We May Think of Them As Superheroes, But They’re Only Human

The Nashville Predators’ newest ‘hero,’  defenseman Hal Gill made an immediate impact in his first home game Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, setting up Nashville’s shorthanded,  game-winning goal versus the Vancouver Canucks. He may not wear a cape, but Preds fans hope his super play continues. (Photo: John-Russell_NHLI-via-Getty-Images;  Cape courtesy of Photoshop).

Heroes Play Here
The 2011-12 season’s Nashville Predators marketing slogan is the multiple-entendre, Heroes Play Here.’ And while some may scoff at the notion of labeling hockey players as ‘heroes,’ particularly in a region of the country where the real heroes of the U.S. military cast such a long shadow in everyday sensibly, far be it from the Predators organization to be guilty of trivializing the concept; certainly that was the furthest of the campaign’s intentions. The Predators’ organization has had a longstanding and positive relationship with Fort Campbell and the military community in and around Nashville since the team’s inception; one built on mutual support and utmost respect that goes both ways.

I understood it at the time a decade ago when Anheuser-Busch voluntarily changed the ad campaign moniker of their brilliantly funny Bud Light radio spots from “Real American Heroes” to “Real Men of Genius.”  It was soon after 9/11 attacks and the reasoning was obvious, both in reverence for the men and women who gave their lives in the service of rescuing the survivors of that horror, as well as for U.S. military personnel who were committing themselves to a harm’s way existence overseas through America’s response in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, heroes of all types have always been an important part of our thinking as Americans, and with no offense intended toward anyone, their constitution is not restricted to only those who lay their lives on the line in the execution of duties. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and walks of life. They’re our champions, from politics, to commerce, to sports. They guard not only our freedoms, but our dreams as well.

I’d have to guess that anyone who is still so dogmatic and/or sensitive about the connotation surrounding the term these days has either never been a child, or more specifically, has never read a comic book or paid attention to motion pictures in the new millennium; and the latter of those types, is growing harder and harder to find. I mean, ya can’t swing a dead Catwoman without hitting at least one super-hero flick in the movie theaters these days.

And again, we need heroes.

Earning Their Capes
The hero concept is a particularly apt one for team sports of any type, especially given today’s economy, foreign affairs, and the current overall numb-striking reality in which many Americans find themselves, financially.

Now more than ever, we need distractions; something to take our focus away from the troubles in the world; we need something and someone to root for; to live vicariously through; to achieve the daily victories on the playing field of sports that all too often elude us on the playing field of daily life.

And while I’m sure nobody relishes the kind of pressure associated with having the H-word attached to their name, in my opinion, the very reason that makes Music City’s hockey team special is that same tangible, attainable quality, available to all of us in our work-a-day existence; personal effort and dedication are the foundational materials upon which General Manager David Poile and Head Coach Barry Trotz have built the Predators franchise; it’s the launch pad that has hurtled Nashville into the consistent, steady orbit that it has enjoyed as a perennial Stanley Cup Playoffs participant.

Without the work ethic they exude on a nightly basis, the Preds are pretty much just another small-market team; it’s their dedication that propels them to greater heights; it’s in doing the little things that they position themselves to achieve big results. And for that reason, I believe they are prototypical role models, not only for kids, but perhaps even more so for adults.

So, in my opinion, it’s neither far-fetched nor inappropriate to project a comic book connotation onto Nashville’s collection hard-working, yet under-appreciated purveyors of on-ice excellence.  The Predators, both as an organization and a team, mirror the pervading humility, long-suffering patience, and effort of the working-class city they represent, and in addition are as serious about being a part of the community as they are about winning hockey games. You don’t have to roll your eyes when asking ‘what’s not to like?’ about the character of this team. And as standard-bearers of the Predators Way, you’d have to search pretty hard to find better than the likes of Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and company.

Back On Track
While it’s tough for most people to truly identify and/or empathize with an athlete making in a single season what most of us would be truly fortunate to make in a couple of decades, there is something uniformly accessible about the sport of hockey, making it both appealing and inspiring, whether or not we ever could or would have played it ourselves. Effort and human will reign on the ice, as they do in real life. Talent is important, but is nearly always subordinate to supreme effort. In that vein, hockey players are fitting heroes; easily identifiable for those fans who possess similar values – or simply wish that they did.

Barry Trotz’s crew has given the Bridgestone Arena faithful plenty to cheer about this season – especially of late – after a somewhat spotty start to the 2011-12 season. The Preds currently occupy the same fifth place position in the Western Conference that they held at the end of last season. However, just as in 20010-11, they are within striking distance of claiming that home-ice-assuring fourth position in the playoff pool, just three points behind the vastly-improved St. Louis Blues, with whom they do battle tonight at Bridgestone Arena.

The Blues are a big, young, talented group, who this season, under the guidance of Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, have finally begun to fulfill the promise they’ve shown in recent years. Unfortunately for St. Louis fans the somewhat mystifying inability of Hitch-coached teams to be successful in Nashville doesn’t bode well for St. Louis to extend their points lead on the Preds tonight. Trotz has pretty much owned his good friend, fashioning a remarkable 18-4-0 and one tie over Hitch’s Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and now the Blues. So far this season, that dominance has extended to the road for the Predators as well, boasting a 4-0 overall record versus the Blues, including a pair of wins at Scottrade Center. After tonight the division rivals meet for a final time in the regular season on Tuesday, Mar 27th in St. Louis.

Nonetheless, even superheroes can lose their way; especially those who are only human after all.

After a blistering 15-game run from late December to the end of January in which Nashville garnered 26 of the possible 30 points, the Preds came back to earth a bit following the All-Star break. They dropped four out of their first five games in the month of February, however, that included a pair of shootout losses, so they at least picked up a point in two of the four losses. However, the Preds have since relocated their mojo and have turned in some of their best-sustained efforts of the season over the last four games, winning three of their last four. Moreover, that lone defeat came in what was perhaps the team’s best defensive showing of the season. It required a miraculous, ice-water-in-his veins goal by a guy who has pretty much been Kryptonite on skates through the years for the Preds, the Detroit Red WingsPavel Datsyuk. The Wings’ likable/despicable/ageless wonder scored with just five seconds on the clock to break a 1-1 tie and keep the Preds from earning at least a single point in Motor City.

Speaking of points, since the day after Christmas, the Preds have gone 17-5-2, gaining an impressive 40 out of a possible 48 points in the 24 games played over that stretch.

There’s a New Gill in Town
With the trade deadline looming next Monday, February 27th at 3pm EST, Poile may not have made his last move in attempting to procure a top-six scorer to enhance the Preds’ playoff chances. However, the two moves he made in advance of the deadline could very well add to his growing legend as a general manager with the ability to make solid, effectual deals for his club.

Last season Poile obtained forward Mike Fisher to Music City from the Ottawa Senators, the direct result of which was Nashville’s first-ever advance to the second-round of the playoffs.

This year the Preds’ GM made what has proved to be another shrewd beneath-the-radar move, snatching forward, Brandon Yip off the waiver-wire from the Colorado Avalanche. Yip has played well in his 10 games since being acquired on January 19, 2012. He has chipped in with a goal and an assist and has provided a significant energy boost in largely 3rd and 4th line duty. His size (6’1″/191 lbs.) and speed have provided Trotz with a lot of options in administering a now all-healthy Preds lineup.

However, the most significant of Poile’s moves was the addition Nashville’s newest ‘hero.’ In what must be considered a prime piece of the puzzle for Nashville, acquiring stay-at-home behemoth defenseman Hal Gill from the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, February 17th. At 6’7″/241 lbs., the dude is built like superhero – or at least an NFL defensive end! The 13-year NHL vet is a shut-down specialist – especially on the penalty kill – and has a reach that can envelop any opponent, along with wonderfully quick hands. He possesses an equally quick wit and should be as valuable in the dressing room as he is on the ice. Gill brings years of playoff experience to the Preds, including a pair of Stanley Cup Final appearances; and a Cup Championship ring earned with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Gill is a welcome compliment to an already-talented, yet somewhat undersized Preds’ blueline corps.

In Nashville’s most recent victory, a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at Bridgestone, in addition to throwing a blanket over the Canucks’ Ryan Kesler, the Preds’ chief tormentor from last year’s playoff series, Gill’s breakup of a Vancouver pass on the power play in the Preds’ zone resulted in a a 2-on-1 rush the other way, with Fisher feeding Sergei Kostitsyn for a shorthanded marker that would prove to be the game-winner.

Having a guy that big and that good, playing on the second defensive pairing gives Trotz a tremendous number of options against the kind of teams Nashville will doubtlessly see in the later rounds of the playoffs, should they repeat or better last season’s Western Conference Semifinal performance. Teams such as Vancouver, Detroit, and the San Jose Sharks, that possess multiple scoring lines are likely to elicit fewer acrobatics from goalie Pekka Rinne when Gill’s big body is draped all over the opponent’s top secondary playmaker.

He may yet have a ways to go before claiming the title of the most popular ‘Gill’ in Nashville, but Hal’s sure to be plenty popular with Preds fans – including his ‘cousin’ Vinny.

After the Vancouver game Tuesday night, several of his new teammates extolled Gill’s play as well as marveling at how well he uses his size to his advantage. Gill’s comments were full of respect for the level of effort his Preds teammates exhibited on the ice, resulting in yet another TV timeout standing ovation from the Bridgestone crowd in the third period. Gill additionally expressed praise and awe (“He’s HUGE!”) for his new goaltender, Rinne, with whom he’s been impressed, not only by his size, but his ability to play the angles so well and his uncanny ability to position himself to always see the puck, even through traffic.

Finally, when was asked if he thought he fit the bill in consideration of the Predators’ Heroes Play Here slogan this season, he took the question in the spirit it was delivered, responding with a smile and followed up with a statement commensurate with the level of veteran leadership he brings to the Nashville Predators.

Gill said, “I don’t know…there are a lot of heroes out there; I don’t know if it’s a stretch to call hockey players heroes, but it’s nice to go out there; there’s a lot of young kids that look at us as heroes, but you just try to play hard and do what you can for ‘em. Just gotta do it”

That’s all we need, Hal.

I mean, heck, what more could you want in a hero?


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