Gerry Helper, a senior vice president and the team’s unofficial historian, worked through it all. Hopscotching from one expansion franchise to another, Helper arrived in October 1997 from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Until then, he had never visited Nashville, though its size reminded Helper of Buffalo, his hometown. Right away, he knew he wanted the fans here to feel the way he did on April 21, 1996, before the Lightning’s first-ever playoff game.
That day at the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg, Fla., Helper gaped while nearly 26,000 people rose as one when the players skated onto the ice.
Helper did not tingle again like that until 2003, after the Predators’ fifth season, when Nashville hosted the N.H.L. draft — a niche event in a city largely unfamiliar with junior wingers from Medicine Hat or defensemen from Cape Breton. There was no reason to expect much. Still, he said, about 13,000 attended, and responded with a standing ovation when a league official, doing a roll call of the teams, announced Nashville.
“That was my defining moment,” Helper said. “That this place has got it; this place can be it.”
In his office last week, Helper displayed a pamphlet from the days when deciphering hockey seemed like a prerequisite for selling a Predators season ticket. It included a glossary of hockey terms, a diagram of the rink and a description of responsibilities for each position. It also answered such questions as “Who gets credit for an assist?”
The first few years, the public-address announcer drew quizzical looks from visiting players by explaining basic infractions, like a two-line pass. Now, when the Predators sustain offensive-zone time or begin a power-play rush, the crowd roars.
“We had to groom them,” said Terry Crisp, a longtime broadcaster for the Predators. Crisp understood the task ahead, perhaps better than anyone. He had played on two expansion teams (the 1967-68 Blues and 1972-73 Islanders) and coached another (the 1992-93 Lightning).
“I guess I’m an original guy,” Crisp said.
He recalled Tampa Bay’s inaugural game, when Chris Kontos scored his third of four goals. Only one fan commemorated the hat trick by tossing a cap onto the ice. He was then tossed out of the arena by an uninitiated security crew. (The team’s general manager, Phil Esposito, found the fan outside, took him back in and bought him a beer, Crisp said.)