At first glance, hockey, a Canadian rite of passage, and country music, a Nashville institution, might seem to be strange bedfellows. However, in the instance of the Nashville Predators and the megastars of country music, the connection was there from the moment that the city was awarded a National Hockey League expansion franchise in 1998.
Putting an NHL team in an area not traditionally known as a hotbed for major pro hockey was certainly a roll of the dice by the league. The stars of country music got to work from Day 1 to sell the city on the sport and ensure that it was a gamble that would pay dividends to everyone.
“Before there was even a team formed, it was Garth Brooks, Amy Grant and Vince Gill that were kind of the faces of the first ticketing, marketing and promotional stuff,” Predators Director of Communications Kevin Wilson told the Tennessean.
A unique Nashville goal song, created by Jeb Stuart Anderson, Steve Dukes and Mark Hall and performed by Tim McGraw, has been playing at Bridgestone Arena since the Predators netted their first NHL goal. “… Don’t know what it is ‘bout them Predators scoring / But I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.”
These country legends were lending a hand to help sell the game to fans not initially familiar with hockey, but well-versed in country music. Amy Grant was featured in ads for the team for years, her teeth blacked out to give her the look of a grizzled veteran of the ice wars.
The warm embrace when the Preds took the ice for their first NHL season in 1998-99 was invaluable in selling the team to a non-traditional hockey market. San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner, a defenseman with the original Predators team, remembers it well.
“Barbara Mandrell had the team to her house for dinner after our first win (over the Carolina Hurricanes),” Boughner told the Windsor Star. “We got congratulatory faxes from both Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.”
“It’s kind of cool when you arrive in the morning and see a couple of faxes pinned up on the bulletin board from those kinds of people. That’s when you know you’re in Nashville.”
The Partnership Continues
The new generation of country stars followed their predecessors in embracing the Predators. It didn’t hurt in 2011 when Nashville acquired center Mike Fisher from the Ottawa Senators. Fisher’s wife just happens to be country star Carrie Underwood.
When the Predators launched a playoff run in the spring of 2017 that would see them meet the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final, Underwood stepped up and stepped in to perform the Star Spangled Banner prior to a Preds playoff game.
“We do music, we do hockey, and we do everything loud,” Underwood said.
That was a big deal, and a game-changer in the country-Preds connection.
“No artist is ever raising their hand wanting to do the national anthem on any given day, but (Underwood) wanted to be the first step in involving the country music community,” Universal Music Group Director of Marketing & Artist Development Amanda Good said.
As Nashville moved through the postseason toward the first (and so far only) title shot in franchise history, other country stars clamored to be the next to perform the anthem prior to a Predators playoff game.
“She raised the bar and kind of challenged the rest of the music industry,” Wilson said.
Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Yearwood, Lady A, Keith Urban, Kelly Clarkson, Vince Gill, Martina McBride and Little Big Town were among the country sensations who performed at the rink during that memorable playoff run.
Players Get On Board
Hockey players come from all over the world, but not many come from Tennessee. Still, when they come to Nashville, they embrace country music.
“When I got down there, I totally jumped into the scene,” Boughner remembered. “You can’t help it. Every place you go to, every radio station you turn to, it’s country music.”
For defenseman Jamie Allison, himself a professional singer, the chance to play for the Predators from 2003-06 was a dream come true. He got to perform at legendary Nashville honky-tonk Tootsie’s.
“You drive down Music Row and see all the big labels – RCA, Sony – it’s pretty awe-inspiring,” Allison recalled.