Seth Jones: Nashville’s First Hometown Player
by Sam Page
As I sat in the upper deck of New Jersey’s Prudential Center, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. It started with the Twitter rumors that the Florida Panthers would take presumptive Predator Aleksander Barkov. Then I realized that David Poile was talking to Steve Yzerman, not to ensure that Jonathan Drouin would fall to Nashville, but to ensure that Seth Jones, the admitted #1 player on Nashville’s board, would be there at four. Finally, the Angel of Death emerged from behind the 1995 Stanley Cup Banner, descended to the seat beside me, and whispered in my ear: “Brian Finley…”
Nah, just kidding. As much as I thought I’d be disappointed about the Preds missing out on perhaps the one great chance in franchise history to grab a cornerstone forward, the joy of seeing my new favorite player overwhelmed. Yesterday, the rational hockey-analyst side of my brain lost out to the half of me that identifies with the Predators as Nashville’s one true counter-cultural institution.
Seth Jones embodies everything that makes the Preds cool. For the Nashville Predators, this defenseman from Denver is its first true hometown player, for a franchise that’s had a few.
Maybe you hadn’t heard, but Nashville is America’s new “it city.” The designation, bestowed by that arbiter of hipness, the New York Times, comes just on the heels of Nashville, the television show, joining the primetime lineup on ABC. Unsurprisingly, a year after they discovered Brooklyn in the own backyard, the Times missed burgeoning hipster-haven East Nashville and went straight for the lame:
On a recent evening, Nashville’s once-seedy honky-tonk district was jammed with young hopefuls pulling guitars out of Hondas, a bus from “America’s Got Talent” and Aerosmith fans heading to the Bridgestone Arena.
It is not uncommon to see the power couple Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman show up at a popular restaurant, or to pass Vince Gill on the street.
Music celebrities are attracted to a state with no income tax and a ready-made talent pool. But they also just like it.
This on-face contradictory, but common characterization of Nashville–as a place that residents find cool for its ready access to country music stars, and country music stars like because the residents ignore them–is the exact craziness that the Predators have been pushing on their fans and players. They sell Nashville as a place where no one will treat you like a star, then turn around and beg Nashvillians to come see their star hockey players.
Everyone’s favorite thing about the Predators’ home, the Bridgestone Arena, is its location. For the visiting fan, its place on Broadway alongside Nashville’s honky tonk bars makes for an easy one-two punch. Personally, I relish those nights 17,000 real Nashvillians in gold get together to reclaim their downtown together.
As a couple of German tourists in cowboy hats once asked me, seeing my Marcel Goc team Team Deutschland jersey, “Spielen Sie wirklich Eishockey hier?”
Lower Broad is a facade, a Hollywood set built to placate tourists. That street represents Nashville about as much as I enjoy country radio (which is to say, somewhat). Walk one mile in any direction, and the cowboy hats and boots begin to dissolve, the sound of bad Toby Keith covers fade.
When the Bridgestone Arena popped up next to the Ryman, the Predators represented a new cultural heart for the chunk of Nashville’s populace that approached this false country culture with more ironic bemusement than Dixie pride. Finally, across the street from country music’s first church, a gathering place for everyone left out by the predominant college football culture: a Northern sport, non-stop and balletic (with just the right amount of brutality).
But the Predators haven’t always been the best at playing to what makes them unique. Eager to sell themselves as part of this focus-group-tested southern stereotype, they stuck Ryan Suter, professed fan of country music, on the Ryman’s stage with a guitar. Knowingly creating a parallel between real country folk, fresh from the farm trying to desperately making it in Nashville, and a fake country boy and hockey heir, fresh from his “hobby farm,” the Preds manufactured the idea that they were an extension of the Nashville establishment. Ryan Suter fulfilled some CMT fantasy of a talent coming to Nashville.
Ryan Suter had made it! I mean, he listens country music, he’s practically home. A sentiment that became a particularly good punchline when Suter left for the Minnesota Wild, citing a desire to be closer to home.
Suddenly, the hockey franchise that had sold itself as a part of this glitzy Broadway culture to its fans in the suburbs, and a great suburban home for a family to its glitzy young superstar defensemen, found itself sorely lacking for both.
The irony of having a downtown that’s basically a carefully-manicured soundstage, meant to meet other people’s expectations for Nashville, comes when the city has to shell out tax dollars to keep its eponymous soap opera from just using an actual Hollywood set. Predators’ fans are, in essence, now paying to maintain the idea that they only go Preds games to catch a glimpse of star center Mike Fisher’s famous country music wife.
Nashville isn’t the first piece of film to so brazenly label itself with the name of our entire city. Robert Atlman’s classic 1975 ensemble film about the country music was also simply titled Nashville, and succeeded because it satirized, not galvanized, Nashville’s chief cultural export.
What made the original Nashville so great was the keen empathy with which Altman portrayed regular Nashvillians, living their daily lives on the periphery of the industry freakshow. As a native, I watch that movie and naturally wonder what becomes of the children of these characters, native Nashvillians born to the people who pimp out their hometown culture.
Of course, we know the answer now, and it’s plenty weird. Nashville’s two most popular native musicians, and the last two the city would ever own up to spawning, are Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, two artists who don’t exactly scream “Nashville” like Taylor Swift of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, though maybe they should.
That Ke$ha and Cyrus’ chosen aesthetic is counter-cultural vomit, some amalgamation of punk, hip-hop, and hippie rock, makes sense when you consider the hydra of an institution they’re rebelling against, growing up in a city that’s porn store-per-capita is only dwarfed by the astounding number of churches.
Ke$ha, raised in Nashville by a songwriter of saccharine country love songs, makes sonically abrasive music with overtly sexual lyrics. Is it a coincidence that Miley Cyrus, daughter of ponytail-sporting corncob Billy Ray, living embodiment of everything overtly lame about country, can’t make her hair short or blonde enough these days?
Blake Geoffrion was the first hockey player to actually grow up in Nashville. Geoffrion’s connection to Nashville was more concrete than Suter’s, though Suter had more star power. Still, despite his ceiling, Geoffrion had some homegrown flavor. You can go down the local ice rink and see his name hanging on youth championship banners. Every step of the way, Geoffrion elevated Nashville’s standing and we love him for it.
But like Suter, he came from a Northern family and a hockey dynasty. His career seems more like an inevitability than a choice in hindsight. He was a Nashvillian and he was a hockey player, but I don’t suppose to him the two bore much significance in relation. Nashville was his home, hockey was his family. It was a marriage of convenience, not an act of defiance.
In a way, he had even less of a cultural foothold in Nashville than Suter. I was a fan sick of our Shania Twain player, and hoping for a Ke$ha. But Blake Geoffrion was more like a guy who walked into the local music store, played “Smoke on the Water” badly, and left.
So who better to replace a rich boy from Minnesota, a fake cowboy–the kind of guy who actually listens to country radio–than a kid born in Plano, Texas, with no discernible southern accent? After losing one franchise defenseman who wanted to be closer to home, why not pick one with ties to Tennessee?
Seth Jones, a 6’4” black guy raised in Denver, his dad one of the better basketball players to ever come out of Tennessee, chose hockey. Nothing could be more Nashville than that.
I don’t know much about this kid, beyond the superficial. But I always root particularly hard for the American players, the Southern players, and the African-American players, the former two categories because I can identify with them and the latter two because they’re underrepresented. And if Seth Jones is as good as people say he is, he’ll not only be perhaps the only NHL player to check all three boxes, he could be the best of each group.
While Seth Jones grew up in Denver, the profundity of his background is the choice of hockey. For many Nashville Predators fans, that was always the appeal of the team. You’re born in a certain place and expected to like certain things, but then one day you’ve got a choice of something totally different.
Seth Jones is the first Nashville Predator to share in the fundamental choice of his fans. He’s one of us in a way no one else was, is, or likely will be for a long time.