Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Non-Traditional Hockey

Over the last forty years the National Hockey League has expanded into what has been called "non-traditional" markets. Nashville, which historically has been focused on football, baseball, and motor sports could be the "poster child" for markets fitting this description. Many hockey traditionalists still cringe when the NHL and cities like Tampa, Phoenix, and Raleigh are mentioned in the same sentence.

The Nashville Predators have been "non-traditional" in every respect. When the team first came to town in 1998 there was a focus on making hockey more of an event, attractive to non-hockey fans as well as those who were already avid fans of the sport. Live music, videos, contests, giveaways and other oddities were staple attractions to get marginally interested people into the building to have a chance to get hooked on a sport that sports fans fall in love with once they see speed like auto racing and hitting that would make most linebackers squeamish.

While the Predators have had their well documented financial struggles through the years, as a franchise their strength has been to incorporate "non-traditional" values into the way they run their operation. From the very beginning, the Preds have had one general manager, David Poile, and one coach, Barry Trotz. While most NHL teams change coaches every time the team hits a dry spell, Trotz's 779 games as the Preds head coach ranks ninth all-time in coaching longevity with a single team and with each game he extends his own record for games coached from the beginning of a franchise. Very few coaches in the NHL could have survived four straight seasons of losing in the first round of the playoffs or the recent goal drought that the Predators have endured.

As an organization the Predators have stressed loyalty and commitment with a emphasis on team play and cohesiveness. Barry Trotz has coached his teams like a father with a mix of encouragement and discipline. David Poile and team ownership has seen the value of the team setting a long term course and sticking with it. The Predators total of 149 wins over the last three and one half seasons ranks sixth in the NHL proving the success of their strategy. Free agents and current players find the Predator values attractive when choosing where to play, sometimes for less money than they could make elsewhere.

A prime example of the loyalty and long term commitment by the Predators is the patience and support shown with fan favorite Steve Sullivan. Sully was injured on February 22, 2007 and has since undergone two back surgeries and missed 153 games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau Sullivan is only the third player to return to the same team after missing over 600 days and 150 games. Mario Lemieux was one and Jim Pepilinski was the other playing six games for Calgary in 1994 after missing four seasons. The Predators never lost faith in Sullivan and allowed him to recover and strengthen at a pace that would result in his eventual return Saturday night against the Blackhawks.

For one night, Steve Sullivan had climbed to the top of a seemingly insurmountable mountain and lived to play hockey at the highest level. Most teams after a year or so would have simply cut the player and moved on never giving them the chance to return. That's not the way things are done in Nashville. Whether Sullivan returns to his pre-injury form or is unable to continue is a story for another day. The key point to be made is that the Predators have redefined "non-traditional" in a way that reflects the values of it's fans where family, commitment, and a since of loyalty are the key to long term on ice success.

Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass and The Columbia Daily Herald

Special Thanks to Mark Manning for his guest appearance on PredsOnTheGlass radio Episode 2 on Monday night. Click the BlogTalkRadio button on this page to hear the podcast.

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