Flying to Russia to see our stars in the KHL is a bit pricey for most of us. Driving up to Milwaukee is a reasonable thought, and the rumor is the Predators are trying to get an Admirals game to be played at the Bridgestone if they can work out the logistics. That would be cool. Though the pros aren't playing in Music City, high school teams across Nashville are gearing up for another season of hockey. Despite not making $13 million a year, the kids that call GNASH (Greater Nashville Area Scholastic Hockey) their league are excited about the upcoming year.
For those of you who are not familiar with GNASH, the organization has been promoting youth hockey in Nashville for many years now. Though there have been travel hockey options before, this gives high school kids a structured league to compete in like football, basketball and other team sports. One of the primary goals for GNASH is not only to have a league, but also to promote and grow the game of hockey in a non-traditional market.
GNASH currently has 16 teams, with about half of them being from a single school. A few years ago, in an effort to broaden participation, GNASH started allowing two schools to partner together in a co-op, in hopes that they can eventually grow their programs to be single-school. Many of the teams are from large metro schools, but there is also a number of small private institutions that participate. The effects of the co-op approach have been a resounding success, as many more players and programs have been able to join the league in recent years. This can be contrasted with other cities in Tennessee that have strong house or travel programs, but no significant success in their high school based league.
GNASH is not a traditional TSSAA sport, but generally follows TSSAA rules. Given the size and skill differences between schools (as exist in other sports), the league is challenged to provide competitive balance. Because there are so few teams, GNASH can't set up in different divisions like other TSSAA sports. So they devised an alternative. Initially, the teams were split into two geographic divisions and played a round-robin schedule. After the first half of the year, based on their records, teams would play the rest of the year against teams on their level. A couple of years ago, this was changed to allow the teams to select their division based on their players' skills, so that teams would only play opponents within their division for the whole year. This eliminated some of 10-0 games that occurred in prior years.
These divisions were known as the Gold and the Blue (a nod to the Nashville Predators). Each division winner was crowned champion, with the upper division (Gold) playing for the GNASH Cup State Championship and the lower division (Blue) playing for the Henry Hine Cup. This year the GNASH Board elected to reinstate the round-robin play to determine what division teams should play in, thus allowing the teams to decide their positioning on the ice, rather than through voting.
Teams will initially play nearby opponents, before dividing up into their respective divisions based on record. The GNASH board hopes that this change will allow for a more accurate assessment of a team's skill level, as well as create greater parity in each division.
As you would guess, GNASH has a strong cooperative relationship with the Nashville Predators, and GNASH reps have nothing but positive things to say about the NHL organization. Since the Predators came to town, youth hockey in Nashville "has grown from about 300 to 2,000 kids", according to GNASH Commissioner John Holmes. The Preds have done much to promote hockey at Centennial Sports Complex (the team's official practice rink) and in Cool Springs through their partnership with A-Game. The Predators sponsor events at both of these sites, including a "hockey bash" at the beginning of the year aimed at getting more hockey novices on the ice for training.
The Predators also work with GNASH to have each of the high school teams play at least one regular season game at Bridgestone Arena, giving the players a chance to play on the same ice the pros do. I've attended some of these games, and I have to tell you it is a real thrill for both the fans and the players. In addition, the Championship game for the High School league is always held at Bridgestone, allowing for more fans to attend than at Centennial or A-Game. They also put up a display on the third level of the arena talking about GNASH and the history of high school hockey in Nashville.
There are some limiting factors and other issues that face GNASH, the most obvious being a lack of ice. To schedule any more than 16 teams would be difficult, as squads are already practicing late into the night. "Without more ice it will be hard to expand much beyond our current numbers. Ice time is very limited as there are only the 2 ice rinks (4 sheets of ice) in middle Tennessee," said Holmes. Rumors have swirled for a while about a new rink or two being built, but so far, nothing has been finalized.
Additionally, since the other cities in the state don't have the same level of high school hockey, determining how to expand to a true Tennessee league like other TSSAA sports is a challenge. There is another limiting factor for growth of the sport. Most of the high schools consider hockey a "club" team, and don't provide significant financial support. Therefore, families have to pay for the cost of equipment and ice time. For the more talented players, they could play for both a house/travel team and the high school team. but if the player plays in both leagues, this would cost the family thousands of dollars. Therefore, many of the talented players choose to play travel and not for their high school team. There are even some travel teams that are planning on restricting their players from playing for their high school teams.
So, is high school hockey a good alternative to the NHL? The leagues are very competitive. Last year, Ravenwood won the GNASH Cup Championship 1-0 and FRA/USN won the Henry Hine Championship 4-3 in overtime. Both games were very exciting, fast paced and had that playoff atmosphere. I encourage you to go to A-Game in Franklin some night when Centennial plays either Brentwood or Ravenwood. The place is rocking and the hockey is fast, hard hitting and skilled. It will remind you of a Predators/Columbus Blue Jacket tilt. Do I miss the Predators... sure. But with this level of high school hockey available, it is the place to be on a Friday night in Smashville.