As the NHL lockout drags on toward a fourth month, signs of its impact in Nashville continue to grow. On Monday, Predators season ticket holder Zack Bennett wrote a guest post for The Predatorial. In it he explained in painstaking detail his decision to return those tickets for a refund.
“I know that by taking my money away from the Predators, I’m directly hurting my account rep and only marginally affecting this franchise’s profits & losses,” Zack wrote. “I know it doesn’t even put a dent in the broken machine that is the NHL. But I had to do it. I had to do it because, as a fan, it’s all I can do.”
Downtown Nashville is hurting without the reliable revenue brought by hockey fans. (PHOTO: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports)
Zack isn’t the only fan around here whose resolve has been broken by the protracted NHL lockout. When his post went up, Twitter lit up with “me too” tweets from fans all over the local area. A lot of passionate fans have been stung by this latest NHL lockout to the point of giving up hope and demanding their money back. And I feel their pain. Once upon a time, I was a Nashville Predators half-season ticket holder myself.
In 2002, two years after my friend Charlie Tuttle got me hooked on the Preds back in college, I moved to Knoxville. My then-girlfriend (now wife) had two more years to go before she finished graduate school. I didn’t stop going to hockey games while I lived there, though. Tickets for the Knoxville Ice Bears were dirt-cheap, which made for a nice pick-me-up until I could get to games in Nashville on the weekends.
Between 2002 and 2004 I must have seen at least 20 Predators home games, including Tomas Vokoun’s 3-0 shutout of the Red Wings during Game 4 of the first-round playoff series in April ’04. Keep in mind here that I’m a hockey convert. I didn’t grow up playing it (unless Face Off! on the Commodore 64 and Blades of Steel on the NES count). I came to hockey on my own. And I was making 360-mile round trips – regularly – to see games in Nashville. I was exactly the sort of fan the NHL was hoping for when it first headed south.
By the summer of ’04 I was married and back living in the Nashville area. My wife and I, along with my buddy Charlie, went down to what was then known as the Gaylord Entertainment Center to purchase our half-season tickets. I knew there was the possibility of a lockout during the next season, but I didn’t care. I’d spent so much time driving back and forth to Nashville to see games with my friends the last two years, ready to jump at the chance to become one of the regulars whenever it presented itself. Now that I actually had that opportunity, the possibility of an NHL lockout down the line wasn’t going to scare me off. We put down our money, got our signed sticks (Martin Erat for my wife, Scott Walker for me) and pucks (Erat and Chris Mason), and headed back home to wait for the start of hockey season.
Gary Bettman: alienating hockey fans since 1992! (PHOTO: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
After the 2004-05 NHL lockout began, I held onto my hopes of a season for a long time. Looking back, I probably held onto them for too long, considering how much the hundreds of dollars we had tied up with the Preds would have meant to us at the time. I finally hit the point where I was disgusted with the intransigence on both sides, so I sat down and wrote a letter to then-Preds owner Craig Leipold requesting a refund.
The full text of that letter disappeared along with my old hockey blog thanks to a server crash years ago, but some of it survives in this Nashville Scene article from May 2005. Leipold wrote me back, which was nice, but the season was lost, which wasn’t nice. And in the end, for the team, I too was lost. (So was my buddy Charlie. He died in the summer of ’05 , the last NHL game he ever watched having been the Preds’ exit from the 2003-04 playoffs.)
It took me a long time to come back after the last lockout. Even when I did, it wasn’t as the purchaser of a block of tickets. I briefly considered buying in when I caught a case of playoff fever this April, but memories of the last time around (and an income that hasn’t changed much since then) made me reconsider. Every day when I wake up and read the latest on this never-ending lockout, I pat “me of the past” on the back for not giving in when everyone was riding high.
There’s no doubt that the Nashville Predators are in a better situation during this NHL lockout than they were during the past. The team is on surer footing than ever after seven seasons of near-continuous improvement. Perhaps just as important, the current ownership group isn’t pushing the lockout this time around. The words I wrote to Craig Leipold in 2005 – “Mr. Bettman’s folly is an embarrassment from which I’m unable to distance you and your organization” – are unlikely to be repeated by any local fans now that the team is owned locally.
Complicit with the lockout or not, there’s still no denying that the Nashville Predators are suffering from it and will continue to suffer from it for some time to come. People like Zack Bennett – people who truly love the team – find other things to do with their time and money when there’s no team skating at Bridgestone every other night. Getting them to come back is about more than just putting the team back on the ice. It’s about building trust. And for the foreseeable future, with the current NHL lockout on the verge of stealing the second season in eight years, trust is going to be very, very hard to come by.