Last week, I had the lucky opportunity to attend all three of the final Columbus Blue Jackets games of the season. The first was the epic comeback against the Detroit Red Wings: left for dead as they fell behind by three goals yet again, the Columbus Blue Jackets roared back in the third period to tie the game before winning it in ovetime. With the win, Columbus drew within one point of clinching their second straight berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Thursday night, Ladyfriend and I went to the final home game of the season as the Blue Jackets faced off against the “Totally Not a Rival, You Guys” Pittsburgh Penguins. Full disclosure: I missed a good chunk of the second period of this game. Prior to puck drop, I was found by one of the members of the promotions team who asked if I wanted to play a game. Sure, I said. It turns out I played the Kenda Tire puck toss, and won some gift certificates to the Blue Line. That was fun. What was more fun? The two minutes where the arena was going berserk as Columbus held on for an overtime point that clinched their second consecutive berth in the playoffs. It was a mix of emotions leaving the arena as the Jackets fell in overtime but met the overall goal - happiness of being in coupled with yet another defeat to ... them. Three games that could have gone either way left a sour note in many fans mouths. Regardless, we knew the team was moving on.
The question soon became, “Who are we going to play?”
Ladyfriend and I traveled with two friends to Nashville on Friday morning. The mood in the car was light, despite the weather saying it was likely to snow in Nashville in April, of all things. Of course it was - so much for escaping the cold snap in Ohio. As we drove, we discussed what we wanted to see. For me, I believe this team could have beaten the Penguins if that matchup came to pass, but I would have preferred not to see them. Hoping for the Ottawa Senators to win was my highest priority on Friday (other than finding a good food spot, that is). We listened to the Friday edition of CBJ in 30 on the ride down as Bob McElligott talked through some insane rationale from CBJ fans (asking to play Boston? Really guys?). It helped us get through the ride.
Upon arriving in Nashville, we unpacked the car and went to Kroger. Of course, the first hockey fans we ran into in Nashville, TN were Pittsburgh fans. Those people are everywhere. After unpacking and relaxing, we took a Lyft into town from our AirBnB. Side note: if anyone goes to Nashville, don’t even waste your time with Uber. Lyft is so much easier there for whatever reason, and it’s crazy cheap. One of the first things you notice as you drive into town: there are advertisments for the Predators EVERYWHERE. On streetlamps, on magazine covers, and at the heart of Broadway, on Bridgestone Arena. It is impossible to miss the distinctive yellow of the Predators around the city. We had dinner and visited a few bars before calling it a night - we knew Saturday was going to be a big day.
Saturday morning arrived, and we were greeted with snow. Snow. In April. In Nashville. The weather’s non-cooperation did not deter us from our plans, however. We spent the morning at the Country Music Hall of Fame (yes, we got our picture in front of Taylor Swift’s sparkly guitar, and it was wonderful). We visited Bridgestone and walked around a team store that is more than twice the size of the Blue Line in Nationwide Arena. If you want any sort of apparel, that is the place to go. One of the managers of the store told us that the shop does $1 million dollars worth of sales per month - $12 million a year. Absolutely staggering.
After getting ready and putting our CBJ jerseys on (Panarin for me, Atkinson for Ladyfriend, our friends wore Atkinson and Bobrovsky), we made our way to the arena. It was fan appreciation night for the Predators, and they were having a plaza party, complete with a band playing outside the arena. Few fans stood outside to listen, however, because it was windy and cold as we walked in.
The first thing you notice when you walk in the front doors is the sheer amount of neon yellow in the building. Every single fan is in a bright yellow jersey - unlike Columbus, no fans wear the away gear. We bought beers and walked around the arena, eventually settling on a spot next to the Blue Jackets bench where we could watch warmups for the team. They came out, several saluted the fans, and gave pucks to some fans who had made the trek down. Another thing you notice - before warmups are even over, more than half of the Nashville crowd is in their seats. There’s a party going on, and the team is at the center of it.
Before the game started, Nashville was presented with the President’s Trophy. It was a cool ceremony to see, but Roman Josi jynxed the team because he touched it as it was sitting on the ice. We’ll see what effect that has on the team later in the postseason. As the Nashville anthem singer came out, “O Canada” was performed in honor of the tragedy involving the Humboldt Broncos that occured overnight Friday/Saturday. A touching moment for the grieving hockey community.
The first period got underway, and a seriously understaffed Jackets team looked overmatched. We had spent the afternoon debating whether or not this lineup could win (and whether that was the optimal course of action at all) before deciding that we wanted to see them win, but would probably not be upset with a loss since Philadelphia had won and passed Columbus.
An interesting note - Saturday’s game was the most attended hockey event in Bridgestone Arena history, even higher than the Stanley Cup Finals last season. It also seats fewer people than Nationwide Arena. Being in the arena, however, you’d never guess that. Those fans are LOUD. They cheer from nearly the word go, and rarely let up. Our friends sat next to Section 303, which is dubbed “Cell Block 303” and prides themselves on making noise throughout the game. The fans cheer. They chant after goals (coordinated, insulting chants that caught me off guard). But it was fun to see - it was the type of home ice atmosphere that, frankly, I hope Nationwide Arena can become one day. The arena is imposing toward opposing teams and gives the home team a mental edge. It was really cool to see live.
Word eventually came down that the New Jersey Devils had lost to the Washington Capitals. As the Jackets trailed, this mean a loss would see us avoid the Penguins in the first round, and so came to pass. As opposing fans in the arena, however, we were happy to see our boys score in front of us and put up a fight despite being outmanned against the President’s Trophy winners. They showed up and played hard and that’s all that could be asked of them.
The team fought back and nearly tied the game against the best team of the regular season. What more could you ask for? A Thomas Vanek tip was saved by Jussi Saros to keep the Predators from blowing a three goal lead. Nashville may have won the game, but it was the experience of a lifetime to see. Stick taps as well to Eric Robinson on making his NHL debut - he did not look out of place on the ice.
The Nashville fans, to an individual, were incredible to us. They welcomed us at every single stretch, suggesting food recommendations and offering to buy drinks. They treated us with respect, never acted obnoxiously or bad-mouthed our team or our presence in their arena in ways some visiting fans have done in Nationwide. I have not one negative thing to say about the fanbase of the Nashville Predators - every single person we interacted with in the city was wonderful. We highly recommend the experience if anyone gets the opportunity to travel down.
After the game Friday night, we “shuffled” around Broadway (which, I have learned, is an Athens, Ohio term for a bar crawl) to find dinner and listen to many of the excellent bands around the town. If any readers are fans of country music, there is no better place to show up and just listen to good entertainment.
As we headed home on Sunday, we reflected on the fun we had. It was quite the experience to see the Columbus Blue Jackets make the playoffs, draw a good matchup, play physical, tough hockey against a great team, and interact with amazing fans in a great city. As the sounds of the Masters brought us back home, we all agreed that we hope to do it again someday.
Perhaps we can see the Predators again in June, and perhaps it will be warmer then.