15102_UGAHockey

UGA Hockey player Stephen Bray wins a faceoff during a game at the Classic Center between Georgia and Life University on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, in Athens, Ga. (Photo/Jacob Egan)

Hours before Game Six of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals on Sunday night, thousands of fans had flooded the streets of Nashville, Tennessee.

Supporters of the Nashville Predators, appropriately clad in Predators gear, filled Broadway just outside of Bridgestone Arena in downtown. There were numerous party spots set up, and country stars were performing all afternoon as part of the Country Music Association Music Festival. Luke Bryan even performed on a Nashville rooftop for the fans below.

But shortly after eight o’clock, the fun stopped and it was time to get serious.

The Predators took on the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena. Once the puck was dropped, thousands upon thousands of fans watched the game on giant projection screens on Broadway just outside the arena.

The Predators lost game six, conceding the series and the title to the Penguins in the process. But even in defeat, the city of Nashville proved one thing.

It is now the hockey capital of the southeast, which is everything that Atlanta was supposed to be.

When the NHL awarded Atlanta an expansion team for the 1972-73 season, it was hoped the fans would bring the same college football enthusiasm that filled stadiums on Saturdays into arenas during the winter. But that didn’t transpire for the newly-minted Atlanta Flames.

In their inaugural season, the Flames drew an average of 12,516 fans per game, good for 11th in what was then a 15-team league. Attendance rose to just over 14,000 the next year, but went downhill after that. In 1979-80, its last season before being relocated to Calgary, Atlanta drew just a hair above 10,000 fans per night.

But the NHL saw fit to give Atlanta another chance. Another expansion team, the Atlanta Thrashers, began play in the 1999-2000 season in the city’s brand new Philips Arena. Just like the Flames before them, the Thrashers finished 11th in attendance at 17,206 per game, although this time in a league with 28 teams.

Two spots behind the Thrashers that season were the Nashville Predators, who were in just their second season of play. With the cities just a few hours apart, it looked as though a future rivalry could develop between the two squads.

But the Thrashers never elevated themselves to the upper echelon of the NHL. In their only playoff appearance in 2007, they were promptly swept from the first round by the New York Rangers. Attendance averaged above 16,000 just once in the next 10 years, and the Thrashers were relocated to Winnipeg following the 2010-11 season.

The Predators, on the other hand, had more success. They made their initial playoff appearance in 2004, and after the following season was canceled by a lockout they made the playoffs three years in a row.

Things were less stable off the ice. The team was sold in 2007 and looked to be in danger of relocating to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. While that deal eventually fell through, attendance suffered. The Predators were in the bottom five in the league in attendance for three seasons starting with 2007-08, despite having a decent team.

Then, the team started to take the next step. Nashville won the first playoff series in team history in 2011, and they won another series in 2012.

In that 2011-12 season, the Predators finished 20th in average attendance at 16,691 per contest. But what happened next has cemented Nashville as the hockey capital of the southeast.

Nashville missed the playoffs each of the next two seasons, but the attendance remained high. In 2012-13, the team played to 99.2 percent capacity in their arena. In the 2015-16 season, they did it again. This season, the Predators averaged 17,159 fans per home game, which is 100.3 percent of Bridgestone Arena’s capacity.

It is this support from the fans that has locked in Nashville as the southeast's preeminent hockey city. Other teams have had more success in terms of winning the Stanley Cup, but none match the rabid dedication exhibited by Nashville’s fans during this year’s playoffs. It is the perfect combination of success on the ice matched with the college football-like enthusiasm from its hometown supporters.

Atlanta had two chances to assume the throne as a hockey destination, but it squandered them away. As the streets outside Bridgestone Arena were packed with hockey fans on Sunday night, the roads outside Philips Arena were less crowded. Instead of projection screens, there were cars, driving past an arena that is unlikely to host an NHL hockey team again.

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