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The history of the Cell Block: the origins…

This is the first in a multi-part series chronicling the history of Cellblock 303.

The history of the Cellblock really begins nearly a decade before the Nashville Predators 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, and so on.

Big rivalries developed during those times with the hated Knoxville Cherokees, Birmingham Bulls (featuring Jerome “Get Outta My Yard” Bouchard), Huntsville Blast/Channel Cats, 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 90s, started sharpening their taunting skills in the drafty confines of the Muni on many a cold winter night earlier that decade.

Mark Hollingsworth, a radio manager for a non-profit outreach to children in the developing world, 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 90s. Through extensive phone interviews, research, and visiting over fifty 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

Lee Swartz is a long-time Pittsburgh Penguins fan, and was living in the Steel City when the Pens won two Stanley Cups in the early 90s. He experienced first-hand the amazing energy that fans can bring to a team. After moving to Nashville in ’92, he started interning with the management/marketing company Mark ran at that time. 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 with 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 runs his own financial management company.

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 could help build some fun traditions in the stands.”

Kurt Andress, Mark Hollingsworth, and Dana Russell (visiting from South Carolina).

These three 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 initial 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 some “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), and many others.”

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 ten 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 outrageous 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’.”

Laura, Steven and Baby Sasha Dishman.

After about ten 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 sixty signs. Many have been 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 the enthusiasm they brought to the games. 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.

To be continued, including the background on the beloved Eudora Hunter, the banner, media coverage, and the popular website.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy K. Gover //