Originally posted on Fox Sports Tennessee  |  Last updated 11/11/11
The 20 skaters who took the ice for the first time as Nashville Predators back in October 1998 have plenty of fond memories of those first few seasons, but few stand out as much as opening night. Players arrived in Hummers and walked a red carpet into the arena, instantly earning an appreciation for how the city knew how to do celebrity. Forward Tom Fitzgerald said the night was a signal from the Music City that We do things differently. This is a show, Fitzgerald said of the message. Opening night is exactly what it is. You roll out the red carpet. There was excitement. I have fantastic memories. Im getting goose bumps as Im speaking of it now. Goalie Mike Dunham remembers the same. He also remembers fans cheering when he would stop dump-ins from center ice and thinking how he could get used to that and about videos played on the scoreboard screen between whistles to explain simple rules of the game like offside or icing. Dunham also remembers meeting country music stars Vince Gill, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and he and his wife being invited to the home of Barbara Mandrell for dinner and skeet shooting. Things like that you never get to experience that you got to experience, said Dunham, now the goaltending coach for the New York Islanders. I was lucky to spend four and half years there. I spent the offseason there because my wife worked there. I enjoyed my time. Itll be nice to go back in a non-working capacity. Fitzgerald and Dunham will take part of ceremonies on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena, as the organization celebrates its 1,000th game when the Preds hosts Montreal. Fourteen years might not seem like the longest time, but in pro sports its sort of like dog years. The only active NHL player who dressed for the Preds that first night is Andrew Brunette, then 25, who now plays for Chicago. Brunette was gone a season later to another expansion franchise in Atlanta. Predator David Legwand, now 31, suited up in the final game of the season for Nashville, making him a link to that season along with coach Barry Trotz and general manager David Poile who have been there since the beginning. Trotz, a finalist the last two seasons for the Jack Adams Trophy (coach of the year), will become only the fourth coach in NHL history to coach 1,000 games with the same team. Trotz is 49 now, but was only 36 that first season, which meant he was not that much older than some of his players. Cliff Ronning was 32. Fitzgerald was 30. He had to earn their respect something Fitzgerald said was not easy, as Trotz never played in the NHL. I could pick up the phone right now and talk to Barry, said Fitzgerald, who is now assistant to the general manager in Pittsburgh for Ray Shero, who started out as Poiles assistant general manager in Nashville. You think about the relationships that are formed. I played for two expansion teams. I cant wait for the 25th reunion in Florida and for the 25th in Nashville and rekindling those relationships. We built something there. I say we. Every person who put on a Predators jersey did. Fitzgerald said he took it as a challenge to help grow the sport on and off the ice. He understood the importance of making appearances in the community but also working hard on the ice. That, to me, those were the qualities that you want as a player, Fitzgerald said. You want to be known as a hard worker. The other team across the lot, they better know were going to scratch and claw. Well never roll over and die. We might be challenged offensively. People thrown to the side by other organizations, but were not going to be a rollover. Were going to take pride in our work. Thats what it was all about. As a result, Fitzgerald expressed great admiration for what Trotz and Poile have accomplished in Nashville. Trotz is the only NHL coach to lead his team to the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons. The relationship between a manager and coach is a special bond, said Fitzgerald, who aspires to be a general manager himself. Successful organizations are the ones that have that. Part of Fitzgeralds role also was mentoring young players, as that was the Predators chosen method of development through the draft. When Scott Hartnell the youngest player ever to play for the Preds -- arrived as an 18-year-old in 2000, Fitzgerald realized that Hartnell was closer in age to his son than he was to himself. I was the captain of the team, but I had some great lieutenants, Fitzgerald said, naming J.J. Daigneault, Bob Boughner, current Preds radio analyst Stu Grimson and Ronning. Fitzgerald said if he had not been traded to Chicago just before the completion of his fourth season in Nashville, he probably would have made the city his permanent home. Dunham met his wife there. We enjoyed ourselves, Dunham said. We had a lot of fun. We worked hard. The coaching staff made it a learning experience. It was fun to be a part of. Its nice to see that theyre still going strong.
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