NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The town known as Music City sure knows how to throw a party. Police estimated more than 50,000 turned out to mark a bit of history Saturday night as Nashville hosted the first Stanley Cup Final game ever played in Tennessee.
Fans started pouring into downtown hours before face-off, often shoulder to shoulder, eager to celebrate and do their part to back their beloved team in the best-of-seven series against Pittsburgh.
Someone couldn’t wait for Martina McBride to become the latest country star to sing the national anthem before tossing the first catfish onto the ice during warm-ups. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury swept the fish toward the bench with his stick, the first of three catfish tossed before the game started.
Another fan held up a giant stuffed catfish to the delight of the crowd. Hank Williams Jr. waved a towel to rev up fans who had been waiting to yell all day.
By the time the Predators finished off a 5-1 win over the Penguins, a total of five catfish hit the ice to finish off the day in style.
“Coming back home was awesome,” Predators forward Craig Smith said. “You could see the crowds outside and how excited people are to be here and excited for the city. It’s been a pleasure.”
Nashville has hosted country music award shows, festivals and concerts for decades. The vaunted Ryman Auditorium – known as the Mother Church of country music – had Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls in concert Saturday night. The Ascend Amphitheater five blocks from the Predators’ arena had Muse in concert, too.
Alan Jackson, a recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, wore a Predators’ T-shirt during his free concert on Broadway where city officials also had TV screens set up for an outdoor viewing party of the game. The park across the street from the arena is blocked off as Nashville prepares to host the CMA Music Festival in a few days.
The Predators have tapped a star to sing the national anthem before each playoff game, starting with Carrie Underwood, wife of captain Mike Fisher, to Luke Brian, Keith Urban and Trisha Yearwood. PGA golfer Brandt Snedeker and NFL Tennessee Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota has helped wave the rally towel, further upping the celebrity factor. Underwood watched from a box seat.
Before the game, former Jets and Bills coach Rex Ryan smashed a car painted up in Penguins’ colors before the game with his brother, Rob, watching in front of the arena.
Josh Dodson and Alicia Lopez have been Nashville Predators since getting hooked a couple years ago. So they couldn’t miss this even if that meant a three-hour drive over from Knoxville with no chance of getting a ticket to watch the game inside the arena Saturday. The size of the crowd outside turned out to be much bigger than expected.
“We knew it would be a big turnout because even coming to the regular season games, it’s always wild,” Dodson said. “It’s packed all the way down the street into the arena.”
People coming downtown also had to fight against fans of the “Walking Dead” TV show with a Walker Stalker fan event being held across the street.
The franchise is in its 19th year and history was made Saturday night, win or lose.
“It’s unbelievable the support the city, everything that’s going on,” Fisher said. “As a player, it’s one of the most proud things I am to be a part of this organization and see it grow like this, a hockey market where it’s become the loudest building in the NHL.”