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May 23, 2017

The epicenter of the hockey world is now … Nashville?

You can call it Nashville. You can it Smashville. You can call it whatever you want.

But Nashville, Tennessee is now the epicenter of hockey, and it’s better for the NHL than the traditional hockey markets of Chicago, Boston, any of the Canadian cities, and yes – even New York or Philadelphia.

The epicenter of country music has now become the epicenter of the NHL as the Predators have advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. The Preds have become the show of shows in the NHL, with former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette agitating them from behind their bench, they have captured the imagination of not just the city, but of an entire region.

The NHL might have been better off in terms of TV ratings if a Chicago, New York or Los Angeles had earned a spot in the finals, but the Predators’ run will create brand new hockey fans for life and the natural blending of sports and music couldn’t find a better home.

The Stanley Cup final has a chance to be an absolute grand slam for the NHL, especially if the banged-up Predators can stitch together more strong efforts in the finals. The Predators are 7-1 in the playoffs at home and their Bridgestone Arena crowd is a large part why.

In fact, the entire city of Nashville has become the Predators’ home ice advantage as the city has become one huge cheering section.

Do you want marketing possibilities? How much better can it get than Carrie Underwood singing the National Anthem – mostly because her other name is Mrs. Mike Fisher, who happens to be the captain of the Predators.

The National Football League uses Underwood as its featured artist to open Sunday Night Football. The Predators and the NHL don’t even have to pick up the phone and lure any big names, as they are already lined up to add to the party.

Before their conference final-clinching victory on Monday night, it was Trisha Yearwood, who happens to be the wife of a guy named Garth Brooks. So, when the Stanley Cup finals arrive at game three and four in Nashville next week, maybe it’s Brooks at center ice … or maybe Shania Twain or Taylor Swift?

Mind you, this is all secondary to the action on the ice, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the sport when a market with the star power of a Nashville gets on board.

The best part of this is that there is no fake interest on display. This is not the usual star placement. You have seen that drill time after time, some network star seated in the front row pretending to be involved in the game. Look close enough and you can usually see the sneak peek at the cell phone to see how long until the end of the period, or inning, or quarter.

This fire of emotion burning in Nashville is organic. Over the course of almost two decades the Predators have built a legitimate fan base, and even for a regular season game, the building has become a party and the whole downtown area an extended celebration.

The Predators will have to overcome the huge damage done when center Ryan Johansen – one of their best players, if not their best – was lost for the finals when he suffered a serious leg injury during the past round. Every year NHL teams lose key players in the Mad Max culture of the playoffs, and the other Predators will have to step up.

No matter what the hockey market – from the hallowed ice in Montreal to the rinks in Florida and Southern California, the most important cog in a team’s playoff run is the goaltending. The Predators have a star in Pekka Rinne, and he will have to be their best player in order for Nashville to win the whole thing.

In the meantime, the opposing goalie will have to deal with the taunts from a crowd that is as close to collegiate as any in pro sports as chants of “It’s all your fault,” rain down after every Nashville goal.

There isn’t much more than NHL can ask from a team or a franchise. The Preds have one of the league’s most fan-friendly and emotional stars in defenseman PK Subban, who is playing with a chip on his shoulder after the Canadiens traded him straight up for fellow defenseman Shea Weber.

They have a high-energy coach, a true star in Filip Forsberg, a deep defensive group, and a crowd that is much a part of the show as the team.

The NHL has already seen the benefits of expansion into the Sun Belt and other non-traditional hockey areas and players now regularly arrive from all corners of the country.

And this show being put on by the Predators and the city of Nashville is a huge win for the NHL, no matter which team wins.