NHL All-Star weekend a big hit for Nashville
Nashville glowed Predators gold this weekend, and the whole hockey world got to see it.
From the star-studded entertainment to the high-energy arena atmosphere, our city wowed visitors from NHL cities across the continent and did our team proud.
"Everyone who was here to experience it throughout the NHL saw what a hockey city Nashville is," Predators All-Star defenseman Shea Weber said.
There was a time when Nashville's hockey future was in question, with the team nearly uprooted from Music City and relocated to Canada. A grassroots campaign to save the team in 2007 and 2008 preserved the sport's future here, but a new ownership group still had something to prove.
When the city learned two years ago that it would serve as the NHL All-Star Game host, it served as an acknowledgment from commissioner Gary Bettman that Nashville had proven itself. It was a message, Predators President and CEO Sean Henry said, that Nashville rebuilt its base and "it worked."
But even with that vote of confidence, the Predators needed the entire community to come together to truly showcase itself to the hockey masses.
The goal wasn't just to host the All-Star weekend, but to redefine it.
The game's new format, a 3-on-3 tournament, brought one significant change to remember from Nashville. But it needed to be more than that. So it upped the entertainment factor, and for the first time added to the NHL Fan Fair experience an outdoor element that featured Nashville's own stars. Winter Park became a fan hub with an ice skating rink and huge, free concerts. What happened on the ice inside was matched by what was happening outside.
"That has been the thing that has blown us all away," Henry said.
And if you were one of the thousands of hockey fans trying to push past the ice rink and massive stage toward Demonbreun on Saturday to see the players walk the red carpet, it became very clear just how hyped up the fan base was to be here. It was almost impossible to move.
Player after player raved about Nashville's restaurants and entertainment scene. Even Bettman spouted about the proximity of all the events to Lower Broadway, where, he said, the party goes on all night. The estimated economic impact is expected to be as much as $25 million; an official study will be completed in the next several weeks.
"Nashville's been putting on a pretty good show," Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien said as he walked down the carpet in front of the hockey-crazed crush. "It's great for Nashville itself. ... It's a great city to host all of this."
Chris Young walked the red carpet Saturday afternoon, signing autographs alongside the hockey stars after putting on a concert that could rival any CMA-Fest performance. Dierks Bentley appeared in the breakaway challenge during Saturday night's skills competition, joining Predators forward James Neal for an odd-man rush that the country-music star finished against Devils goaltender Cory Schneider. Vince Gill acted as celebrity coach next to former Nashville Predators bench minder Barry Trotz. Gill's wife, Amy Grant, gave shoulder massages to goal-scoring players on the opposite bench.
"One of the things I know that happens in Nashville, Tennessee, is they know how to put on events, major events. and they do it right," Trotz said after coaching the Metropolitan Division in the first of Sunday's two semifinal matches.
"I don't think you're going to be able to match this year in and year out," the coach continued. "And for the city of Nashville, for the NHL, I think Nashville set the bar really, really high. ... It's going to be very, very hard for the next cities to match what Nashville did here. So they can be very, very proud."
And Henry, for his part, seemed ecstatic at the success.
Henry did acknowledge he would do one thing differently if he had a chance: change the size of the outdoor ice rink in Winter Park across from the arena. With a capacity of around 60 people, it wasn't big enough. He would make a larger one, or build two, because, he said, "it's just magical."
"But that's a small thing in reality," he said.
Bettman enjoyed the fun from the players during the skills competition on Saturday, and, he said, "the energy in the building was outstanding."
On a personal level, Bettman took pride in going to the Nashville Inner City Ministry and dedicating the Legacy project, a 30,000-square-foot renovated warehouse. The 2016 NHL All-Star Legacy Family Life Center will help provide services for 4,000 at-risk Nashville youth and their families each year through educational and vocational programs — even long after the hockey collective has gone.
It was, Bettman said, "particularly meaningful."
The weekend isn’t about wins and losses, said Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. It never is. “The No. 1 thing — this is about the fans.”
And the fans, well they won't soon forget this.
"The collective high people are on," Henry said, "it's something."
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.