Faith, Hope, & Love – in a Hockey Context (Part 1 of 2)

The team-building tag-team of Head Coach Barry Trotz (right) and General Manager David Poile (left) have been the Nashville Predators collective guiding force since Day One of the franchise. The Preds will make their seventh playoff appearance in the last eight NHL seasons Wednesday night versus the Detroit Red Wings  at Bridgestone Arena. How do they do it? Well, it may not be magic, but it might be something just as special. (Pre-composited images: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)


It’s Your Sunday Sermon…Just a Tad Late…

Although it might be somewhat apropos, the timing of this story was in no way planned to coincide so closely with this past Easter Sundayhonest.

This is actually a concept that I’ve pondered off and on for more than a couple of years now, in observing how the Nashville Predators do business, and what that modus operandi really means, not only in practical terms, but in less-quantifiable ones as well.

As the team prepares to embark on yet another postseason run tonight at Bridgestone Arena versus their longtime playoff arch-rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, I believe it’s a concept that has presented itself more eloquently this season than ever before.

It’s a quality that goes well beyond the X’s and the O’s of Head Coach Barry Trotz and his system of responsible two-way play, or the organizational mastery of General Manager David Poile and his philosophy of teambuilding from the back end forward.

It’s not something that’s easy to miss if you’re looking for it, but it’s also not likely to step up and smack you in the kisser either. This perception has grown from an idle inkling I gained about the Preds early-on, to something that I now believe is a fairly verifiable reality. However, it wasn’t until sometime over the final 4-5 weeks of the recently concluded regular season that I felt I’d received enough clarity to go ahead and actually say it. Even now I’m still a little hesitant because it’s a pretty bold proclamation, though not at all shocking if you care to view things from a less-than-jaded perspective.

Nonetheless, in its relation to a professional sports franchise, some will no doubt consider my observation rather far-flung, regardless of how I couch it; it’s just too easy a concept to dismiss at face value in light of the numerous components of organizational success that go into the business of building a professional sports franchise in this day and age.

Moreover, sports franchises – and NHL Hockey teams in particular – thrive on statistical data, and the subject of this essay is perhaps the least statistically-measurable thing imaginable; it’s the most intangible of intangibles; but when it’s there, you know it. When it’s not there, you know it too.

It’s an obvious characteristic of most championship-caliber organizations, yet it’s still a highly-elusive commodity that can be as fickle as success itself, if it’s not rooted in genuineness of both intent and of deed.

What is it is should neither surprise nor offend anyone; it’s pretty obvious, actually. However, where I fear I might incite a little eye-rolling here is in the source material from which my observation is based: The Bible. See? I saw your eyes roll just now. But that’s okay; chances are I might feel the same way if I were in your shoes.

I mean, let’s face it; over the years we’ve had plenty to be cynical about. We’ve been besieged by professional athletes who would lead us to believe that God must somehow play favorites on the playing field; apparently blessing certain ‘godly ‘jocks over others, according to His strange and mysterious plan.

Riiight.

I personally would have to think that if you’re not at least a little skeptical of the appropriateness (if not the sincerity) of this nouveau-mingling of religion and sports, you either don’t care or perhaps just aren’t paying attention. To the latter circumstance, those who have followed the phenomenon are painfully aware of the ad nauseum coverage of recent months involving a certain NFL quarterback. And for that I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

That being said, I don’t consider it inappropriate at all to pull out a biblical reference for application to the subject of hockey; especially when it deals with a concept that undeniably fits into a secular – if yet somewhat metaphysical – construct as well.

So don’t worry; I’m not gonna pull a Tebow here. I’d simply invite to you to join me in applying a little semi-spiritual logic and a lot of common sense to what most would assume is a purely secular exercise.

Cue Huey Lewis and The News
You don’t have to live in the buckle of the Bible Belt as we do here in Nashville to realize that while everyone may not be particularly religious, most of us would likely admit to at least being spiritual to a certain extent; and with that in mind, it’s not too far-reaching a generalization to say that all but the very most cynical of us would acknowledge the power of love.

Whether or not that power is generated from above or simply in the mind, one thing cannot be disputed: it does exist and its presence can change things.

Love and respect have implications that are more far-reaching and infinitely more effectual than the simple outcome of a game played on sod, hardwood, or ice; and when considered in the context of a sport like hockey, in which the intertwined flow of relationship via physical teamwork, emotional support, and personal confidence are absolute requirements for success, love and its associated applications cannot be underestimated in their significance.

So, “what’s love got to do with it,” you ask?

In my opinion; everything; and the Nashville Predators are proof.

A Road Less-Traveled
For nearly ten years now, the Preds have been somewhat of an enigma to more than a few hockey purists. How is it that in a non-traditional market, in the wake of a controversial ownership change and numerous financial challenges that they’ve managed to overcome all obstacles, remaining competitive, year in and year out?

I mean, seriously; Nashville?

Sure, they’ve built up a dedicated fan-base and a firm hockey foundation overall, with tremendous scouting, a successful minor league system, strong support for local youth leagues, and all of that. But what’s the real reason they’ve been a playoff team for seven out of the last eight seasons played in the NHL – and even the one time during that span in which they did miss the postseason, back in 2008-09, it required all 82 games for them to be eliminated?

Even teams such as the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, perennial Cup contenders, the Vancouver Canucks, and the ubër-consistently-successful (and likewise, former Cup champion) Dallas Stars, have missed the postseason more than once since Nashville became a playoff team in 2004.

“Big whoop,” you say. “All three of those teams have, at worst, made it to the Cup Final multiple times; and Nashville’s deepest run in the playoffs to date has been – what – the second round? Like, ONCE?”

And to that, my only retort would be, “YEEEESSSS! And it was FRICKIN’ AWESOME, DUDE!”

Look, my intention is not to indicate anything beyond the obvious. The fact of the matter is the Predators have remained consistently successful – usually against much heavier odds than those of other franchises – all while gradually augmenting their profile among the NHL’s best teams. They’ve proven that they’re no flash in the pan. They’ve been good, and they’re getting better.

The Little Engine That Could has grown beyond, “I THINK I can; I THINK I can; I THINK I can.”

The organization’s up-and-coming potential now appears to be a legitimate reality. And through it all, I believe, the proverbial mortar that holds each and every brick of this franchise’s foundation together is composed of one chief element:

Love.

Okay, go ahead and snicker if you want, but you know as well as I do that the greatest asset the Predators organization enjoys is not only a consistency of success, but a consistency of vision and of leadership as well. And the most consistent aspect of that leadership, as applied by the only two men to have ever occupied the key posts of GM and Head Coach, is the way that they treat their players.

This historical tandem of Poile and Trotz have been the guiding force for the organization from its inception in 1997, and in the time since, no player has ever asked to be traded; no one to my knowledge has uttered a considerable word of disparagement, publicly, about the way they were treated. And while many Preds players have indeed been traded and/or have voluntarily moved on to other teams for financial considerations, not a one has left a trace of scorched earth in his wake.

(Well…maybe one…but we’ll talk about him a little later.)

In my observations of the team from the beginning, as a season ticket-holder and a blogger, I firmly believe that it’s the love; it’s the respect; it’s the genuine caring that permeates the Predators organization that continues to make the difference. It is, I believe, the main reason that Nashville still even has a hockey team; and it’s why the Preds are positioned to make perhaps their most legitimate Cup run yet this season.

It begins with – but is certainly not limited to – Poile and Trotz; a pair of, if not extraordinary, then certainly uncommon leaders in today’s NHL landscape. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of other great places to play, or those in which the environment isn’t equally as positive as Nashville’s. However, there’s a reason that Poile and Trotz have been the only GM and Head Coach, respectively, to serve in the organization’s 14 years of existence – and that they carry such a distinction to which no other organization today can lay claim. There’s a reason that you’ve never heard of a player revolt, or of a Preds’ team that had ‘quit playing’ for their coach; or even any considerable outcry from public, saying ‘the GM must go.’

At first glance, the obvious assumption might be the team’s continued success in making it to the postseason seven out of eight times since 2003-04 – a trait of Poile-managed clubs that he carried with him to Music City from a previous 15-year stint as GM of the Washington Capitals – 14 of which ended with the Caps making it to the postseason.

But beyond the mere appearance of a successful hockey club, down at 501 Broadway, there is additional substance that neither winning nor money can buy. Some players have indeed gone on to greener pastures, yet a number of others have chosen to remain in Nashville over the years, usually playing for less money than they could have received elsewhere.

I believe there’s a reason for that.

*     *     *     *     *

Next: “I’ll take ‘Things That Last Forever’ for $100, Alex.”

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