Growin’ Up

Bedlam in Music City. The Nashville Predators bench erupts following their 2-1 series-clinching victory over longtime Central-Division foes, the Detroit Red Wings last Friday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The Preds now move on to the second round versus the Phoenix Coyotes this Friday at Arena in Glendale, AZ (Photo: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images).

‘I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, when they said “sit down,” I stood up
Ooh, ooh, growin’ up…’

Bruce Springsteen, Growing Up  |  ©1973 Columbia Records

The Boss Would Approve
Amid the quiet buzz of the Nashville Predators dressing room last Friday night, following their series-clinching win over the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs Quarterfinals, an obviously satisfied, yet very businesslike hockey team was being interviewed by members of the various print and electronic media in attendance.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone standing next to me. I glanced to my right to see a kindly-looking gentleman, sporting a Predators home gold jersey, standing inconspicuously just inside the doorway. His eyeglasses and the Preds ball cap pulled low on his forehead could neither hide his mood, nor the twinkle in his eye as he stood there, just taking in the scene; smiling.

I leaned in and whispered, “Congratulations, Sir.”

Predators’ Ownership Group Chairman, Tom Cigarran, turned to shake my hand and replied softly, “Thank you; it’s a great day for Nashville.”

And indeed it was.

The Nashville Predators displayed to the hockey world something that few doubted they were capable of, but even fewer predicted they would do. In closing out Detroit in their best-of-seven series, four-games-to-one, Nashville accomplished a major milestone as a maturing franchise.

Dispatching their original postseason foes for the first time ever, the Preds took the initial step in what fans hope will be a four-stage march to the Cup, securing an exciting 2-1 victory before a deliriously raucous sellout crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena. It was the team’s 28th full house of this historic season, and easily the loudest hockey game I’ve ever attended.

Throughout their 13 seasons of NHL play, the Predators have had better records, but they’ve clearly never had a better team. And while cracking the second round barrier for the first time last season was no doubt a watershed moment, this series victory is arguably even more special.

This is a truly momentous occasion for the team, and while I’m well-assured that Trotz and his charges have already put it out of their minds, long-since focusing on second round opponent, the Phoenix Coyotes, even if they won’t, I’m gonna allow myself to savor the significance of this most recent achievement  just a while longer.

Like any other coming-of-age story, those who’ve followed the Predators from Day 1 realize how often difficult it can be to get to the next level, and Nashville’s Team has certainly paid its dues along the way.

Whether in life or as a hockey team, growin’ up ain’t always easy.

Over the progression of their development as a playoff contender, Nashville’s intra-division “rivals” – those bullies of the north – the Red Wings, have been the team against whom they’ve measured themselves as a franchise, both practically and experientially, making this occasion nearly beyond compare in the gravity of its importance.

I couch the term “rivals” in quotes to emphasize the fact that throughout most of their history, it could be said that the Predators were actual rivals of the Wings in only the loosest of terms. The Detroit model of excellence was that which General Manager David Poile and Head Coach Barry Trotz quite vocally placed on a pedestal from the beginning. The Red Wings organization has always been the gold standard for which this team has strived. However, I’m pretty sure that from the other side’s perspective – at least early on – any assignment of rival status to Nashville was more an assumption on the part of Preds fans than truthful acknowledgement in the minds of those in Hockeytown.

During the pre-lockout years, the Preds/Wings relationship wasn’t too dissimilar to that of Nashville’s continuing competition with the Columbus Blue Jackets – a relationship I’ve always dubbed a ‘Hammer vs. Nail rivalry.’ In other words, it was no rivalry at all – the idea being that in order for a true rivalry to exist, both parties need to at least enjoy a modicum of success against one another. However, from the outset, the Preds were rarely successful in competing against their big brothers from Motown.

From one perspective, even as Nashville has made strides over the past six seasons, Detroit has consistently operated at a level of success the Predators just couldn’t match. Time and again the Wings seemed destined to block Nashville’s ascent to the next level – in one fashion or another.

Then again, one could also say that perhaps the Red Wings have merely served as unwitting mentors to Nashville, placing the daunting obstacles around which the Preds would be forced to work in order to achieve their goal.

This season’s series marked the third time in which the Preds have engaged Detroit in Stanley Cup Playoffs action, but the first time in which Nashville has enjoyed the home ice advantage. That in and of itself was reason to sit up and take notice, going in.

Each of the Preds/Wings matchups has been an opening round affair; all have been hard-fought and competitive.  The first two – in 2004 and 2008 – ended at six games in Detroit’s favor; the latter being a springboard to the Cup Final and subsequent championship for the Red Wings. Preds fans are obviously hopeful a reciprocal scenario is now in their immediate future.

Growth Chart
Something I find interesting to consider in retrospect is the way the three playoff series’ versus Detroit – as well as a few non-head-to-head circumstances in-between – over the years have served to provide a fairly accurate of a stage-by-stage snapshot of the Preds’ development as a franchise; comparable to the emotional and physical development of a person.

Their first battle in 2004 was Nashville’s initial postseason appearance. The ‘adolescent’ Preds were a pesky and hard-working, yet inexperienced bunch that nevertheless gave a veteran Detroit squad – just two seasons removed from a Cup title in 2002 – a serious run for their money that year, winning the first two games played in Nashville. However, their inability to find success away from home ice would be their undoing, as the Red Wings won three games at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit as well as Game 6  here in Nashville, where a disappointed but appreciative Music City crowd expressed their justifiable excitement for the future of their young hockey team with a long standing ovation at game’s end.

Teenage Wasteland
However, if the 2004 playoffs signified Nashville’s innocent youth as a team, their next clash with the Wings in 2008 would likely be akin to their proverbial period of teenage angst. The Predators literally didn’t know whether they were coming or going at the time, and the Red Wings didn’t exactly help them to feel any more secure.

By the time the playoffs arrived in 2008, the franchise had passed through a veritable gauntlet of misery over the preceding 10 months. The Predators had finished the 2006-07 regular season tied for the second-most wins and points in the NHL, however, after a second consecutive first-round exit at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, original team owner Craig Leipold decided to cut his losses in Nashville. He gutted the roster and put the team up for sale that summer. Fortunately for Preds fans, the club stayed put, and despite the loss of five of their top core players to Leipold’s infamous ‘fire sale,’ Nashville battled to claim the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot in the in the ensuing 2007-08 season. Once again they drew Detroit, the NHL’s top seed that season with 115 points as compared to the Preds’ 91.

The outcome of those meetings would begin the same as back in ’04, with the Preds losing the first two in Detroit but subsequently tying the series with a pair of wins on home ice. However this time, even on the road the Preds’ compete level was much higher than before; Nashville looked as though they truly belonged in that series. Coming off a terrific regular season, Preds backstop, Dan Ellis, was solid in goal. Nevertheless, Nashville just couldn’t find a way to break their jinx at The Joe, nor avoid the injury bug that had always seemed to bite them at playoff time.

Once again they lost Game 5 in Detroit – although this time, in OT – as well as Game 6 back in Nashville, both without the services of their top point-producer and captain, Jason Arnott, who had been lost to latent concussion symptoms from a head injury sustained in the final minutes of Game 3. In the now-legendary mishap that seemed all-too typical of the Preds’ rotten luck back in those days, Arnie scored the game-winning goal but was then accidentally concussed when the celebratory tackle of second-year sensation, Alexander Radulov caused him to fall backwards, striking his head against the boards. Arnott didn’t immediately feel the effects of the blow, but would later be forced to sit out the series’ final two games.

Ironically (or not), two-and-a-half months later, Rads would announce that he was taking his game to Ufa and the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev team of Mother Russia, producing more drama and a helluva lot more angst. It seemed that the team was cursed. However, this near-trademark adversity would eventually forge the Predators into the team they are today. And again, appropriately, the Red Wings were an integral part of the story.

#(200)9 Dream (…or should I say, nightmare?)
Radulov’s defection to the Russia served along with the personnel reverberations of Leipold’s fire sale would take a toll the following 2008-09 season. Continuing attendance issues, which it was feared might eventually trigger an ‘out’ clause in the team’s lease, caused even more stress among the fan base about a possible relocation of the team. The Predators’ consistency in goal wavered, as Ellis struggled to repeat his stout performance from the previous season. The team’s goal-scoring went from ‘middle-of-the-pack’ to near ‘bottom-of-the-barrel’, even further highlighting their longstanding struggles on the power play.

These and other factors contributed to the all but foregone conclusion that the Preds would miss the playoffs at some point, post-2007. As it turned out, 2009 was the appointed time. The team finished ninth in the Western Conference, but was eliminated from playoff contention only after their final game of their season.

However, despite that dreary moment in Predators history, the team did not regress; it kept growing; it kept maturing. Trotz’s philosophy of two-way play had finally become the law of the land. There were no other options. There had to be total buy-in, up and down the roster.

And there was.

The following year, in 2009-10, when the pundits, in harmony, gave them no chance to make the playoffs, the Preds bounced back. They were a different team; scoring more, giving up less, but still learning; still growing. And while they didn’t meet in the playoffs that season, the Red Wings would continue to affect the Predators’ path; playing indirectly as it were, the role of the sand, whose irritation inside the oyster ever more gradually leads to the formation of that beautiful pearl.

Nashville had maintained an upper-middle position in an exceedingly tight Western Conference top eight for most of the season. Meanwhile, Detroit, beset with injuries all year had hovered at or below the cutoff point throughout the entire second half before making a furious push in the closing weeks. Once again, Nashville would be the victim of red magic. With a game in hand over the Preds, the Red Wings would catch and pass them on the season’s final weekend. That, coupled with an L.A. Kings win on the final Sunday, dropped Nashville from fifth to seventh in the final conference standings.

Nashville would once again experience growing pains, courtesy of the Detroit Red Wings; once again, they would somehow manage to keep them under their collective thumb. And while finishing ahead of Detroit in the standings would have amounted to no more than a moral victory in 2010, the Preds simply seemed destined never to escape the shadow of the winged wheel.

When I was 21; it was a very good year…
However, in an alternate observation that can now only be appreciated in hindsight, the Wings & Kings probably did the Preds a favor back in 2009-10. In knocking them down a couple of pegs in the standings, they sent Nashville directly into the path of the runaway train that was the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.

Wait. You mean that series the Preds more than likely could have won? The one in which Nashville literally handed the Hawks Game 5 on a silver platter, losing in overtime after having coughed up a one-goal lead in the closing seconds while on the power play, giving up a shorthanded goal with 13.5 ticks to go in regulation – and if they’d won, would have taken a 3-2 series lead back home to Bridgestone Arena?

Yup. That’s the one.

Why? Because losing that series the way they did, regardless of whether it was to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions or the Little Sisters of the Poor, provided the Predators with considerably more than blooper reel material. It was an eye-opener. It made them mad. It gave them resolve.

It became their Alamo and their Ah-HA Moment, all rolled into one.

The abrupt turnabout of the Blackhawks series would later be acknowledged as the team’s final growth spurt into full maturity. “Remember Chicago” would become the unofficial slogan of the following 2010-11 season, the year in which the Predators graduated to full status as a Stanley Cup contender. As the conference’s fifth seed they defeated the fourth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in six games, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Showcasing the talents of goaltender Pekka Rinne and defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, they opened the eyes of hockey observers everywhere, serving notice that they were a team to be contended with going forward.

The once-frustrated young man was finally old enough to vote. He finally saw the big picture and everyone around him knew it.

It’s a heady experience, becoming an adult; realizing that your parents really weren’t crazy when they told you that the world truly is what you make of it; when you realize that no matter how many times you stumble, you can still get back up and keep going – with or without help from anyone else – and that with the right tools and the proper attitude you can achieve your goals.

The Predators reached that stage last season and might have gone further in the playoffs, but were still a few adjustments short; a few tweaks still needed to be made. The maturity of experience and a few welcome personnel additions, courtesy of Mr. Poile, now seem to have made all the difference.

All Growed-Up
How fitting then is the Predators’ full-circle experience of finally besting their Motor City rivals – who now should indeed consider Nashville as such – first in the regular season to grab home ice, then in the series, literally imposing their will on that which to them had always been a frustratingly immovable object.

In this, the Predators’ most promising, most legitimate, and least overlooked season in franchise history, Detroit didn’t lose this series, they were beaten by Nashville. There can be no rationalization by anyone as to which was the better team.

If ever Ken Hitchcock’s well-worn metaphor of the Predators as ‘The Evil Empire’ came into play, this might be the most apropos example of the former padawan finally rising above his master – except, of course, when The Empire Strikes Back, in this case it’s a good thing, right?

The ironies of the Predators’ defeat of the Red Wings are as significant as they are plentiful.

Veteran forward, David Legwand, who especially in recent years has taken his performance to another level in the playoffs, is a Detroit native. Playing against the franchise he cheered for as a boy, he scores the winning goal in the series-clinching game.

More irony: Radulov, whose last NHL game prior to his return in March was in the 2008 playoffs against Detroit, returns to the Predators late this the season to assist in vanquishing not only the team’s ghosts, but perhaps a few of his own as well, adding the other goal and an assist in the clinching victory. Whether or not the ill-fated events of that 2008 series played a role in Rads’ decision to bolt to the KHL, the irony of his chapter in this story is undeniable.

The Predators’ team builders, Poile and Trotz, who for years openly attributed their actions and efforts to the emulation of the Red Wings model for success, now see the fruits of their labor played out in the most satisfying way possible, then reinforce it – almost apologetically attributing that success to the example set by their defeated foes. This I found to be the most ironic yet inspiring aspect of the Predators’ victory.

Takin’ Care of Business, Going Forward
An unfortunate turnover by veteran winger Marty Erat two years ago led to the Preds’ Game 5 disaster in Chicago, and by Erat’s own admission, kept his team from gaining the advantage that might have changed the series. Then again last season, in Game 4 versus Anaheim, Erat was injured and unable to help his team hold on to a third period lead that would have given them a 3-1 series advantage. This time around, however, Erat made no mistake, giving his best performance of the series in Game 4, Tuesday night in Detroit. He was a dominant presence on the ice, and in the game’s pivotal moment, generated enough concern from the Wings to draw three defenders at one time, setting up Kevin Klein’s game-winning goal.

Like many of Nashville’s other top players, whom after Detroit’s Game 2 victory, Trotz had reminded that they needed to step up and be top players, Erat did just that.

After Friday’s game, Erat reflected on the significance of his team’s accomplishment. “It’s a great accomplishment for our team, our players, and the organization to get past Detroit,” he said, “We’ve always struggled in the playoffs against them. But this year was an awesome year; to accomplish a win over them in the first round is great for the city, for the fans — for everybody. But we can’t go overboard; we’ve got another round now and have to focus on it.”

This is a team whose management and players understand the special place in time in which they now find themselves. The Predators are ‘all-in.’ Last season they may not have been convinced of just how good they were. Now, after defeating the Red Wings, they realize that nothing is beyond their grasp.

(And I think I got that from a pretty good source, too.)

The View From the Top
Back in the Nashville dressing room, I asked Cigarran just what all this meant to him as an owner. He explained, “What we’re trying to do is build an elite franchise; not one that contends for the Cup one year, but one that’s there every year…and we’re investing in that. We’ve got the core of the team here; they can be here for several years and make us competitive, long-term. “We’re gonna keep them together.

His comment wasn’t surprising in light of the moves that he and his group approved late in the season to bolster the Predators’ roster. Poile was extremely aggressive, adding Hal Gill, Andre Kostitsyn, and Paul Gaustad near the trade deadline, while additionally engineering Radulov’s return from the KHL in the waning weeks of the regular season.

Moreover, Cigarran reinforced the seriousness with which ownership is taking this boldest of all financial investments in their top players, with Weber’s one-year, $7.5 million arbitration award, Rinne’s seven-year, $49 million contract extension, and Ryan Suter’s hopefully pending multimillion dollar extension in a few months.

“It’s exciting how far we’ve come as a franchise, and beating Detroit four [games] to one? Who would have thought that a few years ago? And now the team believes they can beat anybody – and they do, so, it’s great!

“It’s great for the city, and it’s great for the fans who have been terrific this year; and we get more fans all the time, so it’s just an exciting time. This is the biggest time in the history of the franchise.”

However, I just couldn’t let the Chairman get away without the obvious question: how does this series victory over Detroit affect Suter’s – or later – Weber’s decision whether or not to stay in Nashville long-term?

Cigarran paused and then replied, “I can’t speak for them, but they wanted to be a part of – they love the community, the coaches … – they wanted to be a part of a team that had the potential to win a Stanley Cup.

“What do you see [here], after tonight?” He concluded with a grin.

We’re gonna be like them, yeah. Y’know we’re gonnna be like them.
It hasn’t exactly been Cats in the Cradle, and everyone knows it. Achievement on a Detroit Red Wings level doesn’t happen by osmosis. It doesn’t happen by declaring your use of similar methods, either. The Nashville Predators may never be – and likely won’t be, in today’s age of NHL parity – ‘another’ Detroit Red Wings. But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen. Why? Because they’ve already shown the ability to follow Detroit’s example, and in some ways, even improve upon it.

It’s only speculation, but one has to wonder what the Red Wings would look like right now, had their 21 consecutive seasons of making the playoffs been hamstrung with the financial constraints that David Poile has been forced to deal with as a matter of course (and I assure you, that’s not an intended slam in any way on the Wings or the phenomenal GM work of Kenny Holland, but it is a fair question).

Nevertheless, simply besting the Wings has never been Nashville’s goal. What has taken the Predators 13 seasons to accomplish is but a hollow victory if it is yet only as close as they’ll ever come to the Stanley Cup.

The Cup is the goal; it’s the reason that Detroit has always been worthy of such long and arduous emulation; they’ve done it – lots of times – and they’re out to do it every year. As so stated by the team’s ownership group chairman, that’s where the Preds want to be from this point forward.

The Predators haven’t supplanted the Red Wings; they’ve merely come of age. Big brother hasn’t been rendered irrelevant; little brother has simply grown up.

Bruce Springsteen, Growin’ Up | 07-07-78 | The Roxy | Hollywood, CA


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