Commentary

Throughout the drama, Preds are one resilient, consistent hockey club

Updated: December 5, 2008, 9:27 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

NASHVILLE -- The advertising signs are painted onto the sidewalks on Nashville's Broadway, including in the block as you're approaching Jack's Bar-B-Que, several honky-tonks, and the statue of the crooning Elvis outside of the famous Legends Gift Shop.

Nashville defensemen Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis, and Ryan Suter are pictured, arms crossed and looking appropriately solemn.

And you are told of Predators hockey:

[+] EnlargeShea Weber
John Russell/Getty ImagesHeading into Friday's action, Shea Weber led all NHL defensemen with 24 points in 25 games.

"It Stays With You."

The same sign, in the form of a huge banner, is on the side of the nearby Sommet Center.

The issue, of course, is: "OK … but for how long?"

The Predators, now in their 10th NHL season, have been an amazingly resilient operation, playing on -- and remaining surprisingly competitive -- through so much drama, a gifted and hockey-minded songwriter could come up with a CD full of songs about it all.

The intrigue included:

• Jim Balsillie's 2007 purchase agreement, a deal that didn't move forward in the wake of the mixed messages he was sending about his intentions of acknowledging the team's condition-filled lease or attempting to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, posthaste. Accepting season-ticket deposits for a Hamilton franchise through Ticketmaster didn't do wonders for his credibility with the league office, and not just commissioner Gary Bettman.

• The subsequent sale to a bona fide and largely local group, but one which also ended up including William "Boots" Del Biaggio, the now-disgraced California venture capitalist whose 27 percent of the ownership shares are under the control of a bankruptcy trustee.

After managing to make the playoffs last season, despite what essentially was a clearance sale in the 2007 offseason, the Predators are off to a decent start again under coach Barry Trotz, and their 3-2 victory over Colorado on Thursday night got them to 13-10-2.

Yet, after an official crowd of 12,717 against Colorado, the Predators are averaging 13,716 for their 10 home games, and that's 29th in the 30-team league -- ahead of only the New York Islanders.

"We have those true, true die-hard fans here every night and they really support us," said Weber, who got his 11th goal of the season against Colorado and still is the only NHL defenseman in double figures in goals and also leads all blueliners with 24 points. "Hopefully, things will continue to get better and we'll get more fans and we'll stay here in Nashville."

Said Suter, the 23-year-old Madison, Wis., native who is the son of 1980 U.S. Olympian Bob Suter: "Our fans are good fans. They're coming the best they can to support us. It's tough down there because the football team [Tennessee Titans] is doing so good. We're competing with them. We always have our base crowd. Some nights are more than others, but they're loud."

I've always been scornful of the hockey media's tendency to make value judgments about consumers' prioritizing, and having double standards -- including the tendency to come up with excuses for falloffs at the box office in traditional markets, yet consider the same fluctuations in the "new" markets to be prima facie cases that they didn't deserve teams in the first place.

And what often is overlooked is how deflating it can be for ownership to have short pockets and inadvertently lean into the punch that the survival of the team is in question, which creates self-fulfilling prophecies. Why invest emotions and money in an enterprise that has one eye on the door?

But the facts can't be ignored: This is the franchise's 10th season. Hockey 101 should have been off the curriculum long ago, and the fact that many move into Nashville from other "traditional" hockey areas also added to the potential fan base, anyway. In this economy and these times, it's not shocking that other franchises -- including Colorado, where the 487-game sellout streak is in the nostalgia-drenched past -- are having problems at the gate, too.

So, no, the Predators are far from alone, but in so many ways, the savvy management of the franchise has been amazing. General manager David Poile and Trotz have been like golfers trying to putt with the gallery screaming, given all the potential distractions and disadvantages. But instead of throwing a golfer's fit, they just putt out and plow on.

The Predators now have that eye-popping young defensive corps with Weber, Hamhuis and Suter, and more than enough talent to be at least competitive -- and possibly more.

"As you can see, it hasn't affected me at all," joked Trotz, who has, shall we say, "grayed" a bit in the past 10 years of ups and downs, off and on the ice. "I've barely aged since I've been here.

"No, I think we have the trust in our whole organization that we're doing the right thing. We've had to make some tough decisions in terms of whom we've let go in the past and a lot of it had to do with financial situations we were in. We've become every resilient in terms of the stuff that happens around the team. We've come to grips with that, that we can't control that. The one thing we can control is what we do on the ice, and what we can do is be a team that is competitive and hopefully entertaining to watch.

"We do, we do have a good fan base in Nashville and sometimes we get scorned for that around the league. What we need is a little more corporate sponsorship, a little more consistency for those Tuesday night games, which everybody has the same problem with. But we're part of the city, we're part of the whole culture now, and it takes a generation. … Hockey is growing in this area. The players that play here love it here and it's a good franchise."

Of course, talking to NHL coaches about anything farther than approximately two weeks in the future is a risky proposition, given their "who-got-fired-today?" longevity. But Trotz's tenure is an example of how this franchise has done it right on so many levels.

"I appreciate it a lot," Trotz said. "It starts with ownership, with Craig Leipold originally, and with David Poile. There's many times where it's very easy to say 'We'll change the coach and fix the problem.' David has allowed us to go through the hard times and on the other side we've become a better team because of it. …

"We're trying to win a Stanley Cup. Sometimes we don't have the resources that other teams do, so we have to do it a different way. … Our guys dug in last year and we got in the playoffs when I don't think anybody in the league thought we were going to make the playoffs. We've had to move a lot of pretty good bodies out of Nashville and still remained pretty competitive.

"We don't really have any excuses. It is what it is. We'll just have to find a better way to do it. We'll have to be better at drafting, we have to be better at developing, we have to have a team mentality and a culture, which we do have here, and keep building."

Veteran defenseman Greg de Vries, who played six games with the Predators in their first season before he was traded, returned to Nashville last season and has been a steadying influence. He summed up the box-office situation succinctly.

"The support we have is great," he said. "Now getting the support we need might be a different story."

At some point, it's not a matter of a value judgment or placing blame, but an issue of wondering about whether it's going to work. No finger-pointing. No name-calling. No distasteful portraying of NHL patronage, or any sports patronage, as some sort of litmus test for the moral fiber of a market.

It either works or it doesn't.

The local ownership, albeit with Del Biaggio's 27 percent as an asterisk, has given the Predators a chance to prove their viability in Nashville. Or, more accurately, Nashville to prove its viability as a hockey market.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."