The expansion of the NHL to Nashville in 1997 was hockey’s first big step into a market and culture not previously accustomed to the sport.
Over the last 17 years, it’s been the Nashville Predators job to grow the game in the greater Nashville area; something the franchise has been committed to since day one. Understanding the benefit of grassroots development starting with future fans and players at an early age, the Predators have used a variety of programs, events and donations to educate multiple generations about the world’s fastest sport.
The latest endeavor of the club to develop hockey–both fans and players–is the creation of a twin ice rink facility in Antioch, Tenn. A public-private partnership between the Nashville Predators and the Metro Nashville Government, the Ford Ice Center aims to grow hockey and other forms of ice skating in the Middle Tennessee area.
“In a way our mission is that we want kids to come out, have fun and play hockey. We don’t want the next Wayne Gretzky–if that happens, it happens of course–but we want to get as many kids as we can learning that skating is a lot of fun,” said Danny Butler, the general manger of the Ford Ice Center. “We want to be intentional with how we schedule and plan our activities, so there’s enough time on the ice for all the people we want to reach in the Davidson County and Antioch area.”
Scheduled for a soft opening in mid-August, the Ford Ice Center will feature eight locker rooms, a dance studio and a plethora of ice-related programs, including instructional skating classes and high school and college hockey. The new facility will also open with the Predators prospect camp and rookie tournament (featuring the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning) in September.
“We’re not even open yet, and we’re probably 70 percent booked on our ice time,” Butler said. “It’s tough because even after we’re finished there will be only six sheets of ice in Middle Tennessee. But that’s also encouraging because it shows the need we’re meeting. [...] The Antioch area is the fastest growing zip code in all of Davidson County, and probably one of the widest counties in the Middle Tennessee area. There’s a huge untapped market of people that don’t go to A-Game or Centennial, but will be served by us in this location.”
Butler explained the importance of teaching skating beginners the fundamentals in a fun and innovative way. “I think that’s something that Craig MacDonald, who’s our hockey director, and Scott Hamilton do really well,” Butler said.
Hamilton, an Olympic figure skating Gold Medalist, will serve as an active principal at the Scott Hamilton Skating Academy housed at the Ford Ice Center.
“I’ve spent the last several years watching the state of figure skating, and there was something missing. I’ve got this theory that where there’s a void there’s opportunity, and I think it’s time to institute some new skating programs and teaching methods,” Hamilton said at an event unveiling his program in April. “I’ve participated in figure skating at just about every level, so moving to teach children and youth at this point in my career just makes sense. I’m very pleased that I’ll be partnering with the Nashville Predators, an organization that I love dearly and have supported for the past eight seasons.”
The Ford Ice Center racing toward completion, it won’t be long before Hamilton, MacDonald and Butler see their collective vision become a reality.
The combination of placing a state-of-the-art facility in a needed location along with programs intended to build a love for hockey at a basic and personal level has proven to be a successful model, and the Predators are committed to it. Soon to be featuring children taking their first wobbly strides on ice, the Ford Ice Center promises to be the ideal ambassador for a franchise and city committed to hockey for decades to come.