It's long been true that certain NHL teams and markets get increased visibility and promotional love. The league, for instance, openly admits that an event like the Winter Classic is typically reserved for high-profile teams that are more likely to generate big national ratings.
But sometimes it's just as important for one of the league's non-preferred members to enjoy the spotlight. Sometimes, an overlooked team or a market can capture the attention of the hockey world. Sometimes, the league needs a run by a team in one of those non-traditional hockey markets it pushed so hard, beginning in the early 1990s.
So yes, the league could get a lot of mileage out of another deep run by the Blackhawks or the Penguins. But it should be thrilled with what's been happening this spring in Nashville, where the Predators are headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history after defeating the Ducks 6-3 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night.
Much has been made by now about the electric atmosphere inside Bridgestone Arena during these playoffs. (This Barry Petchesky Deadspin piece is a good one, and not just because it inspired this misguided letter I can't stop reading from an unhappy Canadian hockey fan.) But this isn't just about chants or mystery national-anthem singers or the flying catfish.
It's the way the city has embraced the team, and the sport. The Predators entered the league in 1998, and this New York Times piece from Monday does a nice job showing just how far the city has come from the days when the team's P.A. announcer would explain infractions like a two-line-pass to fans. Attendance plunged when the novelty wore off, and at one point the franchise was in real danger of moving to Hamilton, Ontario.
But now? This is the scene outside the arena during a playoff game:
And this was how the team was greeted at the airport when it returned to Nashville to play the biggest game in franchise history.
That scene, by the way, came after Game 5 against the Ducks set a local record for TV ratings.
Some in Nashville, to be sure, paid attention to the team for the first time this spring as the Preds advanced through the West bracket. But the franchise has been building toward this for some time: They've made the playoffs ten times in the past 13 seasons, and attendance has been strong for a while, as David Poile has masterfully built the team that finally broke through. Nashville fans earned this moment, and so it was only right that they had ample opportunities to celebrate on Monday, from Colton Sissons's go-ahead goal to both empty-netters to the final buzzer and presentation of the Clarence Campbell Bowl.
The Predators entered the postseason as the West's lowest-ranked team, but it's no wonder that fans have embraced this particular group -- one led by young forwards like Filip Forsberg and the injured Ryan Johansen, Preds lifer Pekka Rinne, and defensemen like Roman Josi and the under-marketed P.K. Subban, whom Poile acquired from Montreal in a trade last summer.
This is what the NHL should want all of its younger franchises to look like: a quality product on the ice, and a city going mad for the team off it. It's also exactly the kind of thing the league should be delighted to show off to an even bigger audience next week when the Final begins. If the enthusiasm that's reached new levels in Nashville this spring carries over to next year and beyond, that's a big win for the league. And if a national audience consistently demonstrates it cares about the Preds, too, that's even better.
The NHL should love that Nashville won the West. And if the Preds can win four more games and capture the Cup, the league should love that even more.