Preds sizzle on NHL's 'backburner'

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

NASHVILLE -- Play no hurtin' tunes for Music City's hockey team, from dirt poor to Stanley Cup contender in just eight years.

And Predators such as Scott Nichol don't really care if they go largely unnoticed in the centre of the hockey universe.

"We've really been flying under the radar -- 'the Nashville Who?' -- but now we're on top of the league, like a Detroit," the Edmonton-born centre said yesterday. "Now people gauge themselves against us."

Of the NHL's four late-1990s expansion teams, Nashville has taken the competitive lead, followed, in order, by Atlanta, Minnesota and Columbus, the latter unlikely to make the playoffs.

Built through the draft, augmented by trades, capped by free agents, retaining their original general manager and coach, the Preds could surpass last year's franchise record of 49 wins.

Though some such as coach Barry Trotz grouse that a little more credit should be accorded the southern franchises, which include the past two Cup winners, Nichol says the team thrives in its hockey hideaway. But that world was shaken yesterday when eight Toronto-based newspaper, radio and television descended on Nashville, a one-paper town most recently visited by the Leafs in January of 2002.

"The great thing about Nashville is that we go about our business, without 100 analysts looking at every shift, every game and mistake," Nichol said. "The people here just want to be entertained. We have a good product and the fans have a good time. They're not critical, they just want to see a good effort, some hits and goals. We've been delivering for them.

"Playing in Toronto or Montreal is great -- I played in Calgary and enjoyed it -- but it's also nice to be on the back-burner."

Trotz, a Winnipeg native, still hungers for hockey news, but what out-of-town dispatches he reads don't necessarily please him. He clarified yesterday that he is not upset with what he called "the respect factor" for the Preds, but is concerned the game is bashing itself.

"As a Canadian down here, I see it so much. We are, at times, our worst enemies," Trotz said. "I listen to what's being said about the NBA, the NFL, some Major League Baseball and they don't trash their game as we do. From a media standpoint, from coaches, players, everyone trashes our game, but we've got the best sport.

"We take a negative approach, a cynical approach, as in 'we have to improve the game, gotta do this better or that better'. I know it's part of the business, but I don't see as much being done in football country.

"There are a lot of great teams and we saw one last night here against Pittsburgh. How great is that team going to be in a couple of years? Buffalo has an exciting team, Tampa has for years and we've been exciting and pleasurable to watch. Hopefully, (Nashville) will be part of the solution, but it starts with the media, the players and the coaches."


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