If you haven’t heard, the Nashville Predators are facing off against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final. They began as the 16th of 16 teams to enter the postseason, but announced their presence early with a sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks and continued their success, dispatching the St. Louis Blues in six games.
Along the way, the environment at Bridgestone Arena has developed a reputation for being loud, exciting, and really, really gold. After “On The Forecheck,” SBNation’s Predators’ blog, ventured to Raleigh for a game against the Hurricanes in March and shared their experience at PNC Arena, it seemed like an ideal time to check out their digs and see just how rowdy the famed Preds crowd could be.
Along with many of you, the Predators won me over after their sweep of Chicago in the first round. I’ve always been partial to southern teams (the Lightning have long been darlings as well), so Nashville was an easy choice to follow along with on this ride.
My family has been discussing the prospect of a trip to Nashville for playoff hockey since the end of the regular season, just for fun. We didn’t think it would happen after we missed out on the first two rounds, but hey, sometimes you luck out and notice the broadcast hold tickets being released and suddenly you’re on your way to Tennessee.
From our locale in Charlotte the trip was just six hours and change, but the eight-plus from Raleigh are easily made straight down I-40. As Alex noted in the OTF article linked above, the stretch between Asheville and Knoxville is a gorgeous drive through scenic mountains and views for miles around at times. Traffic isn’t awful but you can expect to slow down around cities.
Arriving into the city, I was a bit surprised to see that it wasn’t as spread out as I expected it to be. Though Nashville’s population (684,410) tops that of Raleigh (439,896), the two cities don’t actually look that different. But the numerous cranes and construction sites (all flying gold “Stand With Us” flags for their local hockey club, which was a c) mean that the city I saw won’t be the same over the next couple years.
We got off the highway and found parking in the Music City Convention Center — a modern, sloping piece of architecture housing a parking deck — which was conveniently just across the street from Bridgestone Arena. There were quite a few gold jerseys stepping out of cars adorned with Predators decals, but nothing that stunned me — until we turned the corner of the arena.
Food trucks, DJ’s, Happy Hour specials for fans on Broadway before and after the game, a Ducks-colored sedan on the plaza for some
anger management car-bashing in good fun — suddenly the “Smashville” name made sense. Granted, you’d expect playoff atmospheres to be of the rowdier variety, but it was like the whole city was in existence just to host this game.
We took in all the sights we could despite getting into the city a bit later than expected, and spent plenty of time watching fans of all ages take a swing at the Chevy Malibu, potentially soon to rest alongside the cube-shaped remnants of the Blackhawks and Blues cars. We spent some time in the team store, acquired some gold to fit in, and made our way onto the concourse.
In the Arena
The most glaring difference between Bridgestone and PNC Arena is the location; while Preds fans have plenty of options for pre-game entertainment, it’s hard to see ball hockey games and massive tailgates set up outside the downtown location of Bridgestone Arena like you would on a fall (or early summer) day in the sprawled out parking lots of PNC.
A quick walk around the concourse revealed a very Nashville-esque flair; there were live musicians, multiple barbeque stands, neon-lighted signs, and lots of local beer. One stand — Yee-Haw Brewing Co. — even boasted free t-shirts with the purchase of a beverage, which we couldn’t pass up:
Cool shirts, good beer; no complaints here.
The concessions were solid as well, and I made sure to hit the aforementioned barbeque joints for dinner. I missed out on pulled pork, but the brisket sandwhich I had instead was phenomenal in its own right. Not to be outdone, the mac and cheese offered as a side is about as good as mac and cheese gets. Much of the food and music experience felt like a Hurricanes Homegrown night; the local flavor was evident and very much appreciated.
One opportunity we missed out on was the grilled cheese kiosk on the lower level concourse. Perhaps OTF can explain the specific allure, but to me it looked like some sort of artisan grilled cheese seller? Kind’ve odd to me, but cool nonetheless.
The most unique aspect of Nashville’s concourses over Carolina’s is the amount of socializing that goes on before puck drop and between periods. Everyone had their food/beverage of choice and hung around the outskirts of the walkway, which posed a problem upstairs. The 300 level had very narrow walking space as it was, and the concession lines coupled with lingering fans made a walk through the crowd become overly congested. The hangout vibe was certainly cool and is probably great for fans to meet up with friends from other seating sections, but if you’re trying to get to a bathroom or another food line across the building, good luck.
Man, there’s something special about seeing the “STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS” lettering gracing the blue lines on the ice -- just gives me chills to see it in-person. Warmups were interesting; several thousand people were already seated or crowded around the glass to snag a selfie with their favorite player, but somehow it felt somewhat casual. Maybe it was foregoing the electronic beats for more AC/DC-style tunes, but the gravity of the game didn’t really hit for me until the zambonis were out and I was in my seat.
All fans will receive a fang-celet to be part of our pregame show! Be in your seats by 6:45pm so you don't miss anything! pic.twitter.com/AHCupI174z— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) May 16, 2017
Fans were given free t-shirts, rally towels, and wristbands that lit up during select parts of the game. But one of the coolest parts of the night came just before the anthems, when the on-ice projects and wristband light coordination teamed up to create an incredible light show. It’s really a shame these don’t get broadcast on-air because they are quite a sight to behold.
The anthem itself was probably as awesome as you’d expect from Nashville; Keith Urban kept it short and sweet, but lingered enough to elicit his fair share of cheers from adoring fans, and the Tennessee Titans’ linemen pounding tallboys of Bud Light was truly ridiculous. I loved every second of it. There’s nothing like seeing finely-tuned professional athletes lose any and all filters in the name of getting hype for other professional athletes in their city (#brotherhood?).
When the puck dropped, the denizens of Cellblock 303 (think Section 328 in PNC, but in Nashville) had the rest of the arena bellowing “Let’s Go Preds!” as well as a few pointed jabs at Ryan Kesler. From the get-go, it was as-advertised in Bridgestone. Everyone was engaged and vocal. Like, very vocal. Every little thing was either cheered or grumbled about. Our seats were nice; the arena is built up more than it is built out, so you’re never far from the action, even up high.
I noticed a few differences from PNC regarding in-game entertainment and videos; Nashville doesn’t have a lot of the same material that we’ve grown accustomed to (and frankly become spoiled with) from CanesVision, instead going with organ solos and noise-meters, which was fine. I liked the lack of kiss cams and marketing packages, and while it might have been playoff-specific, it was nice to have the focus be on the game at hand.
Environment aside, the arena is beautiful. The asymmetry is a bit odd if you’re not used to it, but it adds a unique element to the building. Also, the lack of any venue-sharing between the Preds and another organization made for very specific Predators decor. Blue and gold banners, section numbers mirroring the font on the players’ jerseys, and no other featured teams made it clear that this was THE home of the Predators. I liked it. As nice as it is to have the history of both NC State and the Hurricanes at or near 1400 Edwards Mill Rd., there’s something to be said for a home to call your own.
The fans got a bit nervous during the second period after Corey Perry made it 1-0 for the Ducks, but I think the roof blew off when Filip Forsberg scored to knot the game up. The two disallowed goals warranted heavy disdain from those in attendance, including some projectiles (which was really the only negative about the experience; come on people, what good is throwing stuff going to do?) and lots of choice words. But Roman Josi’s game-winner sent the place into hysteria for the rest of the night, with the majority of people standing for the final minutes.
Everyone I spoke to was hospitable and glad I was there, even when I mentioned being from NC and supporting the Canes. The organized goalie chants took some learning, but listening to the entire crowd all yell the same succession of taunts, I couldn’t help but smile. The fans have mastered the art of being the “7th man” in Nashville, and they deserve a ton of credit.
You can’t go to Nashville without a visit to the local honky-tonk scene. As fans poured out of Bridgestone following the team’s narrow win, it seemed like everyone just went straight across the street to Broadway.
The bars were prepared — several offered discounted beverages for those wearing Preds gear, and each one had live music and open windows to attract passers-by. We wound up at one called Robert’s; there was a solid country act playing and more than a few fans ready to party, and a wall of cowboy boots and random memorabilia:
All in all, having your arena be right next to the popular hangout strip is a genius move on the part of whoever laid out Bridgestone, and I commend the city as a whole for putting on an all-out party for their team each night.
From the first step out of the car, I immediately felt the same vibes I did back in June of 2006. I was lucky enough to go to game 5 of that Cup Final (Fernando Pisani still haunts my dreams), and what I didn’t fully appreciate as an 11-year-old suddenly came back to me in Nashville. The way the city embraced their team with gold throughout the area evoked memories of the statues in Raleigh clad in Canes jerseys. The whole “we’re having way more fun than you at all times” vibe was pretty amazing, and I feel lucky to have been part of it.
There are some parts of a game in PNC that I certainly find more appealing than Bridgestone like the parking, tailgating ability, the fact that not everything is yellow (they’ve made it their own and that’s awesome, but sometimes you have to appreciate how easy red is on the eyes) and so on, but Nashville just goes to show another example of how incredible an experience you can have at hockey games in the south.
Bottom line? Get over there sometime. It’s every bit the party it looks like and then some.