Ron Seibel

Predators prove hockey can work in South

Nashville Predators players celebrate after beating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference final in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Monday, May 22, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 6-3 to win the series 4-2 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Nashville Predators players celebrate after beating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference final in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Monday, May 22, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 6-3 to win the series 4-2 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. AP

Things don’t get more Southern than the Ryman Auditorium.

The original home of the Grand Ole Opry, many country music legends cut their teeth on the stage that once served as a church. Go in there to watch a concert, and you step into one of the most historic places of the 20th century South.

A short walk from there is Bridgestone Arena, the home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.

Making a connection between the two is difficult. Both the arena and team are fairly new. The sport that is calling Bridgestone Arena home? A Canadian import.

Jack Daniel’s, meet Molson.

That makes what happened this week quite an interesting study. The Predators won the Western Conference Finals, eliminating Anaheim to reach their first Stanley Cup Final.

The city is embracing the team with open arms. Yellow is now the color of choice in sports apparel, not an easy pull considering the prominence of Tennessee orange.

It’s hockey. In the South. And it’s working.

We saw some of that effect in Macon last month when the Mayhem won the SPHL President’s Cup. A team that hung around the bottom of the league in terms of attendance in its first two years of operation, people began to discover the team at the end of the season. During the playoffs, the crowds that went to the Macon Coliseum were quite healthy by SPHL standards. Nowhere near a sellout, but respectable.

The problem, for Southern natives who like hockey and northern transplants alike, is how to convince people that hockey in this part of the country can work.

The NHL couldn’t part ways with Atlanta fast enough when new ownership wanted to move the team to Winnipeg. League officials wanted to explain that lack of attendance was the thing driving the move. But those league officials turned a blind eye to what was really happening, a poorly run ownership group that treated hockey as a sideshow to the NBA’s Hawks.

Once the Thrashers moved, Georgia’s hockey fans were left with the long-established ECHL (Double-A) team in Gwinnett County, the Gladiators, and the then-new SPHL, a Single-A league. With the Columbus Cottonmouths suspending operations for 2017-18, that leaves the Gladiators and Mayhem as the only two professional hockey teams remaining in the Peach State.

The first step to reclaiming high-level hockey in Atlanta would be to get an AHL franchise, either with the Gladiators moving up a level in their current Gwinnett County home or as a new franchise at Philips Arena or a new home somewhere in metro Atlanta.

The Triple-A league was home to the Atlanta Knights prior to the Thrashers’ arrival, and the team had a solid following. The Gladiators drew 4,738 per game last season, a top-10 figure in the ECHL, and would only need to add 1,000 to 1,500 fans a game to be on solid footing in the AHL.

Let’s not get any ideas here: The ECHL isn’t going to return to Macon any time soon. Realignment and reduction of hockey’s minor leagues has turned the ECHL into a league catering to larger markets. The SPHL is Macon’s best bet, and hopefully the Mayhem can build off their championship success at the gate.

For now, it’s fun to see another Southern market go all-in on hockey thanks to a championship run. Sure, a lot of it is novelty. But, let’s face it: Playoff hockey is addictive.

Those friends of yours with ties to Nashville blowing up your Facebook feed this week are the proof.

Ron Seibel: 478-744-4222, @RonSeibel

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