Inside Bill Haslam's whirlwind Nashville Predators introduction — and the change I see coming | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

The Nashville Predators are in flux, only they’re not.

Their future is unsettled, except that future isn’t here. You have to squint to see it far off in the distance, about three years away. Majority owner Herb Fritch wanted it that way. He wanted even longer, actually, maybe four or five years before he’d gradually let go and hand a prized possession to a hand-picked successor. Owner-in-waiting Bill Haslam talked him down to about 2025.

And so on Thursday, these two wealthy, powerful men – similar in some ways, yet very different – worked the hallways and meeting rooms at Bridgestone Arena.

They fielded questions from reporters. They addressed a lunch crowd of staff members that included Coach John Hynes and captain Roman Josi, easing worries about a major transition that’s real, yet far from reality. They mapped out a collective vision. They repeatedly stressed how little is going to change under new ownership.

We’ll see. Eventually.

One day, that’ll be up to Haslam.

But not this day.

The Predators are still Fritch’s team.

They’ve always been Fritch’s team, even when they weren’t technically. Always will be.

Ask Haslam. He has seen it. He told a story about once going to a game and noticing Fritch in the seats, wearing a jersey and cheering his head off with everyone else. “There’s 17,000 people here,” Haslam thought to himself, and maybe “five of them know that guy right there is the majority owner.

“Herb kind of liked it that way.”

True.

Understand this about an owner about which little is understood publicly: His love for the Predators couldn’t be more authentic and believable. He bought in years ago to keep them in Nashville. He sought out Haslam — not the other way around — for good reason.

“I wanted to find somebody that people knew in Tennessee, was interested in Tennessee, was interested in Nashville,” Fritch said. “… I just think it was the right thing to do for the franchise. We got the right guy in to trust as the steward of the franchise.”

Also true: Haslam will never be incognito as the Preds’ owner. No longer a politician, he’s still a celebrity. Weekend before last, he showed up for an NCAA Super Regional game in Knoxville with Peyton Manning.

Peyton Manning chats with Jim Haslam and Bill Haslam in the stands during the first round of the NCAA Knoxville Super Regionals between Tennessee and Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, June 10, 2022.

To those looking for how the Predators will be changed by all this: That's how.

They are going to be different under Haslam. Different personality. Different look. Different profile.

Not better or worse, necessarily. Just different.

Haslam will be the face of ownership for a franchise that has lacked one for a long time. You could already tell Thursday. Haslam took to the spotlight like a duck in water, as you’d expect from a former governor.

“It’s a public role,” Haslam said of his previous job, “and so is this.”

Hasn’t been for the Predators, though. Put it this way: I’ve been The Tennessean’s sports columnist for nearly three years, and until Thursday, I’d never met Fritch. I’d never, in fact, heard so much as a thought from him. He’d been this figure in the shadows, preferring to let others speak for the team he owned.

To illustrate, Fritch used ever-present Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as an example: “From my view as a fan, it looks like he’s making all the decisions. Maybe he’s more qualified than we are, but I don’t think that should be our role.”

How can you not admire such a sentiment? It's unselfish, without a trace of ego, a heart truly in the right place for what he views as the right reasons.

Even if sometimes, you might need a little wrong.

Fair criticism of Fritch’s tenure is that perhaps he has been too laissez-faire, staying silent as the Predators regressed from Stanley Cup finalist in 2017 to a team that has barely squeezed into the playoffs the past few years, failing to win a series since 2018.

“We’re good but not great,” Fritch admitted Thursday. “We’re trying to figure out how to get over that hump again.”

Along those lines, anyone wishing for Haslam to clean house should prepare to be disappointed. Those are his words, not mine: “I don’t have any plans to come in and totally change the ship.”

Of note: It’s not his call yet anyway. Three years is a long time.

Also of note: Haslam has been getting up to speed quickly for a man who just arrived. He met with general manager David Poile on Monday. He knew the date of the NHL Draft (July 7) in answering a question off the top of his head.

Haslam projected competency and seriousness to his future employees, like a man who has long been adept at winning a room.

“I think this is really good,” Poile said. “There’s always pause when there’s a change, but if I’m confident of anything, I think this is going to be fabulous for our franchise.”

“I think it’s going to be more stable, not less stable,” team president Sean Henry added. “Now that doesn’t mean no changes are coming, but it’s a good situation we’re in.”

Fritch agrees – else he wouldn’t have done it. This is his baby that he’s giving up.

That’s not easy. It takes faith.

Haslam, too, has been willing to wait and take Fritch at his word. That also takes faith.

Faith is what this odd couple is going to be asking, too, from a fanbase that has grown more disillusioned by recent mediocrity on the ice and now is going to sense a pause button being pressed for three years.

It'll be a complicated time for the Predators.

While they are adamant that the path isn't changing, who'll say if it should?

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.