Smack dab in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals, I thought it’d be a fun reminder that the Nashville Predators’ first game was in Huntsville, Ala. – smack dab in the middle of football season.
Full disclosure: I am enthralled by post-season hockey. It’s been background noise in my den much of the last few weeks while I’ve read or typed. I’m hard-pressed to name a dozen NHL players. But I’m captivated by the drama of these games, and the magnificent narration by America’s best play-by-play broadcaster, Doc Emrick.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a boatload of Predators games, once had a fascinating lunch with Barry Trotz, their first coach, and travel has enabled me to watch NHL games in Montreal, L.A., Dallas and Atlanta. As a kid sportswriter, who established his hockey cred by being the only guy on a 15-person staff who had ever ice-skated, I covered the Atlanta Flames’ first home game, on Oct. 14, 1972.
I missed the Predators’ first game. College football took precedence. I was in Knoxville, covering Tennessee’s win over Florida.
It was Sept. 19, 1998, and the Predators were facing the Florida Panthers at Von Braun Center Arena. Though it was an exhibition game, it was the Predators’ debut, and smothered with historical significance. The Nashville Tennessean even listed a number of “firsts,” including first fight. Ah, hockey…
The Predators’ brass had determined to make biggest splash possible for the regular-season home-opener by playing all the exhibition games away from home. Huntsville, with its hockey fervor and its convenience, was the perfect locale.
The Predators beat the Panthers 4-2, erasing a 2-1 deficit. Marian Cisar, from the wonderfully medieval city of Bratislava, Slovakia, had the historic first goal – only to be soon sent down to the Predators’ minor league affiliate in Milwaukee.
Pro hockey in Nashville has been a rollercoaster. It rode the novelty for a number of years, as everybody with a big hat and gold record jumped on the bandwagon. Things waned for a while, then were revived as the Predators became contenders again, with six consecutive postseason appearances and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2016-17. The night they beat Anaheim to clinch the spot in the finals was a dynamic and emotional sporting event as I’ve ever attended.
But 22 years ago, Predators owner Craig Leipold was very much in a “please give us a look” mindset. “If people give this sport a try, they’ll love it,” he told The Tennessean.
Huntsville, already in love with its minor league team and still in the afterglow of a UAH NCAA Division II national championship only a few months earlier, did a nice job of filling the VBC that night.
Still, The Tennessean observed, “the biggest rounds of applause” came in the second period. That’s when a pro-Crimson Tide audience, their team idle that day, celebrated the P.A. announcement that Auburn had lost to LSU, 31-19.