Hockey in Nashville never seemed like the surest bet.
Chosen as the home of the National Hockey League’s 27th franchise in 1998 on the heels of bold moves into unproven markets such as Anaheim, Calif. and South Florida, Music City was the first of a next wave of cities to join the club, ahead of moves into other unorthodox locales such as Atlanta and Columbus, Oh.
For a savvy Canadian investor, however, an unexpected opportunity to be part of the nation’s biggest sports product doesn’t take much convincing.
FirstEnergy Capital Corp. co-founder and current Canoe Financial Chairman W. Brett Wilson needed all of four hours in Nashville to get an opportunity to be part of the Predators’ management team.
“I had the unique opportunity of landing in Nashville, [and on] the very first night I was there, I was at a dinner party,” Wilson told BNN on Friday. “Someone asked me if I knew Jim Balsillie because he was in the process of trying to take the Predators out of Nashville. I said I did, which did not go over well at the table.”
“I was kind of like: ‘why would you care if I know Jim Balsillie?’”
“And they were just animated about what he was trying to do. It turns out one guy was a new owner and they had lost someone that morning. So he asked me: ‘Well, are you interested in investing?’”
“I hadn’t been in Nashville four hours when I landed my opportunity to buy in, but I knew what I was facing, and I said yes.”
Back in 2007, Balsillie was still co-CEO of Research in Motion (later renamed BlackBerry) and going all-in on his bid to buy a National Hockey League team and move it to Southern Ontario. The League and its existing owners never warmed to his efforts, which may well have been an extreme turning point for one of its most unique markets.
Four years later, Wilson was in Nashville with a minority stake.
And the investment is paying off.
The franchise punched its first-ever ticket to the Stanley Cup Final on Monday and boasts a rabid fan-base with an on-ice product led by one of the NHL’s flashiest and most charismatic players.
While Wilson is quick to give credit for the Predators’ on-ice success to the team’s management staff, he does have strong feelings about last summer’s trade that saw franchise cornerstone Shea Weber dealt to the Montreal Canadiens for the team’s newest superstar: Toronto-born defenceman P.K. Subban.
“The beauty of P.K. Subban in Nashville … we didn’t build the defensive core around him, he’s just one of the great defencemen,” Wilson said. “He’s also an extraordinary personality.”
Though times are high for the on-ice product, Wilson believes the total entertainment package is what promises to keep hockey strong in the country music’s heartland, lovingly labelled ‘Smashville’.
“No other league, no other city, no other team has a buzz about who gets to sing the anthem, so we’ve created some really cool things that are not on the ice,” Wilson said.
“The fan engagement experience has continued to grow every year, and that’s part of the fun.”