Team struggles for support

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

NASHVILLE -- If it's such a struggle for the NHL to make a go of it in Nashville, and the league knew going in that people in Tennessee don't know hockey, don't care about hockey, and might never accept the game, why are they there in the first place?

Why swim upstream in the deep south? Why not go where hockey is desperately wanted, rather than setting up shop in a market where survival depends on converting NCAA and NASCAR fans?

It's a question the Nashville Predators have been asked for nine years, and they're tired of it. They say it's time the rest of the hockey world recognized their right to exist.

"How can it not be a good thing to spread the game around, to try and grow it," said David Legwand, the Predators' first ever draft choice.

"Us, Atlanta, Carolina and the Florida teams, Dallas and Phoenix -- it's good that we're bringing hockey to the south. Wayne Gretzky brought the game to the West coast. Hopefully we can keep it going."

Goalie Tomas Vokoun feels too many casual observers, at the first sign of empty seats, automatically dismiss the Nashville expansion as an ill-conceived mistake. If a year or two of poor attendance is the only barometer, does that mean the NHL shouldn't be in Chicago, either?

"There are markets that get fans no matter what, but there are also traditional hockey markets that don't have very many fans at all," he said. "Look at the Blackhawks, an Original Six team -- they're not doing good. Boston, the same. Every franchise goes through phases when it's rebuilding.

MARQUEE PLAYERS

"We're just starting; everything takes time. At first there's a lot of excitement about the game being new and all that, but it wears off. Then it has to be about winning. With the marquee players we have, adding Jason Arnott and Peter Forsberg, and the team playing like it is, it's getting better.

"But this is not an original market. People are not used to hockey. It takes time to build your fan base. You can sometimes fix things for the short-term, but it takes time to do it well."

A lot of NHLers seem to think they are doing it very well. High-profile free agents Forsberg, Arnott and Paul Kariya, who could have gone anywhere they wanted, saw enough in Nashville to sign there.

"That's the best compliment they can give you," head coach Barry Trotz said. "Saying they want to be a part of your organization, that they think you can win, that you do things right, that we have a great city, a great arena. Players recognize this organization, and it's getting around the NHL that we do things right and we want to win."

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NASHVILLE PREDATORS ATTENDANCE TRENDS

SEASON POINTS AVG. ATTENDANCE

1998-99 63 17,281

1999-00 70 16,600

2000-01 80 15,824

2001-02 69 14,789

2002-03 74 13,228

2003-04 91 13,168

2004-05 LOCKOUT LOCKOUT

2005-06 106 14,428

2006-07 XX 15,117

- Numbers do not reflect paid attendance. It's estimated that the club gives out as many as 1,500 free tickets per game.


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