NASHVILLE — The locker room doors looked like stage doors, and when they opened Saturday, it was hard to tell if this was a hockey rink or a honky-tonk.
The Nashville Predators were waiting to take the ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2022 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series. But ahead of them walked Dustin Lynch, a Nashville singer-songwriter, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a microphone.
Lynch starting singing “Party Mode.” He fist-bumped Gary Bettman, the NHL Commissioner, and Pekka Rinne, the former Predators goalie who had his No. 35 retired Thursday. Followed by a group of dancers, he strutted into Nissan Stadium and on stage.
Showtime. The Predators and Lightning marched out to the song and the roar of 68,619 fans, the seventh largest crowd in NHL history. “Neon lights, honky-tonks ’til they close … Party mode, party mode, party mode …”
“The entrance was so cool to see a football stadium full of people,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. “It was pretty impressive. It was unbelievable, and Nashville always shows up and supports us. We’re definitely very grateful for that.”
Nashville was in party mode from dawn until the horn sounded on a 3-2 win for Tampa Bay. This was the first time it had hosted an NHL outdoor game, and the theme was Smashville meets Music City. It was part hockey game and part music festival.
“If these events are for the fans, the League hit it out of the park,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Just, what a show. I’m dating my time in the League now, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to be a part of three Stanley Cup Finals, and nothing will ever top that.”
Bridgestone Arena, the Predators’ home, sits in the heart of the Broadway entertainment district across the Cumberland River from Nissan Stadium. Thousands of fans in Predators and Lightning jerseys packed the hotels, the honky-tonks and the streets hours before game.
The fans listened to live music at the Winter Park fan fest the Predators held near Bridgestone Arena, walked across the river on a pedestrian bridge and listened to more live music at the Truly Hard Selzer PreGame fan fest the NHL held near Nissan Stadium.
The Lightning and Predators arrived in party buses and slapped five with the fans, the Lightning in cowboy hats, cowboy boots and Canadian tuxedos of denim jackets and jeans, the Predators in custom hats and leather jackets by designer Travis Austin. Rinne led the Predators. The sleeve of his jacket said, “THE GOAT.”
Rinne dropped the ceremonial first puck. Immediately afterward, Tennessee Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan, a Predators fan, pulled a catfish from a cooler and handed it to Rinne to toss onto the ice as is tradition in Nashville. It was 41 degrees Fahrenheit at face-off, cold but comfortable.
When forward Tanner Jeannot gave the Predators a 1-0 lead at 8:20 of the first period, the usual Nashville goal song played: “I Like It, I Love It” by Tim McGraw. Only this time, it was played live by the house band, The Stadium Biscuits.
“There was a lot of anticipation going into this game, everyone was really excited, and to get that first goal like that and have the crowd kind of erupt, it was amazing,” Jeannot said. “I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life, for sure.”
The field celebrated Broadway and hockey, with music notes with pucks, a cowboy hat with a stick and a cowboy boot with a blade. It had not one, not two, but three stages. The bright colors and neon lights popped at night.
Throughout the game, The Stadium Biscuits played during stoppages and were joined by artist after artist. During the first intermission, the NHL had not one but two headliners: Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert.
“A little bit at timeouts, you take a look around and kind of drink in what’s going on,” Predators forward Colton Sissons said.
There were artists to watch during play too. Lighting forward Nikita Kucherov made a deft backhand pass into the slot for center Brayden Point, who scored 58 seconds into the second period to tie the game 1-1. Kucherov put Tampa Bay ahead 2-1 at 6:18 of the second with a wrist shot from the right circle. Lighting captain Steven Stamkos made it 3-1 at 11:31 of the third with a one-timer from the left circle. Predators forward Filip Forsberg scored at 12:29 of the third, but the Lightning held on.
“It was great,” Forsberg said. “It was fun. Obviously, the fans showed up for both teams. It was an awesome atmosphere. The conditions were great too. The weather was perfect, and the ice was good. So great experience overall. Everything was great except the result.
“We wanted to send people over to Broadway happy, and now I guess a couple will be at least, the Lightning fans.”
In the big picture, far more people than that left happy.
“It’s a show,” Cooper said. “And I know one team wins the game, but I don’t know how anybody in the end can leave on a downer after they’ve been in this event. It was exceptional.”