NASHVILLE – When the Tampa Bay Lightning ended a run of nine postseason absences in 2003, Chief Operating Officer Sean Henry came up with the “smash car” idea.
Washington Capitals stickers were put on a vehicle and fans nailed it with a sledgehammer as a way to raise a money for the team’s foundation.
The concept blew up, to Henry’s surprise. So when the Lightning advanced to the second round, he hired an artist to decorate a car with New Jersey Devils logos.
“The guy was so proud. He stepped back from the car and said, ‘I still don’t know why you wanted me to do this, but isn’t it great?’ ” Henry said, laughing. “I gave our mascot a sledgehammer, and right in front of the guy, he took a big old whack at it. I thought the artist was going to cry.”
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup the following year, and the smash car became a smashing hit. Now President and CEO of the Nashville Predators, Henry naturally brought the idea to … Smashville, where hammering painted cars has taken off during the Preds’ run to the Final.
In front of Bridgestone Arena, there are cubes of smashed Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks painted cars. The Blues and Ducks cubes have flags in them. The Blackhawks’ one has a broom inserted because they were swept. The latest to arrive is a Pittsburgh Penguins painted smash car. Fans pay $5 to smash the car into oblivion.
After beating the Blues, the Predators actually donated proceeds to the Blues to assist recent flood victims.
“At first, it created a fervor among opposing teams’ fans who thought it was disrespectful, but it’s not at all,” Henry said. “It’s a great thing for our fans to channel their passion.”
Of course, passion and Predators fans go together like beer and country music. As novice fans who turn on the Stanley Cup Final will quickly learn Saturday night, attending a Predators home game is one of the NHL’s unique experiences.
From the live acts on the concourses and band stage over the Zamboni entrance to the famous artists singing the national anthem, from Tim McGraw’s goal song to the catfish thrown on the ice (Nashville’s answer to Detroit’s octopus) to the distinctive chants uttered by the Predators’ “seventh man,” a game in Nashville simply oozes fun.
“It’s an incredibly neat accomplishment to see what that franchise has become,” said Wild assistant GM Andrew Brunette, who scored the first goal in Predators history in 1998. “Even when the building wasn’t sold out, it was always a loud place, but a lot of blood, sweat and tears were spent growing the sport there.
“I remember when I first started, some fans didn’t know what icing was or an offside call. But they really informed and educated them and got in the community to grow the game, and they’re reaping the rewards. It’s just a fun place to play.”
Nicknamed NashVegas — because Lower Broadway is chock full of fun with great restaurants, multilevel and rooftop bars and free live country acts at all hours — Nashville continues to grow. There are cranes everywhere as hotels, condos and office buildings rise from the ground.
There is no ticket inventory for the potential three Stanley Cup Final games. The cheapest way into the arena if not a season-ticket holder was $665, and tickets on secondary markets are going for thousands. If there happens to be a Game 6, it’ll conflict with the CMA Festival and nearby Bonnaroo Festival, which could lead to an unprecedented economic explosion in Nashville.
In the suburbs, mailboxes feature Predators flags and many roads have “Go Preds” banners in yards with the individual street names on them.
Before Game 3, Alan Jackson is doing a free concert on Broadway and it’s estimated up to 30,000 people may flock downtown just for the watch party in front of the arena.
But it’s becoming clear Nashville isn’t just a party market (it’s the bachelorette party capital of the U.S.) or big-event market (conventions bombard the city). Fans love their hockey, and there’s a personality about Bridgestone unlike many arenas, something Henry and his 200 full-time and 800 part-time staff worked hard to improve.
“When I first got here, I felt we had to connect what happened in the bowl to the excitement outside the building,” Henry said. “It’s like you hit our curb, and this boring lull hit and we took the excitement out of you almost with our plaza and our concourse until the game started and it built back up. So we did our best to raise the energy level so we could build upon the excitement you’re coming in with.”
A game experience at Bridgestone is not the norm. It takes all the passion of college football, soccer, NASCAR and hockey purists and boils them together into excitement.
In the playoffs, there have been anthem singers who have remained a surprise to everyone until they emerge. They’ve had Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum and the team’s unofficial mayor, Vince Gill.
It has leaked that Martina McBride is Game 3’s mystery anthem singer.
“I wish I could take credit for it but about 200 other employees want to take credit for it as well,” Henry said. “We had to do it. We’re Music City. We have so many big, big names and acts that are season-ticket holders, that are suite holders, that are at our games all the time that are really, really passionate to what we are.”
Underwood, the wife of Nashville captain Mike Fisher, proves that constantly. She’s the Preds’ biggest cheerleader on Twitter, even chirping the refs.
Henry said the Predators ended the season with 10,000 season-ticket equivalents. They’ve sold more than 2,000 in the playoffs and expect to start next year near a capped 14,000.
“It’s the first time in franchise history we have to manage our inventory in a certain manner we haven’t done before,” Henry said. “It’s really been overwhelming. It’s grown in ways we couldn’t imagine. We’re a hockey market.”