Although the Predators where Nashville’s first National Hockey League team, the city known for its musical heritage is no stranger to hockey.
The first few hockey teams to set up shop in Nashville were all minor league teams, but they made a lasting impression. The Dixie Flyers made their debut in the Eastern Hockey League back in 1962. The Flyers played nine seasons in the Municipal Auditorium, before the organization folded in 1971.
A decade later, the Nashville South Stars arrived for the 1981-82 season headed by owner Larry Schmittou. A big name on the South Stars’ roster was Bob Suter of Miracle on Ice fame, and father of Predators star, Ryan Suter. While the team was the minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars, the team didn’t last and ended up dismantling after only two seasons.
The Nashville Knights, one of the city’s most popular minor league teams, was next to call Tennessee home in the 1989 season of the East Cost Hockey League. Current Predators assistant Peter Horachek took the helm as the head coaching position for the Knights, and he structured his team well. The Knights set an ECHL record in 1994 with 16 goals in a single game. Just two years later the Knights would move to Florida to become the Pensacola Ice Pilots.
Still, Nashville hockey would not go gently into that good night. From 1996 to 1998 the Nashville Nighthawks, later renamed the Ice Flyers, arrived in the CHL. Once the Predators began to play in the NHL however, the Ice Flyers folded.
The Predators arrival to the hockey world was far from typical. In the mid-1990’s rumors began to swirl through the hockey world that the New Jersey Devils were looking to relocate and the city of Nashville was on the short list. Nashville was eager to have an NHL team call the city home and offered the Devils organization a hefty incentive in the form of a $20 million relocation bonus. The carrot wasn’t enough for the Devils and they remained in New Jersey.
The move was impressive enough to get the attention of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and he claimed that Nashville deserved to be included in the upcoming NHL expansion. That was all a group of Wisconsin businessmen needed to hear before they pitched their plan to the NHL requesting an official franchise. When Bettman and other NHL officials visited Nashville to tour the arena, thousands of fans showed up to display their enthusiasm for the game and their city.
Along with Columbus, Atlanta and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Nashville was included in the NHL expansion in 1998.
One of the businessmen involved in bringing Nashville hockey to the NHL was Craig Leipold, and he was also the man to name former Washington Capitals General Manager, David Poile as the Predators’ first General Manager.
Leipold was also on hand when the franchise first unveiled their new logo. The saber-toothed cat is a reference to the partial skeleton of the large cat species that was unearthed beneath the Nashville streets in 1971 during the construction of the First American National Bank building, which is now the Regions Center.
Though the logo was settled upon, the name was still up for grabs. The franchise decided to let the fans choose and held a vote to determine the moniker. Although, Leipold added a submission of his own and his ‘Predators’ was the name chosen.
The Predators first game took place on October 10, 1998 where they suffered a 1-0 loss to the Florida Panthers. However, their first franchise win would come only three days later, as they topped the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2. Since Nashville hockey has had a rocky start, it would make sense that the Predators’ first NHL win would be shaky as well. The win over Carolina came from forward Andrew Brunette on a power play and had to be reviewed by a video goal judge.
Despite the turbulent appearance, Nashville hockey had finally arrived on the NHL stage.