If I were to have told you last fall that there would be two teams from Tennessee playing past the first round of the playoffs, you would have said, “Well sure the Titans are good, but when did the Yankees move to Nashville?” Yet here we are, with the Nashville Predators and the Memphis Grizzlies both performing well above expectations. Both teams are beginning to supplant themselves as the top draw in the whiskey state. It’s these kind of playoff runs that build a special kind of relationship between the fan and the team. With cities on their backs, the Griz and the Predators (my new indie band) are doing what their owners and pundits have been anticipating: earn their stay.
The Predators are an interesting team. Part of the league since 1998, the Preds are one of Gary Bettman’s first teams introduced during the “throw a dart board at a map of the United States” expansion tour. Since their first game they have had the same General Manager, coach, and goalie coach. Written off by many as one of the unnecessary expansion teams, the Predators have been a rather solid club since making the ’04 playoffs. They have only missed one trip since that season, in ’09, but they had never been out of the first round. I personally didn’t think that was going to be the case this year, and yet here they are, playing deep into the series with the President’s Trophy winning Canucks. It’s a team being led by a phenomenal goaltender, Pekka Rinne of Finland, who is an early favorite as his teams Conn Smythe candidate. This playoff run is big for the Predators, as they have always been one of the teams rumored to be moving north to Canada. Everyone always argues that it’s these teams in ‘bumpkin towns” like Nashville that don’t deserve to take away a team from Canada. But rocking’ the gold playoff shirts (someone’s birthday is coming up HINT HINT) the Nashvillians(?) have been not only a loud crowd, but a knowledgeable one at that. Understanding calls and getting louder when appropriate, this fan base is definitely showing that the NHL’s time spent in Tennessee has not been wasted.
(that’s the crowd celebrating the Pred’s first ever series win over the Ducks a few weeks ago.)
The team also fits the town. They aren’t flashy, rather the team prides itself off of its workmanship. They aren’t big, they just play like they are. They’ve got guys who can score, but more importantly work the corners and hustle every play. Other than the enigmatic Sergei Kostitsyn, the team is blue collar all the way through. They’ve got one of my favorite non-Avs in Shea Weber roaming the blue line with a boomer of a shot. Dude’s been growing his playoff beard since February. That sentence makes me wet.
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When it comes to the Grizzlies, and more importantly, the NBA, I’m the last guy who should be writing about either. But thank God for Wikipedia, right? Ironically, the Grizzlies were originally part of the NBA’s expansion into Canada (it’s almost like Bettman worked for the NBA at one point in his career.) Having failed in Vancouver, they moved to Memphis for the 2001-2002 season. They too made their first trip to the playoffs in 2004 after a few years of less than stellar play. Since that time they have made a few trips to the second season, but had never won a playoff game. Fast forward to this years playoffs. As an 8th seed facing the “model of success” San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies not only won their first playoff game ever, but they shocked the world and put San Antonio on suicide watch, winning the series 4-1. Matched up against the Thunder in the second round, a lot of people figured that the Durantula and crew would make easy picking of Memphis, and begin their championship run. However, the Grizzlies are showing the tenacity that they share with their cross state (maybe, I don’t have a map in front of me) brethren. They lead the best of 7 series 2-1 over the Zombie Sonics, and are starting to make believers out of all the Thomas’.
This all leads us to tonight. The Predators host the Canucks in Nashville, in a do-or-die situation that would force game 7. The Grizzlies welcome the Thunder back to Memphis, with dreams of going up 3-1 in their series. Tennessee is alive. Tonight there will be a 7 year old kid watching both these games, and a relationship will be forged between team and fan. He, or she (I guess), will look back at this spring as the time he fell in love with these teams. He will carry this spring with him to college, and to wherever he may settle and raise his own kids. And when his kids are gathered around the TV with him watching the local team, he can recount this spring, and tell his kids where he was when Tennessee sports made the jump.
“Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be, baby won’t you carry me, back to Tennessee” – The Grateful Dead