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Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: Seeking hockey fans, pondering life’s mysteries

It has become abundantly clear that hockey fever, of all things, has firmly taken hold of the land of Peyton in its claw-like grip.

The Predators, who have had fair to middling fan support since arriving on the National Hockey League scene in 1998 (has it been that long?!?) are finally at the pinnacle of their sport, playing the dynastic Pittsburgh Penguins for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Along the way, a funny thing happened to the city which was previously known as the Home of Country Music – it is now the home of the loudest fans in the league.

This march through the playoffs has seemingly taken forever, but that’s not your imagination – the first round began on April 13. They wasted little time making history, as the No. 8 seed swept the No. 1 seeded Chicago Black Hawks, one of the regal “original six” teams – out the door like yesterday’s trash, then needed “only” six games each to dispose of the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.

As an aside, St. Louis and Anaheim reflect the best and worst of nicknames. The Blues – with the way have the best-looking road jerseys in league history – come by their nickname honestly. The song of the same name, written by the immortal W.C. Handy, was turned into a march by the team and for years served as the intro to their radio broadcast.

The Ducks (don’t you dare call them the MIGHTY Ducks) are a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. A Disney-owned expansion franchise originally called The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Ducks came into being one year after the Disney movie, “The Mighty Ducks,” became a blockbuster and turned into a franchise itself. Mercifully, Disney sold the team in 2005, and the new ownership settled for the most conventional Anaheim Ducks moniker beginning in 2006. But I digress.

Seeking hockey fever here in Chattanooga, I’d seen ads promoting specials for fans attending Game 1 at Bud’s – a venerable watering hole in Brainerd, shouting distance from my house – I dropped in Monday night hoping to be blown away by a throng of zealous new converts.

Didn’t find a throng. In fact, the corner where I sat contained exactly five people at game time, most of whom were watching the game with what you might call detached interest. But I had my deluxe nachos and iced tea (hey, I was on the clock) and was ready to be blown away by Predators’ magic.

Aside No. 2: Why is it so dang hard to order nachos the way you want them. I got my wish to have no jalapenos on them, but a healthy handful of raw, sliced onion scattered across the guacamole and sour cream. Nowhere on the menu did it list onions as an ingredient.

But apparently, this is something they’re used to; why else give you so small a plastic plate to go with your big dish of nachos and basket of extra chips? Wishing I had a pair of tweezers, I picked out two dozen pieces of raw onion, causing my platter to begin cooling before I was ready to begin digesting. But, I digress … again.

For seven minutes, the Preds kicked the host Penguins around like a schoolyard bully. But then, we all found out that instant replay has become as big of a toothache for hockey as it is for baseball. Seven minutes in, a big, talented defenseman named P.K. (for “Pernell Karl”) Subban smashed a shot past the Penguins’ No. 2 goalie to break the ice – but wait. Not so fast.

The entire sequence was reviewed, it turned out that the entry pass was offside by the margin of maybe two inches – the amount of space the players’ skate was off the ice, something that was virtually impossible for the naked eye to see. But slo-mo, stop action and multiple reviews led to waving off the goal. What bull.

But the muted roar that I hear when Subban’s goal went in told me there was a huddled bunch of hockey fans in the room – just all the way across the room. I would have someone to talk to.

But first, they and I had to endure the worst 13 minutes of hockey the Preds had played all year, if not ever. A stupid two-man power play resulted when one of the Predators used his stick like a billy club on the back of a Pittsburgh player with a delayed penalty already called. Nashville nearly killed the two minutes, but one of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup veterans, Evgeni Malkin – a Russian superstar who I swear was one of names attached to clandestine White House meetings – got the goal.

What followed was disheartening, to say the least. A large Penguin player managed to become totally invisible and did not miss a wide open net. Then, with just a few seconds left in the first period, new Nashville folk hero, Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, deflected a shot off a teammate, causing an own-goal for a 3-0 Pittsburgh lead.

Aside No. 3: Own goals, when no one on the opponent had anything to do with the score, is one of the most egregious mistakes you can make in hockey. But apparently it’s not as serious as it is in soccer.

During the World Cup of 1994, Colombian player Andres Escobar accidentally knocked a ball into his own goal when trying to deflect a pass away from United States player John Harkes. The U.S. won the match 2-1 to eliminate Colombia. And five days later, Escobar himself was eliminated when two men shot him a total of six times in a Bogota parking lot. But, I digress … again.

A little more than three minutes into the second period, a very dead and rather funky looking catfish was launched onto the Pittsburgh ice – a Preds tradition of sorts. There was a delay and a rather graphic cleanup, and a funny thing happened: it seemed to inspire the Predators, even as the Penguins were gakking all over their home ice in what was about to become a choke of historic proportions.

In the second period, while the visiting Predators were starting to show signs of a second wind, the Penguins, at worst, tied a record by making zero shots on goal. In other words, Pekka Rinne could have stayed in the locker room and had a beer and it would not have made any difference.

Unfortunately, Nashville scored only one goal, but it was 3-1 after two periods and the group of fans was actually growing larger.

There was even a real and true hockey jersey in the room. Not a T-shirt with a number on the back, but a real gamer.

Aside No. 4: Grown men wearing hockey jerseys, even fat men with beards, are a far more acceptable fashion statement that wearing a baseball jersey or, God forbid, an NFL or college jersey.

In addition to being styled to wear shirttail out, their color schemes are so varied that they are striking to the eye. Also, they are designed to cover some 20 pounds of padding, so they do a good job of covering 20 (or more) pounds of your padding.

Contrast this with the tacky look of an untucked football jersey. Anyone over the age of 20 looks like he grabbed something out of the T-shirt drawer. Women who wear a football jersey look increasingly stylish in direct ratio to how little they are wearing beneath it.

But wearing a baseball jersey, untucked and unbuttoned, is an unfortunate fashion choice for either gender. That is, unless the very jersey is making a statement.

Overseen at a recent Atlanta Braves game: Man wearing a custom Braves Jersey No. 99 with the name plate saying “Problems.” She, too, was wearing a custom jersey No. 1 with “Ain’t” as the nameplate. But I digress.

Not only did I find Predators fans, I lucked into finding a gentleman who was likely the only hockey player in the room. Joel is a transplant from Minnesota, where he played junior hockey.

“But I’m a local now,” Joel says. “I brought my love of hockey with me, but I’m a Braves fan now, too.”

Not surprisingly, most of the fans who were even singing along when the Bud’s deejay played “Sweet Caroline.”

“It’s not always here, but a number of us get together every time they play,” Joel explains. “We’ve had as many as 20 here at one time. We knew more were coming as they got off their shift.”

Joel, who in the past has attended as many as 10 Predators games in a season, only went to “four or five” this year.

“Saving my money,” he explains. “The Predators were pretty good last year, so we saved out money in order to buy playoff tickets. I hated paying for it, but I’m glad I got it.”

While Joel will be inside Bridgestone Arena for Game Three, he nodded respectfully at some of his table mates.

“I know that a lot of us are going to be there. We won’t all be inside the arena, but we’ll be there.”

It takes a special kind of fan to make a two-hour drive to an arena you don’t have a shot at all of getting inside. What inspires that kind of loyalty? Well, the Predators showed people why as last night’s game progressed into the third period.

A power play opened the door midway through the period to make it 3-2, but then the Penguins made a mistake on rotating their lineup, allowing the Preds to smack home the tying goal two seconds after Pittsburgh had successfully killed off a penalty. The game was tied, but the Penguins did not reach the final by accident.

They scored the game’s final two goals – one with 3:17 to play, the last an empty netter – as the Predators lost their first Game 1 of the playoffs.

All four of the games have been played on the road.

Stories written about Game 1 agreed that the Predators outplayed the Penguins, giving them all the confidence they need for Game Two and beyond.

This thing isn’t over.