Hockey in Nashville is a smash

Nashville Predators right wing Matt Halischuk is hugged by teammate Jerred Smithson after scoring...

Nashville Predators right wing Matt Halischuk is hugged by teammate Jerred Smithson after scoring the game-winning goal in double overtime against the Vancouver Canucks to win Game 2 of their NHL Western Conference semifinal hockey playoff in Vancouver, British Columbia April 30, 2011. (REUTERS/Andy Clark)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:08 AM ET

NASHVILLE - Carissa Bigue will take the blame.


She knows why she and husband Vinney make the six-hour drive for every Nashville Predators playoff game from their home near Little Rock, Ark.
"It's all my fault," Bigue said. "I love this sport."


Through the jaded eyes of fans from traditional markets, hockey in sunbelt cities may continue to be a point of contention.


It's easy to look down on fans in non-traditional markets.


Maybe those fans should get down from their high horse and meet some of the die-hards.


Take the Bigues.


During the season, they'll make the trek together east on Interstate 40 for all the weekend games. If Vinney can't get away from work during the week, Carissa will take one of her friends, try to hook them on the game.


It's what happened to her after a friend of theirs, who was originally from Pennsylvania, convinced them to start watching hockey.


Carissa decided to research the teams to find the one she wanted to support and rally behind. Three teams were within driving distance.


"There are the Dallas Stars, but we hate the Cowboys and they have the same logo, so that wasn't happening," she said. "There are the St. Louis Blues, but their mascot is a music note. That's not very tough. The Nashville Predators with a sabre-tooth tiger, that's a given.


"I started watching games on the Internet to learn about it, finally convinced Vince to get the NHL package and we went to a game on my birthday.
"We got seats on the glass. The ice was spraying on the glass in front of me, the puck was hitting the glass and I didn't flinch. I loved it. It was a natural high for me. I was wondering why I hadn't been doing this all my life."


Vinney said he loves the NFL and baseball, but there's nothing more exciting than being at a live hockey game.


"It took one game and we were in," he said. "There aren't those long timeouts like basketball and football and baseball. You don't have time to calm down.


"It's a goodtime, Redneck hockey."


Welcome to hockey night in Nashville.


Sure, the fans may not have grown up with the game we like to call ours, but they know how to enjoy themselves while watching it.


Actually, fans enjoy themselves well before puck drop.


The Predators home, the Bridgestone Arena, is kitty corner to the start of the Broadway strip.


Along that strip, you can hear the singers -- mostly wannabes, but once in a while one will catch the ear of a record label executive -- belting out tunes at such famous haunts as Legends Corner, Tootsies and The Second Fiddle -- which is across the street from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.


The honky-tonks are only part of the atmosphere.


Various barbecue joints feature fall-off-the-bone ribs that melt in your mouth -- a meal that must be finished with a piece of pecan pie.


Just outside the rink is the Party on the Plaza, where you're greeted at Smashville by short-skirted ice girls/cheerleaders, a drum line pounding its rhythm, a live band and a car painted in Canucks colours which you can pound with a sledgehammer three times for $5 with the proceeds to charity.


Even before heading into the rink, it's a sight to see.

"I had no idea what to expect," said Canucks fan Lanny Zrill, who made the trip from Vancouver for this series.


"We knew we were coming for hockey and barbecue. It's a beautiful city, green, people are friendly, and there is barbecue.


"It was easy to get tickets, really easy, and that was kind of shocking, but I don't know if we'd experience something like this in Vancouver. Maybe we take it for granted a bit."


It took a disaster for Sandee Hughes and her son, Michael, who plays goalie on his high school team, to enjoy a Preds game for the first time.


Their home in Huntsville, Ala., has been without power since tornadoes ripped through the area last week. They're fans of the minor-league Huntsville Havoc, and saw this as an opportunity to escape the storm's aftermath.


"We've been looking to come up here for quite a while," Michael said. "I just hate the circumstances that brought us up here, but I'm glad to be able to see them play."


Inside, the crowd provides a night right out of an NCAA basketball or football game.


Bands play during the intermission.


Chants ring out from section 303 -- or Cellblock 303 the regulars call it -- and they even have an on-line cheatsheet for others to know what they're saying.


Ivan Santamaria and his wife, Rebecca, have been season-ticket holders since 2004, even though they live in Memphis, 340 kilometres away.


They're now so dedicated, they travelled to London to see the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks play to kick off the 2007-08 season, and this spring followed the Predators on a trip through Western Canada.


"It's fast, physical, emotional, things change on a dime," Ivan said. "The first time I watched a hockey game, I got hooked."


Among the fans watching the pre-game party was Barney Tootoo, father of Preds fan favourite Jordin Tootoo.


"A lot of people think Nashville is Music City," he said. "But for a Canadian guy coming here to see these fans, he'd see they know what hockey's all about."


randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca
twitter.com/RandySportak


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