On October 10, 1998, Greg Johnson took the first faceoff in Nashville Predators history, while then-backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun sat on the bench and watched the Predators fall 1-0 to the Florida Panthers.
Over 18 years later, Johnson and Vokoun returned to Bridgestone Arena on Saturday for a game against the Panthers, but this time, as distinguished Predators alumni participating in the NHL’s Centennial Fan Arena.
As they both noted, the Predators franchise has come a long way since that opening night in 1998.
“From the growth of the city to the vibe around the team, the fans, the excitement out here, it’s amazing,” Johnson said. “This organization keeps growing, the city keeps growing. It’s a special place with special fans. I’m just grateful to be a part of those starting years, but it’s amazing to see where it is now.”
Johnson and Vokoun were invited to sign autographs and participate in events surrounding the Fan Arena, a museum and interactive experience that will travel to all 31 NHL arenas as part of the league’s Centennial celebration. Fans got autographs and took photos with the two alumni, toured the museum truck and got their pictures taken with the Stanley Cup.
The two were both original Predators, having been selected by the team in the 1998 Expansion Draft. Both earned their stripes in the early years of the franchise, and in 2002, Johnson was named captain of the team, and Vokoun earned the starting goalie role when Mike Dunham was traded to the New York Rangers.
Having been through the early years, Johnson was blown away by the progress the franchise has made.
“I remember that first game was crazy,” he said. “Then the next 10, there were some sporadic crowds on maybe a Tuesday night in November, but you felt it start to build a little. To see what it is now, and as I say, just these fans are so loyal. They bring so much energy and I’m excited to be back in the building to feel the energy again.”
Even though the Predators fanbase has grown considerably, Vokoun is still a recognizable figure to Nashville fans. Countless fans in Vokoun #29 jerseys roamed the Fan Arena, and a few shouted “VOKOOOOOOOUN” at him near the autograph table, a nod to the chant that rang out at Bridgestone with every save of his from 1998 to 2007.
“When I come back here, I always get a good feeling,” Vokoun said. “Sometimes, when you come back to places, you get nervous. But here, I always feel like I’m coming home. There’s nothing to pretend. You just try to enjoy it when you’re here. It’s just the way people are. People are nice and very approachable. For me, coming back here, it’s always fun and I’m always excited to come.”
One of the memories that stood out to both Johnson and Vokoun was the Predators’ first-ever playoff series against the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in 2004. Nashville ended up losing that series in six games, but it could have been much different given how close the games were. The Predators lost the first two games of the series by a score of 2-1 before coming home to a raucous Gaylord Entertainment Center and winning the next two to tie the series.
Game Four of that series was a memorable one for the two, as Vokoun got the first playoff shutout in Predators history by making a whopping 41 saves, and Johnson scored the game-clinching goal in the third period.
Johnson recalled that game and the goosebumps he felt hearing the crowd roar for his clinching goal in game four. He was also proud of how close the eighth-seeded Predators made the series, much to the shock of many in the hockey world.
“I remember later speaking to Steve Yzerman and Ken Holland, and they said that series against you guys was a battle, probably the hardest one of that playoff run for them,” Johnson said. “We were just a young team, but it was memorable. I never won a Stanley Cup, but that was special for me, being here from day one.”
While Vokoun made plenty of friends as he developed into an elite NHL goaltender in Nashville, he also made some enemies. He had multiple incidents with then-Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla, brawling with him throughout the 2003 season.
Later in their careers, the two reunited as teammates on the Pittsburgh Penguins, and had a good laugh about it.
“You play the game, and in the moment, people talk about it and all that,” Vokoun said. “A few years after that, you’re laughing about it, playing with the guy on the same team. Nobody takes that stuff, what happens on the ice, personally. It’s an entertainment business, in a way, so you’ve got to keep people to come back and watch the games, right?”
Johnson and Vokoun had stellar playing careers with the Predators, but also had their careers cut short by health issues. In 2006, a preseason EKG revealed Johnson had some heart abnormalities. In the wake of Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer’s cardiac scare in a game against the Predators in 2005, Johnson decided to retire out of an abundance of caution. In that same year, Vokoun was diagnosed with a blot clotting condition in his pelvis, which he recovered from, but ultimately forced his retirement in 2014.
Both players said they have recovered from their conditions and are doing well now.
The NHL’s Centennial celebration is about honoring the league’s extensive heritage. While the Predators have only been in existence for 18 years, joining the league in the late 1990s along with the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, Johnson thinks the Predators have a special place in the expanding NHL.
“I do think, maybe selfishly, that when they expanded by four teams in that time when the Predators came in, I kind of feel like we were the one team that had success from the start. We were always hard to play against. We grew from there. I see Columbus is having some success, Minnesota has at times, but I take pride because I feel like Nashville, we came in and established ourselves.”
“It’s a great organization now, great city. Players love to come play for the Predators and if not, they love to come visit this city.”