Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Hockey Honeymoon

A team, a city, an owner, a group hug

By Randy Horick

APRIL 26, 1999:  In a city that is long accustomed to autograph seekers, the sight still seemed a little surreal. In the lobby of the Arena, more than 90 minutes before the opening face-off of the final game in the Predators' inaugural season, the fans formed a circle and kept adding concentric rings to it.

They weren't flocking around one of the country music celebrities, like Deana Carter, who frequent Preds' games. They hadn't spotted one of the players.

Instead, in a scene that may be unprecedented in pro sports, the fans wanted the autograph of the team's owner. And most offered something in return: a word of appreciation that Craig Leipold must have heard 500 times: "Thanks for bringing hockey to Nashville."

For more than an hour, flanked by two of his sons, Connor and Curtis (who also requested their dad's autograph on their Predators T-shirts), Leipold signed and chatted with the fans, much as he does before almost each home game.

With some, he shared reminiscenses of specific games during the season. He dispensed hugs to one couple who proudly told him they have traveled 150 miles--each way--to see every home game.

Just after a team official reminded him that it was past time to head up to his suite--he kept signing shirts and programs all the way to the stairs--he stopped to commiserate with one young woman who expressed sadness that the Predators' beyond-their-wildest-dreams first season was ending.

"I'm gonna cry after this game is over," she said.

"I may, too," he replied.

Barely 18 months ago, Craig Leipold owned a hockey team. Actually, not even that: he owned the franchise rights to a hockey team in Nashville. Now, for all practical purposes, he and his organization own the city, too.

And if it seems surpassingly strange that a pro sports owner should be as popular as his team's players, well, Leipold isn't your everyday owner.

"I don't think there's another owner like him," declares team president Jack Diller, who has been around the pro sports block more than once. "When we started, we didn't realize what an asset we had in him. There's a charisma about him that makes contact with the fans."

Besides bringing the Predators to Nashville, Leipold has played perhaps the key role in the franchise's jaw-dropping success. By example, he has set the tone for the organization's efforts at building a fan base and good community relations.

In some ways, Leipold has become the model owner by being un-ownerly. He's the Predators' unofficial greeter and cheerleader, and he's everywhere. It has happened so often that fans are no longer surprised to see him slapping high fives with everyone after a victory.

He seems to live vicariously through the excitement and desire of his players. Like them, he never misses a game. When they shout and pump their fists after scoring a goal, he's in his box doing the same.

And perhaps it's a stretch to credit an owner with helping build cameraderie, but Leipold's easy informality and just-us-guys style certainly haven't hurt. Not many owners would use the team's day off to go golfing with the players--at a dollar a hole--as Leipold did on the Preds' recent West Coast trip. "They didn't give me any putts, either, I can tell you that," laughs Leipold.

At the suggestion of general manager David Poile, Leipold paid for the fathers of his players to accompany the team on a road trip to Buffalo and New Jersey. Not many owners would have done that, either. But it proved to be a great bonding experience, and Leipold plans to continue the idea next season.

"We've got a lot of new guys, and they always call me Mr. Leipold. Fitzy (team captain Tom Fitzgerald) and Cliff (Ronning) look at them and say, 'Nonono, it's Craig.' I look at all of us as partners in this franchise."

So perhaps it's not coincidental that, to a man, the Predators speak of their team cohesion. Ronning says he noticed it right away after he came over from Phoenix in an early season trade.

"He cares about us," says Fitzgerald of the owner. "It's not just a business venture to him. He's been around. He shows up on the road. It goes a long way with the players."

"It's hard not to love this team," says Leipold. "I don't just go to all the games because I'm the owner. I'm going because I'm a fan."

Watching his exuberance, it's hard not to think of Leipold as a big, happy kid savoring a favorite experience. "[He's a kid] in the best of all ways," agrees Diller. "It's very exciting to be involved with a sports team. There's nothing like it."

"It's been a dream year," reflects Leipold. "The impact we, as a team, have had on the community--I'm just having a ball. No one person should be having this much fun in life."

Maybe this, too, is just coincidence, but Nashvillians, beyond all expectations, have come to share Leipold's sentiment toward his team, right down to the pride of ownership. Like Craig, the city has fallen in love with the Predators. These days, the team is viewed around the NHL not just as a model for expansion franchises, but as a model franchise, period.

And, somehow, Saturday's finale--like Leipold's high-fives to fans as they come off the escalator--seemed all at once refreshingly improbable, almost magical, and exactly what we've come to expect.

The fans roared when the Predators took the ice. They roared for Leipold. They roared for David Legwand, the team's heralded 18-year-old who played in his first NHL game. They roared for Denny Lambert, who brawled three separate times with the invaders from New Jersey.

They roared on cue from the scoreboard all night. They roared when the Preds finally scored, on a lucky deflection, to cut the Devils' lead to 4-1.

When the drubbing concluded, the fans stood and roared again as if the Predators had just captured the Stanley Cup. They remained as each player ceremoniously gave his jersey to a fan. During a highlight video scored to music with the lyric, "I hope you had the time of your life," they spontaneously began to chant, "Let's go, Predators!"

It's as yet impossible to say whether the city and the team can sustain this romance forever, as players come and go and expectations increase. But one thing at least is clear: The Predators and Nashville will always have Paris.

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