Overhead florescent lights, utilitarian and unforgiving, expect a crowd. In the pantheon of light fixtures, fluorescents are the least intimate, associated with Walmarts, lecture-halls, prisons, and the DMV. As Hollywood's zombie-genre screenwriters realized years ago, nothing underscores a room's creepy, post-apocalyptic emptiness like the hum of industrial lamps in lieu of the din of human voices.
On December 11, 2009, I tried to imagine my walk from section 105 to 104 in terms of another cinematic trope--the nostalgic return to the site of former glory. The since-retired or struggling athlete returns to the venue where he made his name. He takes a seat among the empty stands, projecting photo-realistic memories onto the unlit playing surface below.
Except under the beaming Sommet Center lights, I felt more like Jeremy Renner in the Hurt Locker, back from Iraq and in the cereal aisle, considering the depressing reality of something I'd seen without thinking hundreds of times before. Seeing Dave Scatchard score on the Blue Jackets' Matthieu Garon in front of 12,000 fans was not my romantic vision of a homecoming.
I walked from 104 to 105 without once having to consider Tyler Durden's eternal question of airplane etiquette . It was post-apocalyptic "Smashville," and the brain-degrading, zombifying disease was, as always, college football.
On January 15, 2011 (my sophomore year break), a different, more hostile species of the brain-dead invaded the Bridgestone Arena, defiantly letting out their blood-thirsty moans during the National Anthem, toting homemade tinfoil-and-cardboard replica Stanley Cups. The Predators again drew about 12,000 fans, but with 5,000 Blackhawks fans in the house, it was a sold-out barn. I had read all the glowing reports about this seasons breakout attendance figures and this wasn't what I had envisioned.
A couple in Jonathon Toews' jerseys had explained in the Jersey Mike's line that the Southwest Airlines Midway-to-BNA budget deal made this game a logical road-trip. Southwest had been cheap a lot longer than the Blackhawks had been champions, however, and I concluded here was the real karmic cost of the Preds' epic choke in last year's Game 5.
Then the game started. Tomas Kopecky scored on a first period power play. Victor Stallberg made it 2-0 in the second, banking a fluke goal off Pekka Rinne's giant back. Both goals were met with a minor, eerily hollow, Chelsea Dagger-less eruption, equivalent to the home team scoring in an ECHL arena with a broken sound system. The Preds were outshot through two periods 23-12. The Blackhawks stars were getting healthy and the Preds had dressed Andreas Thurreson and Chris Mueller. I pined for the poorly-attended Dave Scatchard days of yore.
The second intermission marked the first time all season I truly gave up on a Preds game, in my mind. Typically, I feel responsible as a True Fan to bear my fair share of the psychic weight of the team's concentration. While that may sound like the normal irrationality that is rooting, I often take it to the extreme, in a power-of-positive-thinking just-read-The Secret sort of way.
Maybe the act of finally physically being at a game softened me. I fondly obsessed over familiar structural details in a way usually reserved for a childhood home. The sub-escalator copper-plated pucks, commemorating the lockout season ticket holders, lent perspective in a way only an uneven history can. For once, I acquiesced to the reality that whatever happened in the third period happened, regardless of how far on the edge of my seat I sat.
I sat down not expecting much, and not much happened, for the first ten minutes. Joel Ward got Corey Crawford's goalie stick caught in his skate blade and needed Niklas Hjalmarsson's help to get it out. The Preds' best chance came from a puck Martin Erat shot falling down that rolled off the top of Marcel Goc's head.
On the FSN broadcast, Pete Weber snarked, "It's no Broadway musical." And like a perfectly ironic stage cue, at that moment, the cacophonous rehearsal stopped and the show began.
As with most music--on this Broadway or the one to which Weber alluded--it started with a beat. With 10:34 left, our beloved mascot Gnash started banging a familiar rhythm on his drum, as Shea Weber retrieved the puck from behind the Nashville net. A few attempts at "Let's Go Preds" had fizzled before they started earlier in the period, but this one was loud and charged with an inexplicable, unfounded confidence.
And with a similar purpose and rhythm came Jerred Smithson off the bench , moving a puck up ice that Weber and Suter were still fumbling with to the back of Pekka Rinne.
Jerred Smithson scored at 9:36 in the third, on the 22nd beat of Gnash's drum, as 12,000 fans collectively swallowed the word "Let's" and let out what would be the second biggest shout of the night. That first goal celebration was more catharsis than elation, a pent up response, building since the anthem-cheering.
After that goal, the Predators' chances suddenly came in spades. On another night, I might have told you that momentum didn't exist, that it's one of many contrivances used to impose narratives on the random events. But that night, as I watched the Chicago defense inexplicably part in the high slot, a familiar certainty creeped up on me: the Preds were going to win.
The first TV timeout standing ovation of many that season arose instantly, without hesitation. There was definitely a sense of the classic chip-on-the-shoulder Southern market ethos; we wanted to show Hawks fans we could rock, even short-handed, as it were. But there was also something very businesslike about the cheering--eyes front, brows furrowed--like we were trying to take the team as far as we could and imploring them to do the rest. It was an ovation in the original spirit of the tradition--defiantly supportive at a time we weren't expected to be.
Everyone knew his part. This was the most recognizable play in Music City. Jerred Smithson came in for that faceoff, at the crescendo's peak. Crochet rest as the puck reached Weber's expectantly cocked Easton S19. The captain's masterstroke, staccatissimo.
The best moment of any show is the start of everyone's favorite song. And for 60 minutes of 41 days out of the year, Tim McGraw sings my favorite song. Without thinking, I gave a huge 12-6 fist pump into the aisle that would've easily decapitated any kid running to the bathroom.
I was disappointed to find, upon arriving home, that there was no highlight of the goal. FSN's camera's didn't capture it. Instead, you get Pete Weber's yelp over some second period highlights, followed by the camera cutting to a jubilant Cody Franson on the bench.
But it's just as well. It was a moment to be experienced, not re-hashed on tape. A moment that made palpable the irrevocable and inexpressible change that happened this season, a change not on the roster, or the front office, or in ticket sales.
Much has been made of the franchise's worst summer coming on the heels of its best season. Momentum was supposedly squandered. And while opportunities were arguably missed, Nashville's fans have never waited on their team to build momentum. The worse things look, the louder we cheer. No matter what happens this season, it's about to get very loud.
That's not to compare my first Christmas home from college, my first hockey season away from the Predators, to defusing 873 car bombs in the heat of the Syrian Desert.
"Now a question of etiquette: as I pass, do I give you the ass or the crotch?"
 It seems like Smitty always does his best work when the rest and best of the team is so desperately overmatched, like some kind of fixer, saving himself for only when he's really needed. I don't know what Barry Trotz said to Smithson on the bench, before that shift, but I imagine it went a lot like the off-screen phone call Marcellus Wallace places to Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction.
 In 2006, the Mets had a great stadium chant--"Jose, Jose, Jose" to the tune of "Olé, Olé, Olé"--for whenever Jose Reyes did something spectacular. Unfortunately the team started playing it practically every time Reyes was on the field. Now the Jose chant is as corny and meaningless as the goofy "glass shattering" sound effect they play after foul balls at Sounds games. I fear some day the TV timeout standing ovation will go the way of the Jose-chant.
 e.g. The Grand Ol' Opry, at the first gnarled syllable of Johnny Cash's verse in "Highwayman." Wembley at the first note of electric guitar in "Bohemian Rhapsody." Shea Stadium at the opening flourish of "Piano Man." Madison Square Garden when John Lennon sings "Imagine there's no heaven." The Bridgestone Arena when Shea Weber scores.