Since their inception, the Nashville Predators have played 2,066 games, including the postseason, and it’s all gone by in a blur.
Bridgestone Arena has become the heartbeat of Nashville at 501 Broadway and has been home to the Predators since they took the ice during their inaugural 1998 season. There have been so many faces that the Predators relied on to help build and grow their fanbase, whether it be broadcasters, coaches, front office staff, and of course, the players.
Part I of this 25th Anniversary feature can be read here.
In Part II, we get some perspective from some of the fan favorites from the franchise’s early years.
Cliff Ronning, forward (1998-2002)
Seven games into the 1998 season, Cliff Ronning was dealt to the Predators with Richard Lintner for future considerations from the Coyotes on Halloween.
“They had a young kid coming in named Daniel Briere that they felt could possibly play my role at the time,” Ronning recalled.
Four years before the trade, Ronning was back in Vancouver playing in the Stanley Cup Final with the Canucks. To him, that was the pinnacle of his career — scoring 68 points in 76 games and then compiling 15 points in the postseason that marked the closest he’d been to winning it all.
“When I played in the 1994 finals against the Rangers, that was my peak of playing hockey,” Ronning stated. “I belonged in the NHL as a player. You see a lot when you make a run like that. I gained a lot of leadership through that and it worked for me coming to Nashville and playing there for five seasons.”
Ronning mentioned the blessing Nashville was when reflecting on his career. The city is a happy place for his family and will continue to be with his daughters going to school at Belmont University.
Rewinding to the genesis of Ronning’s career in St. Louis, he was a young skater amongst future Hall of Famers at the time, highlighted by forwards Bernie Federko, Doug Gilmour and Brett Hull.
Once Ronning’s entry-level deal expired, he opted to move overseas to play in Italy. He played for the Asiago Hockey Club, scoring 135 points in 42 games. The Blues stayed in touch and he returned to the NHL in 1990.
“I was a young centerman playing behind guys like Federko and Gilmour,” Ronning said. “I had to wait my turn… It just happened that in St. Louis I mostly played on the power play. I felt like I wanted to go and experience playing again and being the guy to score goals and being more a part of it.
“Italy offered me an excellent contract and a friend of mine played on the team at the time and I went and played. That was just a hockey decision and it worked out for me in the big picture… I thought I was going to Europe forever. Then, St. Louis wanted me back to play a bigger role, and then I was traded to my hometown of Vancouver playing on the first line.”
From 1991 to 2004, Ronning scored 732 points, ranking 32nd in the NHL over that span. By the time he was traded by Nashville to the Los Angeles Kings in 2002, he was the Predators’ all-time points leader (226 in 301 contests).
The second-oldest player on the Predators when he joined, Ronning quickly became a focal point around what Nashville wanted to establish its culture on.
“There was no ego in the dressing room,” he said. “Most of the guys were young and trying to prove themselves. I think it really started with Barry Trotz and how he made everyone feel part of it. We were going to win as a team and not as individuals.”
Ronning remembered how former general manager David Poile wouldn’t jump on the team when things weren’t going well. He backed up the team he built, and the players respected that philosophy from the top down to the bottom.
Now as Ronning watches from afar, he isn’t shy about what he’d like to see the Predators accomplish.
“In the next three years, I would like to see the Nashville Predators get back to the Stanley Cup Final, and I hope to be there to watch it,” Ronning said.
Scott Walker, forward (1998-2006)
Nothing was guaranteed for Scott Walker as he was in the midst of his fourth season with the Vancouver Canucks. After 197 games in British Columbia, he was left unprotected in the 1998 expansion draft.
“Some people had said there was a chance I would be picked up,” Walker said. “For the opportunity and change of scenery, it worked out great for my career, and I was thrilled to go to Nashville.”
Walker skated in 410 games as a Predator, and then he was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes for Josef Vasicek during the 2006 offseason.
“I was at home for the summer and David gave me a call and let me know I had been moved to Carolina,” Walker stated. “They had just won the cup. It was a daunting task to go to a team that had just won. It was tough at first, but it was probably something in hindsight that extended my career.”
Had the gritty forward not been traded, he would have contemplated retirement a lot sooner after getting comfortable in his role with the Predators.
“I think it was a wake-up call that I needed,” he said. “And to be honest, it probably extended my career three more years.”
In a flashback to the past when he was reflecting on his time in Nashville, Walker mentioned a few moments that stood out to him from the earliest days of the team. But one tradition will always be at the forefront of his mind.
“Sitting on the plane rides with a lot of long travel,” Walker remarked. “It was me, Tom Fitzgerald, Bill Houlder, and Greg Johnson who would play cards for years. Sometimes I think it’s the things that go unnoticed that you reminisce on like the times we got to have together traveling — those sorts of things.”
He also scored the first hat trick on home ice in team history, something he’ll never forget with photos and news articles in a safe spot at home.
“That one is very high on the list of things that I really enjoyed,” Walker said.
What made the team unique as a group was the hospitality that existed among each player, according to Walker.
“Honestly, we wanted to go in and kind of drive off the excitement,” he said of getting the franchise started. “You have to make sure you bring in the right group of guys with the right people and they can help make the team part of the community and the community a part of the team.
“We were competitive and fun to watch but also had really good people on the team. We loved going to schools and going out into the community. I was younger at the time and wasn’t as worried about how the team was doing, you’re worried about being an NHLer at a certain point.”
Balancing the honeymoon stage as an expansion franchise and trying to compete was what the Predators had to navigate to build the foundation the team was going to stand on.
One of the players who epitomized what it was to be a resident of Nashville, and a professional, was Greg Johnson. The center was the Predators second captain from 2002 to 2006. He passed away on July 7, 2019, in his home in Rochester, Michigan, but Walker still remembers him fondly.
“He was a great human being,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s a person in this world, let alone in the hockey world, that wouldn’t tell you that Greg Johnson is one of the most elite human beings.”
Johnson was Walker’s roommate and played cards with him regularly. To him, Johnson was one of the most soft-spoken people he’s met. However, he had another side to him.
“He had this competitive fire that you couldn’t even imagine,” Walker said. “In practice, I would fool around and sometimes a little bit too much. He got so intense and he would go right after me, but he was just so deadly serious and so competitive and I think that’s the part that you miss about people in the world today.”
Walker is friends with Greg’s brother, Ryan, and maintains a good relationship with him.
“It’s a shame we don’t get to celebrate [the Predators’ inaugural team night on Monday] with one of the most recognizable great captains in franchise history,” Walker said.
Kimmo Timonen, defenseman (1998-2007)
Drafted in the 10th round by the Los Angeles Kings, Kimmo Timonen was told he wouldn’t make it to the NHL as a 5-foot-10 skater after going to just one training camp in 1993.
Timonen participated in the 1998 Ice Hockey World Championship before joining the Predators. He
won a silver medal with Team Finland, scoring eight points in 10 games. That was when Timonen had a conversation with then-GM David Poile.
“He told me he saw where the game was moving in the next five to 10 years,” Timonen said. “I had a really good camp in my mind, but they had signed too many guys. I went to Milwaukee for two-and-a-half months and then I got called up and stayed.”
Timonen had to make his opportunity count as he got his first sniff of the NHL. He was focused on making the team and didn’t get too much of a chance early on to hang out with his teammates away from the rink.
The vision in the organization was clear to Timonen. While fans were learning the game, he was counted on by Trotz and Poile to become a foundational piece for the Predators.
When he wasn’t playing, Timonen and some of his teammates would go out into the community to get to know the fans and introduce them to the sport.
“It was not too easy to start it all; we did a lot as a team,” Timonen said. “I was new to the system and wanted to see what it looked like to go to school here and play floor hockey with the students.”
Then as Timonen got used to his new city, he also grew comfortable on the ice as well.
“Barry was exactly the right coach for the right time to be with that team,” Timonen said.
He spent a lot of time on special teams when the Predators were on the man-advantage. One of his line-mates was Ronning. He shared a story he had about the former forward.
“Cliff Ronning hated black stick tape,” Timonen joked. “You couldn’t leave black tape anywhere. No one could use the black tape. He didn’t like it or want to see it in the locker room. He was just superstitious that way. Someone left black tape by his stall and he got really mad, I won’t ever forget that.”
Johnson was another dear friend of Timonen’s. When he had any questions or something to learn, Johnson was right there to help out.
“He took me out to dinner as a young guy the first couple of months I was there,” Timonen said. “He invited me to his house to eat a few times and he was a good leader. My wife was in Milwaukee, so I was by myself and Greg took me in.”
In December 1998, Poile told Timonen he could find a home in Nashville so he could settle down. Timonen’s first place was a condo until he found a home in Franklin later on.
Fast forward 573 games and one rein as captain during his final season with the Predators in 2006, Timonen was then traded to the Philadelphia Flyers that summer along with forward Scott Hartnell.
“To be honest, I never wanted to leave Nashville,” Timonen said. “We all remember that time. It was when owners changed and we didn’t know what it would look like.
“I remember before leaving for the summer, I saw David Poile and before I left he told me he wanted to keep me but there was no way of knowing what would happen,” Timonen recalled. “I went home and I thought we could make it work. I wanted to be a leader for the franchise for as many years as possible. I started to hear from my agent that June that it didn’t look good. The Flyers acquired my rights and I told Scott Hartnell the news and he was traded too.”
Today, Timonen and defenseman Roman Josi are the lone Europeans to captain the franchise.
After moving to Philadelphia in 2007, the Timonen’s are still in the same home. Hartnell also joined the neighborhood recently with his family. The duo played as members of the Flyers for seven years.
To conclude his NHL career, Timonen entered the 2014-15 season with blood clots in his right leg and lungs. He had to quit on-ice activity — and working out, for that matter — for months on end before attempting to play again.
“I had told the general manager Ron Hextall after signing a one-year deal that it was final season,” Timonen said. “That summer, I got blood clots and it was an automatic six-month break. I didn’t want to retire that way, with my skates off, so I fought with the doctors some.
“Hextall told me if I wanted to go to Chicago I could go if they wanted me. That’s the way it ended up. I got there and I was rusty, so I had a hard time catching up. The final moment was cool. At the morning skate the day we won the cup Jonathan Toews pulled me aside and said I would be the second one to lift the cup since I deserved it. We hadn’t played the game yet but then in the last few minutes all the emotions set in.”
Scott Hartnell, forward (2000-2007)
Nashville took a shot on Hartnell, a Regina, Saskatchewan native, back in the 2000 draft, selecting him sixth overall as the franchise was going into its third season.
He played three seasons in the Western Hockey League as a member of the Prince Albert Raiders, scoring 127 points in 128 games. Poile and his staff picked up a fearless power forward who drove the puck home right in the slot throughout his career.
Hartnell knew the Predators were interested after having three or four interviews and then they took him in the top 10.
“Those were the interviews where I felt most comfortable talking to David Poile and Barry Trotz,” Hartnell said. “I think the scouts had me ranked at No. 5, and it was the Islanders. When they picked Raffi Torres, I kind of knew I would be next. You never know, but the Predators picked me and I was very fired up, to say the least.”
Once Hartnell got to Nashville, he was tossed right into the action and joined some faces he had seen on television growing up.
“I remember watching Cliff Ronning on the Vancouver Canucks,” Hartnell said. “Small guy, but being in the same room as these guys felt different and they were able to help me.”
In the first few seasons, it was Ronning, Bill Houlder, and Cale Hulse who were Hartnell leaned on early on. He passed along that same mentorship he absorbed to other younger players that he skated with years later.
Hartnell also picked up some tricks of the trade from them, playing on a line with Adam Hall and Johnson in his first few seasons with Nashville.
“He was a very simple hockey player, very great defensively which helped me out,” Hartnell said of Johnson. “I enjoyed my time with him on the ice and it was unfortunate to see the news that he had passed away.”
As he learned from those veterans, he added his new skills to what he already did best.
“Barry Trotz liked us to play an aggressive sandpaper-style game and I think he appreciated the way I played,” Hartnell said. “That’s kind of the moral of grinders mentality in the NHL. If you get put up in the higher lines, you make some plays with your skill and you don’t get away from how you already played your game. You try and play as long as you can and be as successful as you can.”
On his first NHL shift, Hartnell was up against Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, and Jan Hrdina as the Predators kicked off the 2000-01 season in Japan.
“We were in the offensive zone and Trotz was giving us the quick signs,” Hartnell said. “That first shift lasted about five seconds where I was in the offensive circle and went right back to the bench.”
Fast forward to 2007 when Hartnell, along with Timonen, was traded to the Flyers amid the uncertainty of retaining the Predators in Nashville.
The Predators and Hartnell’s camp just couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal at the time going into that summer.
“It was about a week before July 1 and I got a call from David Poile,” Hartnell said. “He had my agent on the line and said he had a team that was going to call me the next day at 9 a.m., and they had a window to sign me to a deal. That’s all he said and I couldn’t know the team.”
After guessing where he would land with his agent, Hartnell got a call from the Flyers GM Paul Holmgren the following day.
“I was like ‘Oh man, I don’t know if I want to go on the worst team from the year before,'” he said. “I got a huge raise and then I called Kimmo Timonen, my roommate from being on the road. I told him Poile was trading my rights to Philadelphia to sign there before I became a free agent. Kimmo told me the exact same thing and was like ‘no shit.’”
After deliberating how it would go over long-term for himself, Hartnell felt like the Flyers were a great fit for his style of game and he didn’t look back. When Hartnell signed his deal, he got back on the phone to recruit Timonen.
“I called him and I said I signed and that he needed to come here too,” he said. “It’s a great team, great city, and I haven’t been here before other than playing against them. I was trying to coax Kimmo to sign here. He signed the same time and then a first-round pick went back to Nashville.”
Hartnell made one more pit stop in Columbus with the Blue Jackets before signing his final NHL deal to finish out his career in Nashville to play under former coach Peter Laviolette, who he knew from his days in Philadelphia.
“I was proud to wear that Preds jersey not once but twice,” Hartnell said. “I really fell in love with the city over my time there.”
Today, Hartnell is still a resident of Philadelphia and works on the Flyer’s broadcast as an analyst alongside Jim Jackson for NBC Sports Philadelphia.
Follow Nick Kieser on Twitter/X: @KieserNick