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Are You Ready For Some Hockey? Nashville Says It Is

May 26, 1995

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Nashville knows and loves Garth. But does it know Gretzky? And can it love hockey?

Without a doubt, say city and business leaders who think the NHL may be Nashville’s breakthrough into the world of professional sports.

Sure, country music is a great place for a city to hang its hat and its image. But every once in a while a fan wants to see people smash into each other at someplace other than a honky tonk.

Unhappy with their lease at the Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, the owners of the New Jersey Devils have visited the girders and concrete slabs that will be an arena by the 1997 NHL season.

Nashville and Gaylord Entertainment, owners of the Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Network, want an NHL franchise for the 18,000-seat arena.

Plenty of people laugh at the notion. Many of them live in Nashville.

But Gaylord’s stake in country music has given it the ability to operate a pro team.

The question is whether the Southeast can support an NHL franchise.

It has been 15 years since the Atlanta Flames went north to Calgary. The Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association folded with the league in 1979. Franchises thrive in Tampa and Miami.

NHL spokesman Arthur Pincus thinks the Southeast is ready.

``We think that there is a strong level of fan support in the South,″ Pincus said, although ``nobody goes out and skates on the Tennessee River.″

That fan base, Pincus said, will have to be educated.

There are TV contracts with ESPN and The Fox Network. Arenas in the non-traditional cities of Tampa, San Jose and Anaheim were filled to more than 90 percent of capacity this year, Pincus said.

Things were not always so.

``In the early ’80s, there was a frame of mind that if we put a team somewhere, the fans would come,″ Pincus said. ``You’re looking at a much different landscape now. I’m not saying Nashville is it, but it’s got a lot of things going for it.″

Nashville has an East Coast Hockey League team that drew an average of 4,028 fans this year, up slightly from last year. There is also an ECHL team in Knoxville and a Central Hockey League team in Memphis, each drawing more than 4,000 fans a game last season.

Jenny Hannon, director of the Nashville Sports Council, says the city has set itself up for a pro franchise.

The city is consistently selling itself to the pro sports industry, she said, and it’s only a matter of time before Nashville’s number comes up.

Winnipeg and Quebec once were touted as potential Nashville transplants, but the Jets are staying put for now, and the Nordiques seem headed to Denver.

Nashville is prepared to offer an NHL franchise $20 million to move, along with large chunks of ticket revenues and concession sales.

A new NHL franchise can cost $65 million, a bargain when compared to the cost of franchises in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

Alan Hall, vice president of corporate communications for Gaylord, believes the Nashville market is ripe for pro sports.

``I think this is the largest market without any type of major league sports. The fact that there is no competition helps,″ Hall says. ``There is a little bit of an education factor involved. Certainly the South is ready for any pro sport if it is marketed well and fun.″

The Nashville Youth Hockey Association has more than 400 participants ranging in age from 4 to 14. There are more than a dozen roller-hockey leagues in the city.

``There used to be this division between North and South. But hockey’s no longer a winter sport. It’s a year-round sport,″ said Teresa Crawford, who runs The Hockey Stop Pro Shop in downtown Nashville.

``We need the income that hockey will bring. Now, if Tennesseans want to pay for professional sports, they have to take their dollars out of state.″

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