“Let’s go, Predators!” the fans chant.
“Yeah,” Jackson says in his Southern drawl. “I got it right here on the guitar.”
On the front, it has Predators logos. He flips it over. On the back, it has “GO PREDS.” He flips it back and starts to play his song “Good Time” as the fans cheer in the sun, tourists and locals, young and old. A grandfather in a Pekka Rinne jersey puts a grandson in a Filip Forsberg jersey on his shoulders. He bounces to the beat. The kid claps.
“Yeah, I’ve been workin’ all week/ And I’m tired and I don’t wanna sleep/ I wanna have fun/ It’s time for a good time.”
That’s what it’s all about, a good time, and that’s what this is, the first time the Stanley Cup Final has been played in Nashville. It doesn’t matter where you are — the last row of the arena, the plaza outside, the streets, the honky-tonks — it’s a party from start to finish of the Predators’ 5-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3.
Come along, y’all.
2:30 p.m. CT. The plaza.
People are always coming to Nashville for a good time. It is one of the most popular places in the United States for bachelorette parties. So here we are hours before faceoff, and a bride-to-be is climbing on top of an old car. Her shirt says, “Nash BASH.” She’s holding a sledgehammer.
Five bucks gets you one hit of the Predators’ traditional “Smash Car,” painted in the colors of the opposing team each series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ten bucks gets you three. Twenty gets you three and a cowboy hat.
Maureen Campbell, 29, didn’t plan her bachelorette party around the Final. But turns out she’s from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a Philadelphia Flyers fan. When in Rome …
3 p.m. CT. The stage.
Jackson, a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, sits for an interview with NHL Network within sight of AJ’s Good Time Bar, his new place on the strip. He is asked why so many huge country music stars have embraced the Predators.
“We all just feel obligated because Carrie Underwood’s husband’s on there,” he says with a laugh, referring to Predators captain Mike Fisher. “Nah, really, all the country music artists that I know, most of them are sports fans. The ones that live here are such fans of Nashville the city. So it’s only obvious that we support the [NFL’s Tennessee] Titans and the Predators and everybody. It’s been a fun ride.”
Jackson didn’t follow hockey growing up in Georgia. But he moved to Nashville, and when his three daughters were in school, one was the same age as the daughter of Barry Trotz, the coach of the Predators at the time. Trotz invited him to some games. What will it be like if the Predators win the Cup?
“I’d be scared to be down here,” Jackson says. “It’s going to be crazy. … If they bring that Cup home, it’s going to be nonstop.”
4:50 p.m. CT. Broadway.
Jackson takes the stage for a 45-minute pregame concert.
“How y’all doin’, Nashville?” he asks. “Aw, I guess this is Smashville tonight, right?”
Right. He plays his classics like “Gone Country,” “Summertime Blues” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” He flicks guitar picks and tosses T-shirts to the crowd. At some points, he squints and stares into the distance.
“I can’t even hardly see y’all back there, all the way to the river,” he says.
Chrissi Dees, 39, of Knoxville is in the front in a Viktor Arvidsson T-shirt and a Predators hat. She got hooked on hockey as a student at Belmont University.
“I’ve been a fan since the team even had a name,” she says. “This has been 18 years in the making. I’ve been on this train through the ups and downs, and here we are.”
She looks around.
“This is absolutely just astonishing,” she says.
She’s staying to watch the game on the big screen.
7:18 p.m. CT. Section 303.
The heart of Bridgestone Arena beats in Section 303, in the upper deck behind the right shoulder of goaltender Pekka Rinne for two periods. This is where the hardest of the hard-core fans sit, the ones who came up with the chants in the beginning and lead the chants now, the ones who stuck around in the hard times and soak up the good times.
PA announcer Paul McCann introduces the Penguins, and Section 303 greets each of them with … well, not a nice word. And coach Mike Sullivan? Yeah, him too. But, oh, man, they cheer for their Predators, and for anthem singer Martina McBride and ceremonial towel-waver Hank Williams Jr.
“Are you ready for some Predators hockey?” Williams shouts into the microphone.
Jake Guentzel scores his 13th of the playoffs and fourth of the series 2:46 into the first period, putting the Penguins ahead 1-0 and silencing the crowd … for a few seconds.
“That guy again!” Brent Thompson says standing on a landing behind the last row, wearing a gold cowboy hat, gold glasses, gold beads and a T-shirt with a tiger on it.
But the fans start to cheer again before the ensuing faceoff, and then they chant again.
“Let’s go, Predators!”
Midway through the first, TV timeout. Per tradition, there is no music, and the fans stand and cheer. And cheer. And cheer. They get louder and LOUDER until they are PLAYOFF LOUD.
“LET’S GO, PREDS!”
When McCann announces a minute remains in the period, the fans show their usual manners.
8:20 p.m. CT. The plaza.
You aren’t supposed to throw catfish onto the ice, just like you aren’t supposed to throw octopuses onto the ice in Detroit. So the Predators put out trash cans with signs that say, “CATFISH AMNESTY DEPOSITORY.” And before the second period, a catfish walks past one of them.
Well, a guy in a catfish costume. Brandon Leifheit, 27, of Nashville, bought it on Amazon.com.
“I paid $97.67, and it’s worth every penny,” he says. “It’s really cool to see the whole catfish community come together. I’m all about the Preds. I love what it represents.”
What it represents? What is that?
“It represents a turnaround,” he says. “It represents enthusiasm. It represents Nashville. It’s a bottom-feeder-but-we’re-gonna-go-get-it mentality.”
The Predators, the bottom-feeders in the playoffs as the No. 16 team in the regular-season standings, go get it. Roman Josi scores on the power play 5:51 into the second. Frederick Gaudreau scores 42 seconds later. James Neal scores with 22.6 seconds left in the period. Each time, the music, the chants and the joy are the same outside as they are inside.
First, Tim McGraw.
“I like it/ I love it/ I want some more of it.”
Then The Black Keys.
“Gold on the ceiling/ I ain’t blind/ Just a matter of time.”
9:25 p.m. CT. Broadway.
In front of Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the sidewalks are still so jammed you can hardly move, and the street is filled with fans sitting on lawn chairs watching on the big screen. You can hear the live music in the background as Doc Emrick narrates the action.
Craig Smith puts the Predators ahead 4-1 at 4:54 of the third. Penguins goaltender Matt Murray can’t hear these fans. They don’t care.
“Mur-ray! Mur-ray!” they say, taunting. “You [stink]! It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!”
The grandfather in the Rinne jersey with the grandson in the Forsberg jersey from earlier are still here. He puts the kid back on his shoulders. Charles Lechien came with his son-in-law, Jeremy Wells Sr., and his three children: Jeremy Jr., 6, Wyatt, 4, and Fay, 1. It is a night Jeremy, at his age especially, will never forget.
“That’s why we wanted to come down,” Jeremy Sr. says.
“Can you imagine Game 6 back here?” Lechien says.
It’s easy to imagine now. Mattias Ekholm makes it 5-1 on the power play at 13:10. With 1:15 to go, the fans on Broadway chant.
“We want the Cup!”
Rinne stops Phil Kessel on a breakaway, and the fans who weren’t already on their feet stand up. They count down with the clock. It’s like New Year’s Eve, but the Predators didn’t drop the ball.
The game is over, but the party isn’t. Fans stream out of Bridgestone Arena and through the streets as the music streams out of the honky-tonks of a hockey town. It’s Nashville, and the night is young.