In 1997, a group of investors led by Craig Leopold proposed an expansion franchise to the NHL for the city of Nashville, Tennessee. Not known for its hockey, but rather its country music atmosphere and southern sports of baseball, basketball and football, the game should not have worked in Music City. However, commissioner Gary Bettman took a gamble and added the Predators to the league in time for the 1998-99 season.
Now, advance 16 years later. Hockey has grown in Middle Tennessee thanks to the Predators’ success and elite players of Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber. Youth hockey has improved tremendously and it has shown at the AAA levels with the Jr. Predators and TPH Thunder, who have competed against teams all over the globe.
As talent has increased, teams and leagues are beginning to take notice. The NA3HL took the first steps in awarding Nashville with their first junior hockey team on May 1. Nashville is one of three new teams entering the 2013-14 season alongside the Point Mallard Ducks and Texas Brahmas. They will join the South Division of the league already including the Dallas Jr. Stars, Sugar Land Imperials and Topeka Capitals.
Said NAHL commissioner and NA3HL president Mark Frankenfeld in a press release:
“We are excited to complete the six team division with such great markets and ownership groups. With the success the NAHL and now NA3HL has had in the Southern footprint, we felt the time was right to look at strengthening the South Division to six clubs to provide more opportunity for players as we continue our mission in creating the best and most diverse Tier III Junior property in the country.”
The Nashville club, yet to be named, will play their home games at A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tennessee, approximately a 20 minute drive south from Bridgestone Arena. Owners of the team are Tim McAllister, JP Dumont and Brad Guzda of MDG Management, LLC. Dumont, a former Chicago Blackhawk, Buffalo Sabre and Nashville Predator with 822 career NHL games under his belt, works with youth hockey in the area and has played a big role.
“This is an exciting new venture for all of us who have been in Nashville and watch the sport grow,” said Dumont to NA3HL.com. “It will be a team and a level that our youth hockey players can look up and aspire to and I think people will be excited to see a level of hockey they haven’t seen before.”
Announced Friday, reigning NA3HL head coach of the year Steve Howard will be the team’s first bench boss. Last season with the Flint Junior Generals, Howard coached the team to a 42-4-2 record and was responsible for the promotion of four players to the NAHL and the signing of three to NAHL contracts.
Said Howard in a press release:
“I’m very excited about the opportunity in Nashville. The community has really grown to appreciate the game behind the success and hard work of the Nashville Predators and we hope to be an extension of that, exposing them to a entirely new level of hockey. The club is under some great leadership with Tim McAllister and JP Dumont who are committed to making this new venture a success. I love the challenge of starting from scratch and going to a new spot, and I think that will be a vision that is shared by the type of players we are looking for to fill a roster. I think with the addition of the three new clubs in addition to the three that were a part of the NA3HL last season, the South Division is going to be a very exciting and competitive place to be.”
Howard played defense for various leagues throughout his career including the ECHL with the Trenton Titans and Bakersfield Condors. During the 2006-07 season, Howard played the role of Reggie Dunlop (Slap Shot) and was a player-assistant coach with the Columbus Cottonmouths in the SPHL. Since then, the Burton, Michigan native has served as head coach of the Junior Generals and was a scout for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL.
The 31 teams in the NA3HL will play a 48-game regular season, followed up by the Silver Cup Championship Tournament, and participate in the League Showcase and Top Prospects Tournament. The regular season will begin in early- to mid-September.
Notable alumni from the league include NHLers Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart.
Colin Fitts is a Nashville Predators staff writer and is a credentialed media member of the Chicago Wolves. From Nashville, Tennessee, Colin majors in journalism and public relations at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @FittsTHW. Email: 22fitts [at] gmail [dot] com.