in Canada in Music City, USA, for Game 3, there'll be a very different look at Nashville as an NHL city, an up close account of what sort of hockey roots are in place 13 years after expansion put a team in the Tennessee capital.

And the answer might surprise people.

The Predators' fan base will never rival that of the major markets in Canada and the Northeastern U.S., but they've continued to grow their ranks, to the point that they sold out 16 of 41 home games during the regular season and had a large group cheer the team when it arrived at the airport from Vancouver.

While they don't have a big rink at only 17,113, this is also a loud group of fans, especially come playoff time, something that should translate to TV audiences tonight. My guess is that their passion will surprise some given this is a sport that was utterly alien to many in the region 15 years ago.

One of the more interesting things I've found when visiting the city is how many fans had never attended a hockey game prior to 1998 but had fallen in love with the sport and enrolled their kids in some of the hockey camps springing up in Tennessee.

If you're ever looking for a unique hockey experience, Nashville offers it.

For a perspective of what the mood is like in the city today, I touched base with Predators writer Dirk Hoag, who covers the team at On The Forecheck and is a long-time season ticket holder. He's also a converted Red Wings fan from the Detroit area and has a good perspective on both hockey worlds.

Q: Is it safe to say this is the biggest game in franchise history - until Game 4 and, if necessary, Game 6?

DH: Ever since the Preds went into Game 5 against Anaheim, we've pretty much been in "biggest game in franchise history" mode ever since. Now that the Predators have achieved a few "firsts" (first playoff OT win, first series win), there's a fresh energy and optimism in the fan base because the team has now exceeded widespread expectations.

Everything from here on (for the fans, mind you, not the players) is almost like a pleasant surprise.

Q: You've attended big playoff games in Detroit and Nashville - what's the difference? What's the atmosphere around town been like? And what are you expecting tonight?

DH: I expect tonight may well be the loudest, most energetic hockey crowd I've ever seen. In Nashville, the crowd is actively engaged right from the opening faceoff with various chants and cheers, while in my experience, fans in more traditional arenas respond to how the game develops.

Tonight, however, not only do we have the excitement of a Western Conference semi-final, but there are broader considerations as well. Support for the military is a core aspect of Southern culture, and at each game the fans here recognize an active duty or retired soldier with a standing ovation. Considering that a unit from nearby Fort Campbell participated in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, I'm guessing tonight's Military Salute will be extra special.

Q: What has it been like facing a Canadian team in Round 2 and the resulting attention that goes with that?

DH: You hate to bring up a stereotype, but I've been quite impressed with the respectful (dare I say polite?) attitude which Vancouver fans have shown so far. Since my site is part of a broad network of sports blogs, we get a great deal of crossover traffic from fans of other teams, and the banter back and forth has taken an entirely different tone than the opening round against Anaheim, or last year's series against Chicago.

I think hockey fans in Vancouver are genuinely curious about how the Predators have managed to field a consistently competitive team, and what the hockey scene is like here.

Q: What do you hope hockey fans in more traditional markets take away from an up close look at Nashville's hockey culture? What are the top myths about Preds fans you'd like debunked during this series?

DH: The experience at Bridgestone Arena is quite different from what you'll find in many NHL cities, but that's a reflection of the growing diversity of the game, which is part of what the league hoped for with its controversial Southern expansion during the 1990's.

Besides the rowdy, college football-like atmosphere, however, you'll also find a core of devoted hockey fans who followed the game long before the Preds came to town, supporting minor league teams back into the 1960's. There's something a bit jarring the first time you hear someone with a deep drawl talk about hockey, but it turns out that they're just as dedicated as folks in Detroit, or anywhere else in the U.S.

Q: What do you think this playoff run, however long it is, will do for hockey in Nashville? Is this helping the team become more established in the city?

DH: Each additional playoff game gives the team a chance to sell more season tickets, and establishing that firm foundation will lead to success in other areas. We're seeing new corporate sponsors come on board during the postseason, so it will be interesting to see how many also maintain a presence in the fall, as well.

The new executive leadership has already had a successful season, increasing paid attendance over 1,400 per game, but I've long maintained that playoff success is the key to making the next step forward.

Q: What do you see as the key differences between why Nashville is having some success (in terms of economics) and bigger cities like Phoenix and Atlanta are struggling so much?

DH: The biggest difference I see between those two examples and Nashville is the combination of ownership and the arena. The Preds' owners are deeply committed to the team and the city (some have been season ticket holders since Day 1) and the location of Bridgestone Arena in the heart of downtown gives the fans plenty to do before and after a game.

The future looks bright as well, as a new convention centre is being built right across the street, and the metropolitan area continues to grow.

Q: And, finally, what do the Predators need to do to beat the Canucks?

DH: Staying out of the penalty box is crucial for Nashville, not just to keep Vancouver's power play off the ice but to maximize their "roll the lines" approach and try to wear down an opponent. Pekka Rinne has to continue his outstanding play, and depth players like Cody Franson need to provide an offensive spark when they're put in position to do so.

UPDATE Yahoo!'s Nicholas Cotsonika has more on the mood in Nashville.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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