Before Tuesday's 1-0 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, the Nashville Predators senior management (Chairman/Owner David Freeman, GM David Poile, and President of Business Operations Ed Lang), joined by NHL Commissioner Gary Betttman, conducted a town hall meeting with Predators season ticket holders. Questions were submitted just prior to the session, goodie bags of memorabilia celebrating 10 years of NHL hockey in Nashville were given away (one of which was won by Yours Truly*), and the guys in the suits conducted a frank and insightful discussion on where things stand with the Predators today, and where they and the NHL are headed. Video of the event is going to be posted on the team's website sometime next week, but until then, what follows is a rough recap.
"Say, Mr. Bettman, what can we do about eliminating that OTL point?"
At first, Freeman, Poile and Lang sat at the table up front and Lang addressed the crowd, thanking them for their support and recounting his 10 years with the club. He recognized the team's need to grow the fan base, and said that a new marketing agency has been hired and that they are in the process of developing a new marketing plan. I can tell you that since I moved to Nashville in September 2005 I have been constantly underwhelmed by the Predators marketing effort, so this is definitely welcome news. Lang also mentioned that they are in the process of reviewing all aspects of the Predators' business operations, and are placing a priority on establishing outstanding customer service. The Predators mentioned that even though they could only answer a portion of the submitted questions during the Town Hall meeting, they promised to get back in touch with people on an individual basis relative to their questions, and some people on the Predators Message Boards have already been contacted, so apparently that customer service effort is a sincere one.
David Poile then took his turn, and in one of the best sound bites from the session, referred to last summer's salary purge and franchise instability by simply stating, "It's over." He's been working with David Freeman on a 3-5 year plan for the organization, and has been talking with player agents about resigning the players eligible for Group 2 Free Agency this summer (Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Martin Erat). He fully expects to get them signed, but sees that happening during the offseason rather than at the present time. He sounded very firm when he also said, "Last summer was a blip, we're committed and are going to build this team."
At this point Gary Bettman strolled in and joined the head table to a standing ovation from the crowd (I'm sure he doesn't see too many of those). The commissioner seemed genuinely appreciative, and affirmed that when it came to the events surrounding the franchise sale, "We were right, and it was worth it." Bettman's actual role in blocking the Balsillie deal and steering things towards local ownership remains murky and unclear, but (and this is pure speculation on my part, I have no inside info) my feeling all along is that Balsillie's "Hamilton Predators" stunt set off alarm bells at NHL Headquarters, in the sense that the city of Nashville could well have pursued legal angles against Balsillie for failure to live up to the terms of the Sommet Center lease, and set a dangerous precedent within the broader NHL community. Anyways, enough of my feverish visions, back to the Town Hall...
Poile resumed his comments by saying that the team's future is bright, he plans to continue building through the draft, mentioned that signing J.P. Dumont to a contract extension during the season was important to remove speculation about his status leading up to the trade deadline, and send a clear signal to the rest of the league that the team is committed to winning. That only makes Nashville that much more attractive to other players they might like to acquire.
Freeman then took his opportunity to thank the fans for their support of the team, which gave Bettman a chance to jump in as well, saying "When the media in other places maligned you (Nashville hockey fans), it just wasn't right, it just wasn't fair." It's nice to hear someone outside of Nashville recognize this, that's for sure.
With the opening remarks concluded, it got down to the Q&A:
First, a question about the status of the Sommet Center lease negotiations went to David Freeman. He emphasized that the deal is done, and not to worry about the time it's taken to complete all the proceedings and approvals. The management has been focused on assuming the reins of the team and selling tickets, and that it's often difficult to work on those kinds of issues during the middle of the season. Gary Bettman also noted that he met with Mayor Karl Dean earlier that day, and was confident the deal would be completed.
Next, a question to Bettman about getting an All-Star Weekend for Nashville. The Commissioner cited three obstacles to overcome there; completion of a new convention center downtown (years off), growing the hotel room capacity near the arena to accomodate 5,000-7,000 visitors (the Opry Mills complex is too far out from downtown), and of course building the local fan base to where sellouts are more of a regularity. It was a very cordial way of saying, "don't plan on it anytime soon."
David Freeman was then asked about the response of the corporate community (long noted as a weak spot for the team) to his sales and marketing efforts, and he was quite positive on that front. The Taco Bell promotion whereby Preds tickets are worth a free taco when the Pred score 5 goals at home has been restored (a huge hit with fans), and HCA recently bought thousands of tickets to upcoming games.
David Poile took a question about whether the Preds will pick up something at the trade deadline, and could only say that there are GM meetings coming up next week, so that's likely to see some action, although given the tightness in the standings it's tough to find trading partners right now. He also re-emphasized that he doesn't want to trade any of his upcoming RFA's, so take Weber, Suter and Erat off your trade rumor listings...
Then a voice called out from the crowd, "what about Forsberg?" Poile hesitated slightly and checked with Freeman before proceeding with, "You want the truth?" He recounted his conversation with Forsberg's agent, detailing the "unfinished business" from last year and the opportunity to join the Predators for a playoff run, but word had come back earlier that afternoon that Forsberg was going to pass on Nashville as his destination for 2008. The crowd groaned, but Poile stressed his confidence in the current roster, his belief that they would play better in the 2nd half than they did in the first, and his sense that they can establish a competitive foundation for years to come around their core group of young players.
Next came a question about tying in more closely with youth hockey in the area, and Ed Lang was very enthusiastic on that point. He talked about the fact that currently there are only 4 sheets of ice around Nashville and that some people are looking to address that situation, and that his group is looking at Dallas and Columbus as two examples of franchises that have done a good job of reaching out and establishing strong two-way ties with the youth hockey scene.
One fan in the crowd then asked about the 13-year contract given to Alex Ovechkin in Washington, wondering "what was the lockout for?" Bettman gave a thorough, thoughtful answer: salaries are tied to hockey revenues, so if the team wants to lock up a good portion of their salary cap around one player for that long a time, that's basically their business. He speculated that if he was a GM he'd prefer to work with shorter-term deals to maintain flexibility, and that such long-term contracts run the risk of either over- or under-valuing a player after a certain point in time.
After the session wrapped up, I approached the front table and watched as one fan asked about the point awarded in the standings for OT/SO losses, and Bettman's answer there was less convincing. Personally, I think the NHL has gotten too clever by half on this front, and should just go to Wins and Losses, plain and simple.
I took the chance to ask if there was any standardization or review of the Real Time Scorers, the folks who tally Hits, Giveaways, Takeaways, etc., as those stats seem to vary widely according to what arena a game is played in. Instead of directly answering the question (as to whether there's a process like there is with referees to standardize performance), he talked about the reasons that games can take on a different flavor in different rinks, such as how teams play on the road vs. at home, or player matchups given the home team getting the last line change. It wasn't a great answer, but given the barrage of folks that were firing away, it was understandable.
Overall, it was a worthwhile event to attend. The Predators organization as a whole seems very open-minded and eager to engage the community in building their long-term future here, which is refreshing to see. Having grown up in the Detroit area, I can't imagine the Red Wings holding anything similar to this. I've watched that team go from the outhouse to the penthouse of the NHL over the last 30+ years, and there's just a different feel to that organization, as if you'd have to scale Mt. Olympus to get that kind of interaction (or is that Mt. Olympia?).
*And now, the Little Forecheckers can measure their height against a vintage Mike Dunham growth chart that'll go up on the wall in the garage...