The history of Section 303 really begins a decade before the Nashville Predator’s played their first game. The core of stalwarts who make up the core of 303 were all attending Nashville Knights ECHL games in Music City’s original hockey barn, the Municipal Auditorium.
From 1989 thru 1996, the Knights entertained central Tennesseans with their raw brand of AA hockey, and a loyal legion gave them support through thick and (mostly) thin. Clusters of fans throughout the auditorium began creating their own identities: The Dungeon, The Pit, The Kastle, The Rafters,
Big rivalries developed during those times with the hated Knoxville Cherokees, Birmingham Bulls (featuring Jerome “Get Outta My Yard” Bouchard), Louisville Icehawks/RiverFrogs, and Toledo Storm, among others.
Even Rob Valicevic (a Predator in ‘98-’99) played numerous games vs. the Knights as a member of the despised Louisiana Ice Gators in ’95-’96.
Various folks who ended up in Section 303 in the late 90′s, started sharpening their taunting skills in the drafty confines of the Muni on many a cold winter night earlier that decade.
Mark Hollingsworth, a music industry manager, got so inspired by the joy/release that these games brought, that he started writing a column for a minor league hockey magazine, HOCKEY INK. His interest in marketing and promotions was the topic, and he got to know the league offices and over 100 franchises that made up the minor league hockey landscape in the mid 90′s. Through extensive phone interviews, research, and visiting over 50 different teams, he built up a wealth of info on what made for a great environment at a hockey game. Whenever he would here a great chant, taunt, musical bit, promotional scheme, etc. he would keep notes.
Lee Swartz is a long-time Pittsburgh Penguins fan, and was living in the Steel City when the Pens won 2 Stanley Cups in the early 90’s. He experienced first-hand the amazing energy that fans can bring to a team. After moving to Nashville in ’92, he started interning with Mark’s management/marketing company. They soon discovered their mutual passion for hockey, and began regularly attending Knights games together. Since those times, Lee has gone on to become a manager in the Sony/BMG Publishing division.
Kurt Andress was also interning the Hollingsworth firm at the time. Growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he had never seen a hockey game in his life, but went with Mark and Lee one evening, and was instantly hooked. Kurt now is a partner at Zeal Financial Services.
In the summer of ’97, when it became apparent that Nashville had an excellent chance of being granted an expansion franchise by the NHL, Mark, Lee, and Kurt made a covenant to get season tickets together. In subsequent meetings, the three vowed that they would bring some of the traditions that had started at Knights games, and even more weirdness.
“We figured that this would be Nashville’s first major league franchise (The Oilers/Titans weren’t scheduled to come to Nashville until the ’99 season when the new stadium would be ready), and we wanted to help start things out on the right foot with some wild stuff that would help people remember their visits to the Nashville Arena. We didn’t know a team name, or what division/conference they would be in…but we knew we were going to get behind ‘em 100%,” remembers Hollingsworth.
“Being an expansion team, we also realized that things could be a bit bleak competition-wise for the first several years,” recalls Swartz. “So we figured we needed to help keep things fun and irreverent to help lighten the environment. Besides, if you get people fired-up about a team when they’re losing, it will build all that much stronger of a foundation when they start winning and making the playoffs.”
Andress remembers “Being from the southwest, there wasn’t much exposure to the game growing up. I fell in love with the action, intensity, and skill right away. It was a no-brainer wanting to get NHL season tickets, and I wanted to make sure that we helped foster an environment where people would want to check out a game or two and get hooked just like I did. I remember being at some packed-out Knights games and the electricity that was in the building. Wherever we got our seats, we wanted to bring some of that fanaticism to a major league level. We thought maybe we can help build some fun traditions in the stands.”
These 3 went to all of the advance functions that led up to the NHL Board of Governors granting the franchise, and then all the subsequent events to build season ticket sales. The team name of Predators was chosen, and made the three quite happy. “I don’t think I could’ve stomached them being called the Ice Tigers,” chuckles Hollingsworth. “I did ask owner Craig Leipold if they had considered Knights as a moniker, and he said that he liked it very much, but that they decided it carried a bit of “minor league baggage with it,” and that they wanted a fresh start with the NHL franchise.
“When it came time to finally pick our location, we knew that none of us were wealthy enough to get expensive season tickets, so we thought ‘let’s go for the cheap seats, so we can each buy an additional ticket to bring friends and family’ We knew we wanted something in a corner to get a view of the whole ice and strategy. We nearly decided on Section 331, but went with 303 because we could get a better site line on the team benches,” remembers Swartz. “There was nothing special about the number we chose.”
Months passed until that first glorious night in Nashville NHL history: Oct. 10, 1998. “We got there early because we wanted to soak in the whole experience, as well as to get to know some of the folks sitting around us,” Andress recollects. “We met Wayne Hyvarian right away, because he was sitting directly behind us. Soon we met Steve Holland, Michael Lance, then Kevin and Eli Runyon. Then Richie Fedock and the Kane family (Bill, Barbara, Keri, and Kris), etc. etc.”
Mark got the ball rolling, er…the puck in play: “Not being particularly shy, I decided to not only introduce myself to people individually, but I also stood up about 5 minutes before the game started and hollered something like ‘We’re all here to enjoy hockey, right? (a resounding YA! from the section) My buddies and me are going to be goofy, and raise the roof. We’re gonna taunt whomever the Predators are playing; we’re gonna scream like crazy for anything the Predators do right; we’re gonna keep a sense of humor when things go wrong; and we are gonna have a blast up here in 303 win or lose! How many of you are with us?’ Everyone smiled and yelled their support.”
“Right out of the chute we started teaching people basic chants,” Lee remembers. “Things like “Let’s Go Predators;” “Aaaaah, sit down, ya loser!” when an opposing team went to the penalty box; “Heeeeeee shoots and scores” when the replay of a Preds goal was shown on the big screen (didn’t get to do this one until the second game); “We’re gonna beat the hell outta you!” tagged on to the end of Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part Two (also known as “That HEY Song”) when the Preds scored a goal; “how much time is left in the period?” at 1:04 mark of each session to ‘cue’ to the PA announcement of “one minute to go in the period;” and the now infamous “Goalie, goalie, goalie, you SUCK!” taunt. We threw in lots of goofy non-sequiters we had learned from Mike Lange (the Pittsburgh Penguins fabulous play-by-play man) like “Oh, buy Sam a drink and his dog one too” and “He smoked him like a bad cigar.” We also started some of our own like “Somebody make me a sweet tomata sammich,” and “This ain’t barnyard gold, it’s a Tennessee tail-whippin’.”
After about 10 home games, Hollingsworth started keeping notes on various cheers, taunts, etc. that were working, as well as new ones to be tried out. “Things were getting organized to the point where I knew we needed signs to make sure everyone in the section and adjoining areas could read what we were about to do. Some are all-purpose, some are specific to our players, and some are taunts for particular opponents. I’ve built up quite a collection over the years. Probably 60 signs. A few are retired (like “It’s Cote Time!”).”
Some of the bits caught on right away. Others took time to build in popularity. Some died a quick death of indifference. But one thing was for sure, people in 303 were having a great time at Predators games, and the word was starting to spread around the arena. On the Predators Post Game Show on WWTN radio, callers began praising Section 303 for our enthusiasm. Some found the use of “you suck” completely inappropriate for a family environment, but usually, the positive calls significantly outweighed the negative.
“To show that we had a sense of humor about ourselves, we did a turnaround on our chant several times (303, 303, 303, WE suck!). I even made up a triple sized sign that said “We’re Section 303, and we’re ever so sorry.” Of course, I also made up a big sign that said “NOT!” that was held right next to it. We just kept saying to ourselves, ‘this is freaking hockey! If people think this is too intense, they obviously have never been to a Flyers game in Philly or a Blackhawks game in Chicago. Those fans are not only brutal, but they are often quite vulgar. If “you suck” is the worst thing that ever gets chanted at a Preds game, I think we’re doing fine,” Mark recalls.
“After a flurry of phone calls about 303 on one of the call-in shows, people started coming by to tell us they thought what we did was great,” says Kurt. There was even a sign on the other side of the arena that said “Section 303 Fan Club.”
“We had season tickets in Section 329,” says Joe Estep, referring to he and his wife, Jenny. “We were the ones who made that sign, and proudly displayed it. We requested to the Predators front office that we wanted to relocate our season tickets to 303 for season #2.”
The same phenomenon happened with others like Lara Hanson, an insurance adjuster, and Jennifer Hartman, a high school teacher. “We came to practically every game the first year, but moved all around the arena. We loved what 303 did, and were excited to find out we could get season tickets there for the ’99-2000 season,” says Lara. “Everyone made us feel so welcome from the very first game,” states Jennifer.
303 was becoming “the place to be.” The Predator’s front office was getting more requests for individual game seats in 303 than any other section. 303 quickly became full of the most season tickets of any section in the whole building. Even out of town guests specifically asked to be assigned tickets there when they came in to visit.
To help organize the chants even further, Hollingsworth created a series of Cheer/Taunt sheets that were distributed at every game so people knew what to yell. These began filtering all around the arena. Additionally, a 303 database was created via questionnaires, getting folks organized to assist with Viewing Parties for out-of-town games, Christmas Parties, the annual mid-summer Slap Shot Party (where everyone gathers to watch the infamous movie), Draft Day Parties, Sign-Painting Parties, etc.
“When people have notable birthdays, hundreds of us will sing a card for them and sing Happy Birthday during a break in the action,” says Andress. “When folks are hospitalized due to injury or illness, we’ll send send cards, and set up visitations.”
At the end of Season 2, Craig Leipold came up to our Section during one of the final games and started giving us the “I am not worthy” bow (made famous in Wayne’s World). During the on-ice ceremonies after the final home game that year, Leipold addressed the crowd saying, “I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to all of you this evening after an even better season of support than our first year. But then I looked up there (pointing to us), and thought ‘it’s great fans like those in Section 303 that have made this whole journey worthwhile!”
In Season 3 we started Section303.com. Initially it was Joe Estep who skated with the puck. Then Chuck Schwartz came alongside as our first real webmaster. The site quickly garnered a reputation, and thousands of visitors were logging-on to find out what zaniness we were coming up with next. Hollingsworth helped compile literally thousands of chants, one-liners, taunts, riddles, nonsequiters, jokes, Top Ten Lists, etc. all based around an irreverent hockey humor theme that were catalogued on the site. One of the most requested sections features “The Hated Opposition” spotlighting the current team the Preds will be hosting next, replete with all kinds of taunts specifically for that team and city. Others have assisted in the 303 website along the way like Gordon Boulton, John McCloskey, and current webmaster Win Barker.
With his marketing/PR background, Hollingsworth began setting up dozens of interviews and features on every local TV station, nearly every main radio outlet in the city, and every daily and weekly newspaper in the region. National media began to take notice as well, with mentions on ESPN, Fox Sports, NPR, ESPN The Magazine, Sporting News, etc. Media would come and sit right in the midst of 303 to capture the whole ambience. The web site was getting hundreds of new visitors each day, with eventually people leaving messages from every state in the union and 22 countries.
The Preds management approached us about hanging a huge banner above the wild bunch with some sort of whacky nickname. The core group kicked a bunch of things around…but it was actually Bryan Shaffer, the Game Operations Manager for the Preds, who came up with “Cellblock 303.” They liked it, and with their approval, he came up with the design. The franchise paid for and hoists the banner before every home game. “We couldn’t be prouder, or more humbled by the gesture,” says Hollingsworth.
There are lots of characters in the Cellblock like “The Perv,” “The Librarian,” “The Duke of Rebuke,” “Flag Boy,” “A Boy Named Sioux,” “Red Beard,” “School Marm,” “The King of Pop,”and so on. One of the most famous cellmates had no intention of ever being so. 82 year-old Eudora Hunter faithfully attended every game with her son, Charles. “For the first two seasons, I would notice her there sitting like a statue, with this shy little grin in the midst of all our chaos,” recalls Hollingsworth. “I kept thinking to myself ‘what on earth can we do to get her involved?’ Then it dawned on me that she could become our own Larry “Bud” Melman (an odd little old man that used to make regular appearances on David Letterman). So, I asked Eudora one night if I gave he a silly sign, would she be willing to hold it up? Then I would have Tom, one of the roving in-house TV cameramen, come over and get a shot of her for the jumbotron. The first sign I gave her was Mike Watt Is a Hottie (he was a call-up from Milwaukee who had Tom Cruise-like good looks). When that image was shown on the big screen, the arena erupted into laughter. I knew we had something good going with this. So, every game I would come up with another silly saying for her to hold up stone-faced for the camera. Some of the most hilarious were I let the dogs out; Fear the Mullet! If it wasn’t for hockey, I’d still be married; I be getting’ all up in yo grille; The more you disapprove, the more fun it is for me; Puttin’ on the foil, Coach; I like the cut of his jib; Chaos, panic, and disorder…my work here is done; He looked a lot better in the chat room. Her popularity grew with each passing game. Kids would come up to get her autograph…it was great,” recalls Hollingsworth.
Eventually, the Predator management even incorporated her into television spots, having her play the recurring role of a fictional version of Scott Hartnell’s grandma in the “Smashville” campaign. Sadly, Eudora passed away in the fall of 2003. The section honored her empty seat the remainder of the season with flowers and momentos. Many attended her funeral. Even Predators front office staff paid respects at her internment.
Some of the originals in 303 have moved to other cities. A few have “moved down” to “better” seats (although most 303ites would argue that there’s any place better) when they became available. But it remains the #1 most requested section for season tix and individual game purchases. There are always new members of the 303 family coming into the fold, and it has spilled over into other areas of the upper deck. “The N.B.P. Posse” is now made up of thousands of others in 303’s extended family. “In fact,” says Andress, “we think 303 is really more a state of mind than a location.” This is well evidenced by how the entire arena joins in on many of the chants now throughout each game. “There’s something quite amazing about hearing 17,000 people yell “you suck!” in perfect unison at an opposing goalie,” laughs Swartz.
“What started of as 3 bozos wanting to have a way to blow off some steam and laugh at a game has evolved into a real part of the Nashville Predators tradition…and we couldn’t be happier or prouder,” concludes Andress.