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The new NHL CBA has given Nashville a chance to thrive
Ed Willes, CanWest News Service
Published: Friday, October 20, 2006

You don't have to ask David Poile if it was all worthwhile because, in the costly fight over the NHL's financial levers, the Nashville Predators have emerged as the conflict's No. 1 beneficiary.

In the two years since the league locked out its players, the Predators have seen their payroll rise from US$23-million to US$30-million to just under US$38-million this season.

Once considered the Guam of the NHL, it has attracted marquee free agents Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont since the lockout. They've also locked up core players Tomas Vokoun, Dan Hamhuis, Marek Zidlicky, Scott Hartnell, Martin Erat and David Legwand to multi-year deals.

Throw in a scouting department which seems to produce better drafts than Guinness, and the Predators have been transformed from the league's forgotten franchise to one of the sleekest, sexiest operations in the new NHL.

The challenge before Poile, then, is no longer one of survival or competitiveness but in selling his marvellous team to a market which still seems indifferent to hockey.

The NHL, it would appear, has done its part for Nashville. Now its up to Nashville to do its part for the NHL.

"There's no question the CBA has done a lot for small-market teams," says Poile, the Predators' razor-sharp general manager "In '03-04 we played Detroit in the playoffs. Our payroll was US$23-million. Theirs was US$78-million. I don't care what kind of business you're in. You can't compete when there's that kind of disparity.

"A market this size can support an NHL franchise now. We're grateful for what we receive in revenue sharing. But if we didn't have that, it would be extremely difficult to sustain this business in Nashville."

And it may yet prove difficult, which is why the NHL has more than a passing interest in the Predators' performance on and off the ice. Poile, as mentioned, isn't apologizing for the events which helped his team but neither does he underestimate their importance.

This off-season the Predators received somewhere in the vicinity of US$12-million in revenue sharing payments. That money, in turn, allowed them to sign Arnott and Dumont and extend the deals of their best players.

At US$37.7-million the Predators still rank 27th in the league in payroll and the foundation of the team remains a group of youngsters -- Shea Weber, Ryan Parent, Alexander Radulov, Ryan Suter, Scottie Upshall -- who'll keep them competitive and affordable for the next five years.

But for everything they've done well in Music City, the Predators still face a fan and corporate base which, nine years after the team came to town, continues to treat hockey as a curiosity.

OK, there are some positive signs. Season tickets now sit at about 8,300, and if that number sounds meagre it still represents an increase of more than 1,000 from last year. In '05-'06, the average attendance also jumped to 14,428 per game after two straight seasons of just over 13,000.

Two weeks ago, the Predators sold out their home opener against Chicago, but that was followed by a crowd of 13,770 against Phoenix in their second home game. Vancouver plays here tomorrow night and a sellout is expected.

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