The news came Monday. After 15 seasons tending goal in the National Hockey League, Tomas Vokoun announced his retirement. He played 383 regular season games for the Nashville Predators, 248 for Florida, 48 with Washington and 20 for Pittsburgh.
When an expansion team begins play, as the Predators did in October of 1998, the players have chips on their shoulders. They were basically unwanted by their previous teams.
Tomas Vokoun could really feel that way. He had spent three professional seasons (114 games) in the Montreal organization, and had played just one period for the Canadiens. In that one, he allowed four goals in Philadelphia. Jose Theodore was ahead of him in the American League and Jocelyn Thibault was the starter in net for Montreal.
Rejean Houle was the General Manager in Montreal at the time of the 1998 Expansion Draft. His strategy was to lose Vokoun then, in order to protect against losing some of his younger goalies in the expansion drafts that were to follow, stocking Atlanta (1999), Columbus and Minnesota (2000).
So, Houle made a deal with Predators General Manager David Poile. Houle sent center Sebastien Bordeleau to the Predators for “future considerations,” so that Poile would take Vokoun in the expansion draft.
It was a depth move at the time, but turned out to be a great one very shortly. Tomas began that first season with the Milwaukee Admirals and played nine games, as Eric Fichaud began as Mike Dunham’s back-up with the Predators.
Tomas got into his first game on the road in Vancouver on Nov. 7, allowing five goals. His next appearance was a week later in St. Louis, and he turned in a scoreless period in relief of Dunham. By early December, Tomas had appeared in four straight, including a 2-1 win over San Jose.
By that point in time, Tomas would often sit on the seat behind me on the team bus and would ask me about his hockey hero, Dominik Hasek. I had been on the Sabres’ broadcast team before moving to Nashville and he wanted to hear whatever he could about “The Dominator” from me, as well as goaltending coach Mitch Korn.
In January, Vokoun started eight straight, the second of those against Phoenix at 501 Broadway. Tomas stopped 31 shots that night for the first shutout in team history. (Watch first shutout in team history)
Vokoun would go on to play eight of the team’s final 11 games and establish himself as no worse than a solid No. 2 goaltender. He was 12-18-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average behind an expansion team’s defense. He played 99 games over the following three seasons. Then, the determination was made that he was ready to be the starter.
Like in football, where the backup quarterback oftentimes becomes a crowd favorite, Tomas did just that. He did it with some spectacular saves, like these, which began with a breakaway by Florida’s Pavel Bure:
The team was 6-14-8 at the time of the trade and broke even the rest of the way (21-21-12) as Vokoun started the final 53 games, 69 in all.
The team rallied behind a man they realized would battle for them, literally: (Watch Tomas Vokoun fight Jarome Iginla and then Jamie McLennan)
That was on January 16, 2003, as Tomas was in the early stages of his ironman streak in net. They didn’t make the playoffs that season, but Vokoun had set the stage. With Tomas in net, the Predators made the playoffs the next three seasons.
The first playoff game in Nashville was on Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004, against the Detroit Red Wings. Vokoun beat the Red Wings, 3-1. Two days later, he shut them out, 3-0.
So the Predators in their first series were even after four games with Detroit. Before Game Five, a headline in the Detroit Free Press was: “Panic in Hockeytown.” However, the Red Wings themselves came back to take the series in six games.
Because Tomas seemed to relish taking risks in (and out) of the net, I took to calling him “Evil Knievel” on occasion. That spirit would lead to his scraps with Jarome Iginla. The thing with Tomas, he loved to challenge the shooters. (Watch Tomas Vokoun leave the crease to stop Jonathan Cheechoo on a breakaway)
Vokoun was clearly the man, ready to stop any and everything. It could be Teemu Selanne or any of the NHL’s game-breakers at the time:
As well as things were going for Vokoun and the Predators at the time, it all ground to a halt with the NHL lockout, which resulted in the loss of the 2004-05 season. By mid-July of 2005, the two sides had a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and they hurriedly prepared for a full season that fall. Tomas joined me on my talk show at that point on Nashville’s 106.7 the Fan:
Vokoun was no stranger by that time with Nashville’s radio audience. He once heard something on a morning show and called the station to refute it. The problem, the producer thought it was someone doing a “Tomas Vokoun impression” and hung up on him. Tomas was persistent though, calling back and getting on the air to make his point.
When the Predators were put up for sale in 2007, Tomas was among the losses from the roster. He was dealt to Florida, where his workload increased. He spent four years there with no playoff activity. Then it was off to Washington for a season, then to one final (lockout-shortened season) with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.
There, he became a leader and savior again, stepping in for a faltering Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs. The Penguins had the top record in the Eastern Conference, but their series with the Islanders was even after four games. Dan Bylsma put Vokoun in and he won the next two to close out the Islanders. It was at that point that Tomas got some love from a future Hall of Fame goaltender on Hockey Night in Canada: (Watch Martin Brodeur praise the career of Tomas Vokoun)
The Boston Bruins swept the Penguins in the Conference Final as Vokoun’s magic ran into the Bruins’ buzz saw.
Last season, Tomas was hit with blood clots for the second time in his career. He had missed the 2006 playoffs with the Predators when he was diagnosed with them in his abdomen, but had come back strong the following season. In late September of 2013, he developed blood clots in his leg and the report from the Czech Republic was that he had a near-death experience.
The treatment with blood thinners kept him out of action most of the season, as he managed but two “conditioning assignment” stints with the Penguins’ American League club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Monday morning came word over Twitter that he was retiring. "I can say that it was a successful career," Vokoun said to iSport. "I'm proud of what I did.”
He should be – with 300 NHL wins, two gold medals from the World Championships and a bronze medal from the 2006 Olympics in Turino. He represented the Predators in two All-Star games, and as this is written, appeared in more games (383) than any Nashville goaltender (Pekka Rinne is at 343).
Tomas Vokoun will always be remembered here as the blue-collar goaltender that helped turn the Predators franchise from its expansion infancy to a perennial playoff team. He played 12 seasons out of the “mainstream NHL,” but his efforts, results – and his humanity – were always distinguished. I would love to see “The Russian Rocket” breaking in on him again!
Earlier this season, during the Nashville Predators first trip into Winnipeg, I happened upon a story. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” That’s all I was doing – watching.
Sitting at the same table at the MTS Centre prior to the Preds versus Jets match were Brent Peterson and his brother, Greg. Greg was in town from his Calgary home and the visit with his brother was a bonus. Greg would be doing the radio analysis of the following night’s Canadian Football League game between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Calgary Stampeders.
In other words, sitting at the same table were brothers who worked as broadcast analysts in two different sports! Of course they each played at the professional level. Greg spent nine seasons (1984-92) with his hometown Calgary Stampeders after his college career at Brigham Young.
Brent played 620 NHL games between 1978 and 1989 for the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks and Hartford Whalers. He then spent 21 seasons in coaching, 14 of them in the NHL, including the Predators’ first 12 seasons.
Certainly there are other sets of brothers who have played different sports. UCLA’s Bill (basketball, later NBA champion) and Bruce (football, later with the Dallas Cowboys) Walton come to mind. Another family combination: former American League batting champion (1970) Alex Johnson’s brother Ron was a running back for the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys from 1969-76.
Broadcasting has been a bit different. There are brothers who have done play-by-play of various sports. The Alberts come to mind immediately: Marv (with NBA, NHL and NFL credits) is the most famous. Al has worked primarily in the ABA and NBA. The youngest brother, Steve, is now with the Phoenix Suns, but also did the Nets-Mets-Jets trifecta along with hockey’s Islanders, Rangers and the old WHA Cleveland Crusaders.
The legendary Dan Kelly – long-time network TV voice of hockey nationally and voice of the St. Louis Blues, had two offspring who also called NHL play-by-play: John Kelly has worked for Tampa Bay, Colorado and (now) St. Louis. John's younger brother, Dan, announced for the Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks.
Those brothers all called play-by-play, which truly is a different animal from being an analyst. The analyst needs to most often answer the questions “How?” and “Why?”
Maybe my memory is failing me, but I can’t recall anyone other than the Petersons who have performed that role in two different professional sports.
You can listen to them tell their individual stories right here:
It truly was an unexpected pleasure to be reading one of my favorite authors last week – Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin – as he promptly transported me back to the early years of the Predators’ franchise.
His lead: “Bubba Berenzweig, the former Nashville Predator, has a wonderful Dixie-Judeo mash-up of a name…” as he began a trip through many of the great names of hockey’s past and present. Later, he mentions: “Until this season, Jordin Tootoo wore 22, but he was also born on Feb. 2 – 2/2 – which is too, too improbable.” (See the article here)
So began my trip back in time, remembering this native of Arlington Heights, IL, who had played four years for Red Berenson at the University of Michigan. The New York Islanders had drafted him following his freshman year with the Wolverines in 1996, but the Predators traded for him when he finished in Ann Arbor and he joined the Milwaukee Admirals for the 1999-2000 season.
He was born Andrew David Berenzweig, but was called “Bubba” long before he landed in the South. He had helped Michigan win National Championships as both a freshman and a junior. The second of those was more difficult – the Frozen Four was in Boston, and the Wolverines beat Boston College in overtime!
Bubba made the NCAA All-Tournament team that year, along with goaltender Marty Turco, whom we would all get to know better later on.
With the Predators, Bubba first earned his notoriety for his name alone. He played parts of four seasons for the Predators, getting called up from Milwaukee. He was known for setting up camp on the “back door,” and thus his on-air nickname became “Back Door Bubba.” On December 29, 2001, he got his first chance to play against the Detroit Red Wings.
Going into that game, Nashville was 4-13-2 all-time versus Detroit. They trailed Detroit, 2-0, in the third period. That was when Bubba went to work. He and Petr Tenkrat set up a goal by Vitali Yachmenev to pull within one.
With 65 seconds left in regulation, Tenkrat and Bubba assisted on a powerplay goal by Vladimir Orszagh (“The Slovakian Tank,” as he was dubbed by Terry Crisp) to tie the game. Little did we know at that time that Bubba had the perfect set-up to be the No. 1 Star that night.
That will be my Bubba Berenzweig memory forever!
As for Jordin Tootoo, what can I say about one of the most unique individuals I have ever met? He was the first Inuit to play in an NHL game. The coverage leading up to the opening game of the 2003-04 season was incredible.
Predators opponents quickly learned to be aware of where Jordin was at all times. From the outset, he played like a heat-seeking missile. He became a fan favorite with 16 fights in his first season. Tootoo made indelible impressions on many, the first being Islanders’ defenseman Radek Martinek, not to mention the Dallas Stars’ Stephane Robidas.
Today, Bubba Berenzweig is President of the Hylant Insurance firm in Toledo, Ohio. Meanwhile, Jordin Tootoo has continued his career (after two seasons in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization) with the New Jersey Devils (where he wears uniform #20). At times this year, I have felt sorry for Devils’ play-by-play announcers Matt Loughlin and Steve Cangialosi. Imagine the tongue-twisting possibilities of Jordin Tootoo playing on the same line with Tuomo Ruutu!
In any case, many thanks to Steve Rushin for rekindling those memories!
While thinking about the abundance of reasons to be thankful, as a hockey fan, I can’t help but feel a real sense of loss this week.
It all began over the weekend, as we learned of the passing of Pat Quinn and Viktor Tikhonov. A closer reading of the hockey obituaries also revealed the departure of Murray Oliver and in the middle of this week, the death of Gilles Tremblay.
Pat Quinn was a giant of a man with an equally large personality. In many ways, I would consider him the Tip O’Neill of hockey; only he was more accomplished in his game than O’Neill was in politics. That says a lot – Tip O’Neill had the second longest tenure of any Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Quinn was also more beloved. I remember him as a player for the Atlanta Flames (he also played for Toronto and Vancouver) who made the transition to coaching with the Philadelphia Flyers. He was an almost instant success there, winning the Jack Adams Award in 1980. That Flyers team had an NHL record 35-game unbeaten string and made the Cup Final. Pat had already learned by that point the importance of breaking up the monotony of the hockey season, substituting volleyball and soccer for practice on occasion.
He would go on to get his law degree, and coach the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers in the NHL. That wasn’t enough. He coached Team Canada to Olympic Gold in the 2002 games at Salt Lake City, ending a 50-year period without an Olympic Gold Medal for his country. Add another gold in the 2008 World Under 18 championships to that.
Pat served the Hockey Hall of Fame on its selection committee. When named the committee’s chairman in 2013, he immediately initiated moves to bring more transparency to the selection process.
Quinn and his family had numerous connections to hockey in Tennessee. He began his playing career with the Eastern League Knoxville Knights in 1963-64 and playing another season with the Memphis Wings of the Central League in 1965-66. Pat’s daughter, Kalli, served as Executive Assistant to Nashville Predators GM David Poile in the early years of the franchise.
Murray Oliver was 77 when he died Sunday, and would not be considered an all-time great. However, he made five NHL All-Star teams and played nine NHL seasons when there were only six teams, then played another eight after the league expanded. He had five 20-goal seasons, had a brief term as coach of the Minnesota North Stars and scouted for many years, retiring in 2005.
Oliver was a teammate of Quinn’s with Toronto in the late 1960s. “That was the day of the true policeman, too,” Quinn recalled for Canada’s National Post. “I got a job…to look after Dave Keon and Murray Oliver and those guys, that’s the reason I got in there.” It worked out for all concerned. Pat Quinn’s first NHL goal (in the 1968-69 season) was scored for the Maple Leafs. Murray Oliver and Dave Keon provided the assists on that goal!
Baseball fans recall that the 1970s Cincinnati Reds were referred to as “The Big Red Machine.” They weren’t as dominant as the Soviet National Teams or the CSKA Moscow (also known as “Soviet Red Army”).
Viktor Tikhonov was a true dictator who ran that club. He was an innovator, standing in front of the bench rather than behind it. Tikhonov took over the CSKA squad in 1977. His Soviet teams won eight World Championships and Olympic Gold in 1984, ’88 and ’92.
In spite of all that success, Tikhonov will be remembered for perhaps one mistake in that period of time: substituting Vladimir Myshkin for Vladislav Tretiak in net at the end of the first period of the USA versus Soviet match in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Tretiak had allowed a last-second goal by Mark Johnson to tie the game. Myshkin would take the loss in that one – which we know as the biggest part of Team USA’s “Miracle on Ice.”
As there was with all things pertaining to the Soviet Union at that time, secrecy was a high priority. While at the Olympics or on the various international tours, it was always a challenge to elicit any information from him (through interpreters) at postgame media scrums. Don’t think we didn’t have cause to wonder when a long question would be translated for him and he would respond with several sentences in Russian. The translation we received was often “No!”
I first met Gilles Tremblay at the Forum in Montreal in the late 1970s. He had been a typical “200-foot player” for the 1960s Montreal Canadiens, sort of a precursor to Bob Gainey as a gifted skater and checking forward. Typically, he would draw the assignment of checking a Gordie Howe or Bobby Hull.
But Gilles moved on from there to spend many years in the Soiree du Hockey broadcast booth, teaming with the great Rene Lecavalier. Gilles was as hardworking as a broadcaster as he was a player. He was always willing to help out a youngster in the business, and always did so with a great deal of class.
When we lose people like Quinn, Oliver, Tikhonov and Tremblay so close to one another, we lose a great deal of hockey’s legacy. The stories they take to their graves represent a tremendous loss to all lovers of the game. We can only hope this will help power the push for an oral history section at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Yes, timing is everything. Departing Nashville Monday afternoon after 1 p.m., the Predators’ arrived at their Toronto hotel around 5:30 p.m. EST. That allowed for a quick check-in, unpacking, freshening up and departure for the Hall 30 minutes later.
But – not so fast: In the lobby of that hotel – which just so happened to be the headquarters for the event, were many of the inductees. Heading out to the limousines were some of the Class of 2014: Rob Blake, Bill McCreary, Mike Modano and Peter Forsberg.
Walking through the lobby, you could see Hall of Famers Pierre Pilote (brother of the Dixie Flyers’ Flo Pilote); Ted Lindsay and Lanny McDonald. The celebration may have begun too soon for some, like one lady who thought I might be Ken Dryden. “I’m sorry, but I am not tall enough and certainly and not intelligent enough,” was all I could muster after that shock.
In short order, it was time to jump on the shuttle bus for the trip to the Hall a few cold blocks up Yonge Street. Just walking down the aisle of the bus to an open seat took me by hockey royalty.
On one side sat former Bruins and Avs defenseman Ray Bourque, on the other was Islanders’ goaltender Billy Smith and the general manager of that Islanders’ dynasty, “Bowtie Bill” Torrey. There were two great Nordiques: Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet. Shortly after I took my seat…who came to sit behind me but Hall-of-Famer-to-be Marty Brodeur!
The bus trip was short, and emptied almost directly onto the Red Carpet leading into the Hall. There were television and radio crews lining the path. Almost instantly I had the chance to chat with SiriusXM NHL Network radio buddies Mike Ross and Michael Lippa. Everyone lining the carpet was studying the arrivals looking for their next guest.
Among the “interview recruits” was actor Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Rod Tidwell” in the film “Jerry Maguire”). I have seen him at many Los Angeles Kings’ games, and he put on quite a show at a Blackhawks preseason game this year.
Other guests on the various Red Carpet interviews included the NHL’s all-time leading scorer at left wing, Luc Robitaille and ex-Leafs defenseman and trailblazer for European players, Borje Salming.
Down the escalator from there were the Hall of Fame displays – and a cocktail party set up for those of us who did not have seats in the induction area itself. That was where some delightful conversations took place, many with previous Hall of Fame inductees.
Long-time NHL executive Cliff Fletcher, Igor Larionov, Jimmy Devellano and Brian Kilrea all fit into that category. So did this year’s media honorees: USA Today’s Kevin Allen (Elmer Ferguson award for journalism) and Blackhawks’ play-by-plan man Pat Foley (Foster Hewitt Award).
After the ceremony began, we walked through the displays, watching on the any number of monitors deployed throughout.
The conversations continued as we watched, catching up with Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC is a great follow on Twitter) of Hockey Night in Canada and former NHL Broadcasting Director John Shannon, now with Rogers Sportsnet, the controlling body for Hockey Night. (@JSportsnet).
The various hockey reunions were a pleasant, but minor part of the evening in “hockey heaven,” as my wife Claudia has termed this occasion. The focus properly was set on the inductees and the acceptance speeches.
Rob Blake was first, followed by the family (wife Line and son Jason) of ex-coach Pat Burns (who passed away in 2010). Then came the one I had been waiting for – that of the first player to have worn the Predators uniform to make it to the Hall: Peter Forsberg. (Watch his speech here)
The night continued with three more: Dominik Hasek, Bill McCreary and Mike Modano. I have worked in and around hockey since the mid-1970s, but the Class of 2014 was something special to me. I was lucky enough to have broadcast games involving each of them. Two of them (Hasek and Forsberg) were key parts of the teams for which I called the action.
That evening, Hasek also hosted a party for many of his former teammates. I saw ex-Sabres’ captain Michael Peca on the Red Carpet and had a great chat with Derek Plante (now assistant coach at his Alma Mater, Minnesota-Duluth), and his wife Kristi.
I doubt I will ever see a goaltender like Hasek, making so many spectacular saves, flailing away in the crease. Similarly, I don’t believe I will ever see a player combine the skill level with the robust physical style of Peter Forsberg. Both Hasek and Forsberg had compete levels that were incredibly high. Their greatness was defined this way: they won so much because they absolutely hated to lose – at anything – not just on the ice!
The night was indeed a trip to “Hockey Heaven.” It brought laughter, a torrent of great memories and emotions. The passion for the game was there for all to see. It was great to share the evening with Brent Peterson, who now can cross this off his bucket list. However, Brent, like me, will want to return every chance he gets!
This season has brought about the third best start in Predators history – at least over the course of the first 16 games:
This brings back memories of the two best seasons in team history: the 2005-06 and 2006-07 squads. Those teams came out of the lockout (on the heels of the Predators first playoff trip) and compiled 106 and 110-point seasons respectively.
Free-agent-signee Paul Kariya led the way in 2005-06 with 31 goals and 85 points, becoming the first – and to this point only - Predator to average more than a point-per-game over the course of a full season.
The other major contributors to the offense in 2005-06 were Steve Sullivan (31 goals, 68 points) and Yanic Perreault (22 goals, 57 points). Scott Hartnell had a breakout season with 25 goals and Marty Erat added 20. In all, there were five players with 20 goals or more. The defensemen chipped in as well: Kimmo Timonen had 11 goals and 50 points; Marek Zidlicky, 12 and 49, and Dan Hamhuis had a plus/minus rating of +11 to go along with 7 goals and 38 points.
That team was a franchise-best 10th in NHL scoring, seventh in defense and sixth overall in the League standings. Most importantly – they had the sixth-best record in the League, nine spots higher than they had ever been.
The 2005-06 Predators were dominant at home, going 32-8-1, outscoring the opponents by 48 goals (more than one per game). It was the first year of the shootout in the NHL, and the Predators went 6-3 in those games, as Kariya was 5-of-6 and had the deciding tally four times. Steve Sullivan converted on 3-of-7 shootouts as well.
Kariya and Sullivan were absolutely dynamic on the power play; zipping passes from one side of the goal crease to the other through the lower box for quick-strike goals.
At the other end of the ice, Tomas Vokoun was dominant, playing 61 games, going 36-18-7 with a 2.67 goals-against-average and stopping 91.9 percent of the shots he faced. Chris Mason backed him up for 23 games and went 12-5-1. There was also a 23-year-old youngster named Pekka Rinne, who filled in for two games and went 1-1.
The following year, the second-best start over 16 games brought about even more excitement. Excitement was the theme that season, especially with the player additions.
J.P. Dumont joined Nashville after the Buffalo Sabres walked away from an arbitration ruling that went in his favor. Jason Arnott signed on as an unrestricted free agent from Dallas. It was the first full season for Shea Weber on defense and the second for Ryan Suter. Another enigmatic talent who emerged that year was Alexander Radulov, who came up from Milwaukee to play 64 regular-season games and in the playoffs.
The last addition happened on Feb. 15, 2007, while the Predators were in St. Louis preparing for a game the following night. Word came that the Predators had acquired future Hall-of-Famer Peter Forsberg (no relation to Filip) from Philadelphia for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and two draft picks.
From the time he was part of the blockbuster trade from Philadelphia to Quebec (now Colorado) for Eric Lindros in 1992, Forsberg had been one of the best overall performers in the NHL. He even missed the entire 2001-02 regular season, and then played 20 playoff games for the Avs, scoring 9 goals and 27 points!
Forsberg scored a dramatic overtime goal on a “sick pass” (Forsberg’s words) from Paul Kariya against Detroit on Feb. 24. There were 23 games remaining on the Predators schedule when the trade was made, and Forsberg was able to play in just 17. The goal against Detroit was one of just two he scored before the playoffs, in which he added two more.
(No one could have predicted that Peter Forsberg would play just 11 more NHL games, all for Colorado, after his time with the Predators was up that spring.)
All of that helped produce a 51-win, 110-point season, which was the NHL’s third-best record, behind Buffalo and Detroit, each with 113 points.
They scored a franchise-record 272 goals, tying for fourth-best in the League (even though the power play was tied for 17th). The third-ranked penalty-killing unit marked another all-time franchise best.
However, the San Jose Sharks eliminated each of those teams in the first round of the playoffs. Great starts to the regular season merely indicate what can happen over the course of 82 games. You would think that the Predators have already made the bulk of their player acquisitions coming into this season. The Forsberg they have now is pretty good, don’t you think?
The Predators best playoff seasons came in 2011 (beat Anaheim, then lost to Vancouver, which dropped the Cup Final to Boston) and 2012 (beat Detroit, then lost to Phoenix, which was eliminated by Los Angeles en route to their first Stanley Cup).
The Predators of today are five and three points better than those two teams.
Two things are for certain: this team is getting outstanding scoring from its top line and the team is getting tremendous goaltending. They are playing a high ratio of one-goal games, like much of the NHL is today. That’s how thin the margin of error is – and projections can change daily.
For additional statistics on each Preds team by season, click here.
The question was put to me: “What do the Predators broadcasters do to pass the time on a marathon road trip like this?”
I would love to tell you that we visit museums and art galleries, attend symphony performances, study foreign languages and take correspondence courses. I would love to tell you that, but it would be, for the most part, untrue.
In actuality, there is no simple answer to the question. One day in Winnipeg, the conversation turned this way (I will not identify the individual speakers here in order to protect the potentially-guilty parties):
“What coaches or managers would you (not) want to see naked?” (This seems to be the sort of question Captain Oveur asked of Joey in the movie “Airplane,” doesn’t it?).
The responses were varied.
Names from the world of hockey, basketball and baseball were brought up, all bringing about different levels of squeamishness.
Not all conversations went that way, but it’s safe to say that we weren’t spending a lot of time on the elections that were upcoming as the trip began, and then passed as it continued. (OK, maybe the talk of wine soon being available in Tennessee grocery stores was covered).
As you might have guessed, there were a lot of hockey discussions, among our group, and also involving some with the coaches and personnel from the Predators and the other teams over the course of the trip. Game strategy, officials’ calls and supplementary discipline were all covered.
With a day between each game of the trip, that left time for us to follow the NHL and the other sports. The World Series finished before we left Nashville. That still left the football season – and the search in Vancouver for a place to follow the Tennessee-South Carolina game. In the days before satellite television, that might have been a lost cause, but Willy Daunic found a place and the remarkable comeback and overtime win by the Volunteers was seen.
I won’t try to speak for anyone else, but in addition to the work we do to prepare for “the next game,” (and isn’t there always one of those), I tried to catch up on my reading.
While on this trip, I started and finished reading two hockey books (Bruce Dowbiggin’s Ice Storm – the Rise and Fall of the best Vancouver Canucks Team Ever, and Bob McKenzie’s Hockey Confidential). I recommend both of them, by the way. I spoke with Dowbiggin in Calgary about his book, which is in many ways a “Moneyball comes to hockey” story, but that is too simplistic. McKenzie’s title is a little misleading, but it is a collection of human-interest hockey stories I thought were fascinating.
Since it is a 12-day trip, I have also begun reading another by an old friend from Buffalo: ex-goaltender Clint Malarchuk just released A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond.
One thing about this season’s Country Music Association awards trip is certain, when we get home early Sunday morning – there will be a lot of laundry to do.
Then it will be time to get ready for the next game – Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena against the first team faced on the trip – Edmonton!
Every summer, and it seems even more so in the last 10 years or so, the dawn of free agency comes and goes. Almost instantaneously, we then hear the question: “Was all of that money well spent?”
That question is asked by every club, perhaps a sort of “buyer’s remorse.” In the case of the Predators, they have managed to receive an overall positive ROI (Return On Investment). Allow me to give you my take on the better ones:
Before I do that, let’s agree that judgment cannot fairly be given to current free agents on the roster. The book is still open on Carter Hutton, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, Victor Bartley and Anton Volchenkov.
Fiddler joined the team first, as a free agent out of Roanoke in the ECHL in 2002. Jerred Smithson signed two years later, but didn’t play immediately, thanks to the lockout which cost the 2004-05 season. I’m sure you will recall his goal in the Anaheim series, helping the Predators to their first-ever playoff series win.
Another in that category would be Marcel Goc, a centerman who joined the team as a 26-year-old in the summer of 2009. Goc was strong defensively and could be counted upon to make the smart play.
On a short-term basis, the Predators did well with Winger Andreas Johansson, signed at the age of 29 in 2002 from the New York Rangers. He played 103 games in two seasons with the Predators, scoring 32 goals, including 20 in just 56 games in 2002-03, his second (and final) 20-goal season in the NHL. He contributed to the Predators’ first playoff team in 2004, which was his last NHL season.
Officially, Yanic Perreault was given a professional tryout at training camp with the Predators coming out of the lockout in the fall of 2005. The last Predator to use an all-wood stick, he was dominant on faceoffs and managed 22 goals and 57 points that season.
One of the better signings had to be that of winger Vladimir (“The Slovakian Tank”) Orszagh. He was a key component on the “Vowel Line” with winger Marty Erat and center Denis Arkhipov for three seasons. He joined the team as a 24-year-old, set free by the New York Islanders in 2001. Unfortunately, his career effectively ended with a knee injury and surgery following the World Championships with Slovakia after the Predators’ first playoff appearance.
Maybe the best role player of the bunch is still playing in the NHL. Joel Ward was 28, and had played 11 NHL games, when he signed on with Nashville in 2008. Undrafted after four years of junior hockey, he then played collegiately at the University of Prince Edward island for four seasons.
His three regular seasons in Nashville produced 40 goals and 98 points. He led the Predators with seven goals and 13 points in the playoffs of 2011 against Anaheim and Vancouver. That represented great timing on his part. His contract in Nashville was up, and it earned him a huge free-agent deal with the Washington Capitals, where he now is playing his fourth season.
Stay-at-home, shot-blocking defensemen have also been part of the free agent haul for Nashville.
While he played three seasons with Milwaukee after leaving the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Greg Zanon then put in three seasons with the Predators. Some of that time he spent as Ryan Suter’s partner (Dan Hamhuis was paired with Shea Weber in 2006-07) on the 110-point team that season. Zanon was a plus-20 in four seasons before he signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2009.
Defenseman Francis Bouillon had two stints with Nashville: 4 games in 2002-03 on a waiver claim from Montreal, where he returned later that season.
“The Cube” returned as a 34-year old free agent in 2009 and played another three seasons here. A physically tough defender, he was the stay-at-home partner for Kevin Klein. Bouillon’s absence was notable when he was concussed in Chicago and missed 38 games in 2011.
Each of those were all solid, if not at times integral role players picked up in free agency. Now, let’s move up to the impact players:
Among the early impact free agents was one of the first, and the first team captain, Tom Fitzgerald. He had put in time with the Islanders and Florida Panthers before he signed with the Predators in that summer of 1998. His importance truly cannot be measured in his stats: four seasons, 42 goals and 88 points. He was the leader the expansion Predators needed. Fitzgerald taught the youngsters how to act as professionals and led the team to the cusp of a playoff berth. That was quite an accomplishment for a team stocked with players that the other 26 teams didn’t want!
The team picked up three key offensive performers to help fill out the rosters of the two best teams to this point in club history: the 106-point team of 2005-06 and the 110-point club the following year.
The first of them was available because of a new rule, which allowed teams to “walk away” from an arbitration ruling: J.P. Dumont. He was 28 in the summer of 2006, and had played a season with Chicago and another five with Buffalo, where he had tallied 20 or more goals four times.
Dumont had two more 20-goal seasons with the Predators, and played on a line with Steve Sullivan. In his second season with Nashville, he posted his career-best season (29 goals and 72 points). Dumont’s effectiveness was reduced after absorbing a brutal hit to the chin from Vancouver’s Alexander Burrows on December 8, 2009. He still ended with 93 goals and 267 points in his five seasons here.
Also in 2006, Jason Arnott, 32 years old and a veteran with time in Edmonton, New Jersey and Dallas, arrived in Nashville. He had scored the overtime Stanley Cup winning goal for New Jersey in 2000 against Dallas. He came to the Preds after three full seasons with the Stars, totaling 76 goals.
Arnott, who would become the second free agent to serve as captain of the team (along with Tom Fitzgerald), stayed closeto those Dallas numbers: 107 goals and 229 points. He established the club record with a 33-goal season in 2008-09.
The top of the list, though, belongs to someone who played just two seasons here: Paul Kariya. His was a special case. After 10 NHL seasons, nine of them spent with Anaheim, where he had a 50-goal season, two 40-goal seasons, plus three 30-goal seasons, he sought out Nashville after the lockout ended in 2005.
Paul Kariya gave the Predators immediate credibility, becoming the first to average over a point per game (85 his first year). He added another 76 points the following season, which proved to be his last in Middle Tennessee. With the sale of the team after 2007, David Poile was unable to offer him another contract, so off to St. Louis he went, for his final three NHL seasons.
The idea that Nashville could host an NHL All-Star Game actually began to take shape when the Music City was home to the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. On the morning of that draft, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to a crowd of 400 at a breakfast sponsored by the Nashville Sports Council.
Commissioner Bettman went on later that morning to extoll the virtues of Nashville as a hockey city.
When the 2003 Entry Draft was over, it was clear that the city had made a huge impression on the Commissioner. Listen to what he had to say at a Town Hall meeting of Predators Season Ticket Holders at the Convention Center on March 27, 2004:
After all of that, it came down to a matter of infrastructure. Over the past few years, the downtown has blossomed. The Music City Center will be a great place to stage many of the activities that now surround the All-Star Game. So many hotel rooms have been added since the draft was here, and that helps make Nashville “The It City” even more.
While it will have been 13 years since the draft was here until the All-Star Game has come to town – you have other things to consider as well. First, consider the availability of the games themselves. The league does not schedule them for years when the NHL participates in the Winter Olympics.
That eliminated 2006, 2010 and 2014. Unfortunately, we also had lockouts, which eliminated 2005 and 2013 from possibilities. In addition, All-Star Games booked for those latter two years were subsequently rescheduled, which further delayed getting a game in Nashville. For example, this season’s game will be in Columbus, which was supposed to have hosted it in 2013.
Now the concept has moved closer to reality. My most fervent wish would be that everyone who was with the Predators from the start, even those we have unfortunately lost over time, could be back to enjoy it.
In addition to attending many of the games in recent years, I was lucky enough to have been part of staging the All-Star Games of 1978 (at the Aud in Buffalo)
and 1981 (at the Forum in Los Angeles).
The NHL All-Star Game has grown to be one of the great celebrations of the game itself.
Nashville has earned it!
You have heard it so many times already, I realize: “Peter Laviolette is just the second coach in Predators history!”
Some perspective here: since the Predators began play in October of 1998, the New York Islanders have had 11 coaches and New Jersey has had 10.
Ken Hitchcock, now with St. Louis, has coached four different teams against Nashville (Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus and the Blues). Mike Keenan (working in the KHL as this is written) has run the bench for Vancouver, Florida, Boston and Calgary. Darryl Sutter has won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, but he has also had the reins in San Jose and Calgary since Nashville joined the NHL.
Bottom line - the average length of time for a head coach’s tenure is short, so the change here is a major one for the organization, as it has never happened before.
Now, to the team’s outlook for 2014-15: And it all starts with goaltending. Thankfully, Pekka Rinne recovered late last season after missing 51 games and was able to get into some late-season NHL action. Perhaps most importantly, he was healthy for the World Championships in Minsk and played well enough for his native Finland to be the tournament’s MVP. That helped him get over whatever physical and psychological hurdles he may have otherwise had to deal with in training camp here. When you can start with one of the best between the pipes, you have a great foundation.
Let’s continue with the defense. Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Seth Jones are all highly regarded throughout the NHL. Ryan Ellis had a solid breakthrough season last year and can build on that, as did Mattias Ekholm. Add free agent signee Anton Volchenkov - who may block as many shots as his goaltender on a given night - to Victor Bartley and the defense is solid.
It is up front that most of the changes have been made in the offseason. General Manager David Poile has been extremely busy. First, he traded perennial 20-goal scorer Patric Hornqvist, along with forward Nick Spaling, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The return on that deal: winger James Neal, who has had six 20-goal seasons (split between Dallas and Pittsburgh), including 40 in 2012 with the Pens. That gives Nashville just the second player in team history who has ever scored 40 in a single season. Paul Kariya had one 50-goal campaign and two more with 40-plus while with Anaheim.
The Neal trade was just the start of the club’s offensive makeover. On July 2nd, forward Olli Jokinen was signed as a free agent. Jokinen had four 30-goal seasons with the Florida Panthers and has over 300 goals in his NHL career.
Early in July, the team was hit with the news of Mike Fisher’s Achilles injury, so they realized they needed more help down the middle.
On July 15th, Derek Roy, who has registered four 20-goal seasons (including one with 32) with Buffalo, and Mike Ribeiro, who has averaged 20 goals and 45 assists per NHL season, were both signed to free agent deals.
Fortified with those moves, and looking forward to the continued development of Craig Smith and hopeful that Colin Wilson can follow in Smith’s lead, the team should be better offensively heading into the season. Mike Fisher should be back with the team in the first half, perhaps pushing some of his teammates even further.
Every team in the Central Division appears to be better as the season begins. Indeed, the Central Division of the NHL may not only be the toughest division in hockey, it may be the most competitive in professional sports.
Now it’s time to do what we have all been anxiously awaiting; drop the puck!