Walk in to the Ford Ice Center in Antioch, and you know something special is going on. It’s an impressive structure no doubt, painted in gold and blue inside and out, adorned with Nashville Predators logos up and down. As soon as you walk in, you know that you’re in a state-of-the-art facility. Just opened in September of last year, it still has the new building smell. Boasting two ice rinks, a roller hockey rink, meeting/party rooms, modern concession stand (with a pretty good BBQ sandwich), and a Perani’s Hockey World, the Ford Ice Center is absolutely the future of the Nashville Predators.
On any given day, there’s no telling what you may see there. Maybe it’s just a free skating day, and there are any number of children and adults just out enjoying the ice. On those days it’s fun to watch people from 5 to 45 just learning to skate, some hanging on to the boards for dear life, and others tentatively trying to get onto the ice unassisted, not unlike a baby bird first attempting to leave the nest. You laugh until you realize it’s going to be your butt on the ice next. It could be as simple as a “Learn to Skate” class where anyone from children to adults can hone their skating skills. Perhaps it’s a group learning to figure skate in a school that’s run by Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton.
Pretty much any day you go, however, there will be hockey. Open or “pickup” hockey sessions go on two to three times per day. The schedule is littered with open ice time for hockey players to shoot on net and hone their hockey skills. Many nights there are league games. Ford Ice boasts leagues from the “D” league for beginners all the way to “A” leagues for those who have played all their lives. Hockey abounds at Ford Ice, but seasoned vets aren’t the designated target.
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Youth hockey is a big deal at the Ford Ice Center. The Go Out And Learn (GOAL) program is a big part of that. Teaching children in the Nashville area to play hockey is imperative to growing the sport in the long-term. It’s also a genius move by the Predators. The GOAL program is like a “free trial” for kids in the area to test the frozen waters of hockey and see how they enjoy it.
That free trial is the genius of the Nashville Predators. The team knows that adults are pretty much set in what sports they are and are not going to spend their money on. However, if their children become fans, guess who just became a fan, too (willingly or not). When two parents who have never had an interest in hockey have a 6 year-old begging to play and begging to go to games, well, they’re going to the games now. They’re buying merchandise now. And in 15-20 years, that 6 year-old grows up into a season ticket holder.
It’s very obvious that they’ve shifted to put a huge focus on growing hockey in the younger generation, because this is the first generation that will have grown up with the Predators in Nashville for their entire lives. A 35 year-old who has lived in Tennessee his whole life has only really had hockey for half of his lifetime. He grew up parents who watched football. He played football. He’s always known football. Hockey is still something of a novelty to guys like him.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of learning for the older generations as well. On many weeknights there are hockey classes and seminars geared towards adults. There is also a tight-knit community of hockey players who play several times a week. This is where beginner players can hone their new-found skills… before being thoroughly embarrassed by the 16 year-old who has played since he was seven.
The Predators have invested heavily into the Ford Ice Center, and for good reason. The more people who get hooked on hockey (which is just slightly harder than getting hooked on phonics) as a sport to play, the more lifelong fans that are created. The kids and adults that are just learning the sport today are the season ticket holders of tomorrow. And therein lies the true future of the Predators, not just growing the fan base, but growing the sport as a whole to solidify the fan base for generations to come.