Even though we are a long way from the start of hockey, the Nashville Predators organization gave their fans an opportunity to interact with several players and with management at their annual "Skate of the Union" address. The event has expanded with a public skate and a lengthy question and answer session with several players and management and the ownership group as well as an update on various business and off ice activities of the Predators.
One question that has hung over the Predators organization since the signing of Shea Weber to the second largest contract in NHL history has been, "Will the Predators have the resources necessary to sign other players that can contribute to the continuation of their success?"
That question was addressed by General Manager David Poile as he announced that the team had signed Mike Fisher to a two year contract extension. That announcement was received with rousing applause by those fans in attendance.
The formal proceedings started with a question and answer session with five players: Mike Fisher; Paul Gaustad, Colin Wilson; Hal Gill; and Chris Mason.
"We can win here. This team will be in the hunt for years to come. After the season was over, I knew I wanted to come back here."
"I wanted my family to be in a good spot that they would enjoy living in and would be good for them. Nashville is certainly that place. Important for me was to be in a place where we had the ability to win. We can do that in Nashville."
Gill talked about coming to the team in February and getting on the team plane and looking across the aisle and seeing Shea Weber. "Here is a guy who is a stud, the best defenseman in the League, and he is playing a video game. And I realized he is a 'vidiot'." (According to the guys on the panel, Shea really enjoys playing his video games).
"I have been in Nashville longer than any other place in my career. There is a trust and familiarity that has been built over the years. I want to win and play for a winner, and we can win here. My role is to be able to come in and give the team quality starts and give Peks some rest."
Wilson jokingly said that he wasn't going to sign a contract extension unless the team signed Hal Gill because he needed someone that would make fun of him in the dressing room. Wilson said that his off ice training has been rigorous. "I have trained at Jonathan Toews' gym for a while but am now going into a phase of extensive on ice training. That is where the intensity really picks up, and I am going into that phase of training now."
Wilson was excited and pleased with the contract extension that he signed in the off season and the faith the organization has shown in him and his development.
Mike spoke about some of his off season activities, including some time he spent in Sydney, Australia. Mike also spoke about some of his charitable endeavors and continues to be very involved in the community.
Watching the players interact with each other, it is apparent that there is a strong sense of camaraderie among these guys. They are not just team mates, but there is a genuine appreciation for each other as people. And newcomers Gaustad and Gill fit right in with their team mates. Gill in particular is gregarious and laughs easily, and it is obvious why the players in the locker room look to him for his leadership.
The SOTU then moved to a panel discussion with management and the coaches. In this group was: Tom Cigarran, Team Governor and President of the ownership group; Jeff Cogan; President; Sean Henry, Chief Operating Officer; David Poile, General Manager; and Peter Horachek, Assistant Head Coach. The panel was moderated by Predators Play by Play announcer Pete Weber.
Here are the highlights of their comments:
"The last season was the best in franchise history. For the first time, the team went through the entire season without any mention in the national hockey press about the franchise possibly relocating. For the first time, the local press didn't mention hitting the 14,000 mark in attendance. The team averaged over 16,000 in attendance, at 97% of capacity not counting the playoffs. Bridgestone Arena is ranked 6th nationally in terms of venue usage and revenue. And we are going to get better as a team. We were disappointed to exit the playoffs in the second round, and we think we can go farther. Our goal is simple, we want to bring the Stanley Cup to Nashville."
"Our season ticket base will be over 10,000 for the upcoming season, and we have very good momentum with ticket sales. We have made significant inroads into the corporate community as well. Two years ago, we had 60 corporate sponsors. Today, we have 100 and are working to add more. Some are very significant. Bridgestone has extended the naming rights on the arena for an additional 5 years. Nissan has expanded their corporate sponsorship."
"We are no longer striving to survive. We are competing both on and off the ice."
"The new lease that has been signed by the team and the City of Nashville is significant because it shows the City believes in what we are doing. The way we are running the arena is good for Nashville, and the cornerstone of the lease is to bring more people into the arena not just for hockey but year round."
"We are partnering with the City to build another rink. When that is successful financially, we will work on building another rink to meet the demand for ice time."
"We are working to make the arena the best it can be for hockey. We are installing humidifiers and a new HVAC system so that we have good ice. We are spending $6 million on upgrading the arena, not just for the fans, but for the players as well."
"To that end, we have constructed a new shooting and skills facility in the arena for the players. This facility will be for their use even when the ice is not down. They can work on their skills or their shot and not have to be on the main rink. Our goal is to make this a top flight facility for the fans and for the players."
Henry also talked about the work of the Predators Foundation and the generous support that the fans have provided. "Last year, the Foundation made grants and charitable gifts in the amount of $750,000. Our goal is to double that."
"This is a more veteran team. We have 19 players returning that played significant time for us this past season. That experience is invaluable. We also have lots of depth in our system, with some very talented players in Milwaukee that can be contributors if they are called up. We have talent in our system that is continuing to develop and this is good for the organization. The core of players that we have in Nashville is good enough to win in the NHL. We are not surviving, but being very competitive."
"The depth and experience among our 13 forwards is very good. The experience that some of the young players got this past season is going to lead to improved play. Some of the younger players are going to impress you. One is Ryan Ellis. He has been training hard and is ready to make an impact. The experience a player like Gabriel Bourque got will be good for him."
"You can't replace a player like Ryan Suter, but we have the depth and talent to do so by committee. Roman Josi will take up some minutes.The coaches will have to get players on the ice in the right situation and with the right combinations."
While they could not specifically discuss the on going Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, Poile said that the team is preparing as normal for the start of the regular season. They would adjust, Poile said, if the start of the season is delayed.
For the fans in attendance, this was and informative and entertaining evening.
And all of us hope that David Poile is right.
And that the season starts on time.