- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Because of both his background and experience, there aren't many hockey executives more worthy of respect than David Poile.
A second-generation hockey man, the Toronto-born Poile is the son of Bud Poile, a former NHL player, an executive in the old Western Hockey League and then the original general manager of both the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks.
David was a star and captain at Northeastern University, then went to work for the Atlanta Flames, proving himself and moving up to become the No. 2 man in the organization at a young age.
As GM at Washington, he built a solid organization, showed a unique patience, and further established himself as a man who could bridge the sometimes seemingly intimidating chasm between traditional, deep-rooted NHL thinking and the new wave that sometimes doesn't pay enough homage to the league's heritage.
Out of both necessity and wisdom, he has taken the long-range view again during his stint as the Nashville Predators' original -- and only -- GM, riding through the fluctuations of fortune that have led to the end of the hockey honeymoon in the city that wildly embraced the franchise in the beginning.
Cue up the steel guitars and the lamenting chorus: The Predators, who play a block from the original Grand Ole Opry building, and virtually adjacent to the row of bars where singers and bands crave discovery and their big breaks, have had only one sellout all season. They have had three announced crowds of under 10,000 and have averaged 12,379. The NFL's Titans have become the top act in town, and the arena no longer is the place to be for the country stars. Or even insurance salesmen.
"On the ice, we're making progress," Poile said at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. "Slowly, but surely. It's maybe slower than our fans want it to be, or longer than they thought it would take."
"It's maybe even slower than the general manager wants it. But we're going in the right direction and we're becoming more competitive."
Yes, there are those who want to make Nashville one of the showcase examples of the peril of "over-expansion'' into non-traditional markets. Is there some justification in that? Of course. The NHL would have been better off with 24 cities.
But one of the foundations for that argument from many arrogant traditionalists in "traditional" territories is laughably faulty. And that involves the ridiculous assumption that that when Nashville, Atlanta and Florida, or even Columbus, regress at the box office and become cold tickets, they're much different than more "natural" and deep-rooted hockey markets are -- or would be -- in this era of mega-prices and the corresponding need to provide bang for the buck.
It's comical when those "new" markets are pilloried by advocates who ignored all those empty seats in Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Boston, and Chicago (and the list could go on) when franchises struggled in recent seasons.
The problem, though, remains that such volatility and tenuous holds on markets can't be eliminated in a 30-team league. If the struggles are accompanied by economic conservatism and retrenchment -- as has been the case at Nashville, especially -- the cycle can be vicious.
Under the circumstances, the Predators' first half was praiseworthy.
Heading into Tuesday's home game against Los Angeles, the Predators are (20-16-4-2) and sit in the Western Conference's No. 7 spot. Getting the most of a mix of second-tier journeyman types (e.g., Scott Walker, Greg Johnson and Rem Murray) and prospects, Nashville is hanging in there with the league's lowest payroll.
The Predators got win No. 19 against Colorado last week, and when the Avalanche's Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were on the ice together on the power play, their combined 2003-04 salaries of $20.8 million roughly equaled Nashville's entire player payroll. It isn't just about not signing free agents. It's about retrenchment, as when Poile had to put 29-year-old ironman defenseman Karlis Skrastins on the market last summer. Skrastins went to Colorado, where he is paired with Adam Foote.
"Blame" the collective bargaining agreement.
"Blame" (or praise) a Craig Leipold ownership that seems unwilling to attempt to both improve on the ice and upgrade the franchise's value through financial aggressiveness.
"Blame" the Predators' mixed success at the drafting table. Part of that involves the bad timing to be decent out of the gate and not having a pick in the overall top five since the franchise's inaugural 1998 draft. The Predators took David Legwand with the No. 2 overall choice. And while Legwand still shows promise, if he had been to the Preds as Marian Gaborik (No. 3 in 2000) was to Minnesota or Dany Heatley (No. 2 in 2001) once was to Atlanta, maybe this story would be different.
"Blame" it all, but it comes down to this: The way the system works now, and the way Poile is having to work within it with his limited resources, Nashville has done a good job this season to just be in the running for its first playoff berth.
For it to work in the long run, virtually all the Predators' prospects -- Legwand, Scott Hartnell, Dan Hamhuis, Scottie Upshall, et al -- will have to step up, the fans will have to return in significant enough numbers to warrant that financial aggressiveness, and the ownership will have to respond.
The Predators are far from alone in those scenarios, of course, but they are the working example of the plight of the lower-payroll, traditionally lower-tier teams. Some of their moves can be self-defeating, and their executives are operating at severe disadvantages.
"Obviously, we have a number of guys who are very young," Legwand said. "We've grown up together, as teams have done in the past, a la Colorado and Detroit -- teams that have been together for six, seven, eight, nine years now. We're building here. Hopefully, once we get in the playoffs, we're there to stay. We want to be in there every year once we get there, and that's our goal. We want to prove ourselves there, grow up as a group of guys together.''
The upcoming CBA will set some of the parameters, but at some point, the Preds will have to be more ambitious in acquiring and keeping veterans. (Keeping goalie Tomas Vokoun, for example, will be critical.) Lower-payroll franchises have had surprising success -- as with the Wild in the playoffs last season and the Senators' longer-term competence -- but everything has to fall in place.
Poile isn't complaining about his working conditions, but he does have some hopes for what will come out of the next collective bargaining agreement.
"We're operating as best we can as a business," Poile said. "Right now, we're losing money. Our owner got in this because he thought this was a good business to be in. I understand that to bring in 10 dollars, and you spend 12, that's not a good situation. That can't last for very long. That's where we are, and we're in a group with a number of other clubs.
"The Nashvilles -- and I'm using the plural, because we're not by ourselves here -- and a lot of teams can't participate in player acquisitions or trades because it's not a level playing field. It's a selfish statement I'm making. I'd rather that the game of hockey be judged on the management and the coaching versus who's got the most dollars to spend. That's the way it used to be in this business."
Characteristically, Poile has stuck with his original coach, Barry Trotz, who worked with him in the Washington organization as well. And assistant coach Brent Peterson, the former NHL forward and Memorial Cup-winning coach with the Portland Winter Hawks, should have gotten a head-coaching shot somewhere long ago.
"In any market, there's a honeymoon period," Trotz said. "You've seen that in Columbus; you see that everywhere. We have to win them back. The only way we can win them back is winning. We don't have the resources of a Colorado or St. Louis, and we have to build through our draft. Free agency is a non-factor for our team, basically. It's going to take longer. They're baby steps.
"I want to see this team grow, and I want to be behind the bench when we do make the playoffs. I think that will be real special for me, for the fans, and for everyone, because we started something together. I'd like to get it done."
At the very least, that would set up a challenge for the Nashville fans.
"It will be interesting to see as we move forward, if we continue to play at this level or a little bit better and get to a playoff position, whether the fans come back," Poile said. "It's up to us to get it back. This is a really good city, with people who are really interested in our team. I think they have a great time when they come out to watch hockey. They like hockey.
"But we've never had a winning record. We've never made the playoffs. I'm certainly invested in the belief that it's going to happen. We're going to give them that chance to see the playoffs, whether it's this year or the next couple of years, and we'll find out whether we're going to be successful here.''
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."
The Predators may be progressing slowly, but that doesn't mean Nashville wasn't worth the gamble.