When Mattias Ekholm spoke to reporters for the first time after being traded from the Nashville Predators to the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 28, he admitted that he saw it coming.
Though the 33-year-old defenseman told the Predators front office he didn’t want to leave Nashville, but he also confessed that he felt a sense of relief once the trade call came in after spending several years holding his breath around trade deadline time with his name constantly being floated in trade talks.
Now, as he prepares to return to Bridgestone Arena for the first time since he was shipped to Edmonton for Tyson Barrie, Reid Schaefer and 2023 first- and third-round picks, Ekholm is embracing everything that comes along with the situation — the good and the bad.
“[Nashville has] been a big part of my life, it’s been a big part of my family’s life — two of the three (kids) were born there,” Ekholm told reporters on Monday. “Lot of great memories, success, failures, all that stuff. … It’s nice to come there now and, not get some closure, I feel like that’s the wrong word. Nashville is always going to be a part of my life and my family’s life.
“…Let it be emotional, let it be special. It’s going to be a day that I’ll never forget — but try and manage it as much as possible because we need the win as well.”
Ekholm plans to catch up with former teammates, sure, but he said it’s the behind-the-scenes people like Predators equipment manager Pete Rogers or locker room attendant Craig “Partner” Baugh and others who he’s most excited about reconnecting with.
Mattias Ekholm on the bench chatting it up with Juuse Saros pic.twitter.com/t47WdVfm9P
— Robby Stanley (@RStanleyNHL) October 17, 2023
After all, those are the kind of meaningful relationships Ekholm built with people outside of his teammates, the relationships he spent time cultivating and the people he invested in during his 12 seasons in Nashville.
“I think it’s just [seeing] the people around the rink – from the guys in the parking lot, to coaches, to management, the fans and all that stuff – is what’s going to be really special,” Ekholm said.
“The guys that really make your team are the trainers and your everyday personnel that are always there. No matter what, they’re there for you and always support you and try to make your life as easy as possible and make you perform at your best. Everyone – from equipment managers to strength and conditioning coaches, to the medical staff – I’m sure it’s going to bring back a lot of memories.”
The Predators that Ekholm and the Oilers face on Tuesday night are far different than the team the 6-foot-4 Swede played on last year. Eight of the players who made Nashville’s opening-night roster, including Ekholm himself, are no longer with the team.
As first-year general manager Barry Trotz begins putting his stamp on the new iteration of the Predators, the team’s philosophy, culture and roster have all changed. But one thing that hasn’t is how much the Predators are interwoven into the fabric of the city.
The team has more fans and more people talk about Nashville Predators hockey now than perhaps ever before, and Ekholm, who played in the franchise’s golden era that included two Central Division titles, a Western Conference championship and a Stanley Cup Final appearance, is responsible for that.
“When I got there, it was the classic expansion (market),” Ekholm said. “Didn’t have much (media) coverage…we didn’t sell out games or anything like that. Then with success, we made the playoffs a bunch of years in a row and the fans really showed up for us. Today, it is a great hockey city. … I think Nashville is a very underrated hockey city and it’s been for a long time.”
Here’s a picture of baby Mattias Ekholm at Ford Ice Bellevue. You’re welcome pic.twitter.com/cB2KytNPJu
— Michael Gallagher (@MGsports_) February 11, 2020
Ekholm’s career flourished in lock step with the franchise. As the Predators were winning division championships and making postseason runs year after year, Ekholm blossomed into one of the top defensive blue-liners in the game.
Though he’s returning to Music City in a different uniform, Ekholm will presumably take a moment or two before Tuesday’s game to reflect on and enjoy the fruit of what he helped build over the last decade-plus. And the Predators and the fans will surely give him a proper tribute.
Follow Michael Gallagher on X/Twitter @MGsports_