When NBC’s cameras captured Peter Laviolette’s not-safe-for-work pregame speech to his Nashville Predators before the first game of the Stanley Cup finals – “Game 1 is up for grabs, it’s up to us to (expletive) take it” was the highlight – it recalled one of his first practices with the Carolina Hurricanes, back in December 2003.
In the middle of that practice, Laviolette called proceedings to an immediate and abrupt halt. He summoned goalie Kevin Weekes from his net all the way to center ice and asked him, “Does it hurt?”
Weekes, baffled, replied, “Huh?”
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Laviolette turned to the equally confused skaters around him and yelled: “Then shoot the (bleeping) puck!”
Just as his methods haven’t changed, his tenure with the Predators recalls his tenure with the Hurricanes in other ways: Instant success, for one. Just as Laviolette won the Stanley Cup in his first full season in Carolina – success delayed, but not deferred, by the season lost to the lockout in 2004-05 – he has gotten the Predators past their perennial playoff hurdle in his first season in Nashville to become only the fourth coach to take three different teams to the Stanley Cup final, having brought the Philadelphia Flyers to that point in his first full season there.
Laviolette’s success elsewhere raises the old questions about why he was fired here, and the answer made more sense at the time: After the 2007 and 2008 teams failed to make the playoffs, there was a tremendous sense of frustration surrounding the failure to capitalize on the championship. While Laviolette was far from entirely to blame for those shortfallings, he did bear his share of responsibility. And the change in coaches back to Paul Maurice, Laviolette’s predecessor, did get the Hurricanes into the playoffs in 2009.
Meanwhile, by Laviolette’s side in Nashville, as he was in Philadelphia and Carolina, is assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, whom Laviolette inherited from Maurice’s staff but ended up becoming Laviolette’s consigliere – an accidental friendship that has proven surprisingly productive.
All of which leaves the Predators as feeling more akin to the Hurricanes than the Penguins despite the strong Carolina ties to Pittsburgh in the front office with former general manager Jim Rutherford and assistant general manager Jason Karmanos, on the ice with Matt Cullen and Ron Hainsey and behind the bench with Chris Stewart, an assistant trainer for Laviolette in 2006, the Penguins’ head trainer ever since.
Geography has something to do with that as well. Nashville’s arrival in the finals has been greeted with nothing but acclaim for the way the Music City has embraced hockey, but Nashville owes a debt of gratitude to Raleigh for paving the way for southern hockey markets 15 years ago, when the Hurricanes crashed the party and were subjected to an endless series of Mayberry jokes and redneck slurs in 2002. By 2011, the Hurricanes were in a position to throw one of the most fondly remembered All-Star Games in recent memory and even the crustiest of old-timers had come to accept that hockey could take root anywhere.
(Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators couldn’t sell out home games in the conference finals but you don’t hear rumors about them moving to Quebec.)
To be fair, Nashville has done its part. Thousands gather to watch the games in a park next to Bridgestone Arena, which sits mere yards from the honky-tonk madness on Broadway. That’s one area where Nashville has a decided advantage over Raleigh: A downtown arena, especially in that downtown, becomes the focal point of hockey-related revelry anywhere, in Nashville and Toronto alike. The Hurricanes (and the Senators, for that matter) will always struggle to build that kind of community spirit with rinks surrounded by parking lots out on the highway, even if Hurricanes fans have a well deserved reputation for major-league tailgating.
There’s a lot about Nashville’s run – breakthrough team in a market few thought would embrace the sport – that should seem familiar to Hurricanes fans, not just the man behind the bench.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Stanley Cup Finals: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Nashville Predators
Game 1: Pittsburgh 5, Nashville 3
Game 2: Pittsburgh 4, Nashville 1
Game 3: Pittsburgh at Nashville, Saturday, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Game 4: Pittsburgh at Nashville, Monday, 8 p.m. (NBC)
*Game 5: Nashville at Pittsburgh, Thursday, 8 p.m.
*Game 6: Pittsburgh at Nashville, Sunday, 8 p.m.
*Game 7: Nashville at Pittsburgh, Wednesday, 8 p.m.