NASHVILLE -- Like most boys growing up in the heart of SEC country, Cody Howard was a diehard football fan. That was until a friend gave him a ticket to see the Nashville Predators play.
It was a day that not only changed his life, it changed out he looked at sports.
"Once I saw hockey I said, 'So this is what loving a sport is supposed to be about,'" said Howard, who grew up in Sevierville, Tenn., the hometown of country music icon Dolly Parton.
Bitten by the hockey bug, Howard taught himself to skate and two years later he was the captain of an adult team that skates out of the Ford Ice Arena in suburban Nashville.
Growing up in Tennessee, Howard never thought he would play hockey, let alone do it outdoors in downtown Nashville. But here he was, on a chamber of commerce type of Saturday morning, cruising around a makeshift ice rink with a number of adult players for a little shinny as part of the festivities surrounding the 2016 NHL All-Star Weekend.
"It's great to have the All-Star Game here," Howard said. "It's been nothing but a big party, and as anyone who lives here will tell you, nobody throws a party like Nashville."
Throughout the week, the Predators and USA Hockey have teamed up to encourage more kids to get out and play. From street hockey clinics inside the NHL Fan Fest to try hockey for free events, there is no shortage of opportunities for kids to get in the game.
But Saturday morning was a chance for local adult players to join the festivities.
"The Predators do so much to grow the game, not only among youth hockey but also adults," said Katie Holmgren, the manager of USA Hockey's Adult Hockey department.
"We appreciate the ability to be involved in this event and showcase adult hockey. Not only have we been able to expose more adults to the game, but we were able to thank the captains of local adult teams by letting them be a part of the festivities."
Hockey in the Music City continues to ride a crest of momentum that began when the Predators come to town in 1998. Since the puck first dropped, the Predators have worked tirelessly to turn a region better known for its affinity for NASCAR into a passionate hockey community.
They've done so by building a fan base from the ground up. From its G.O.A.L. (Get Out And Learn) program that encourages kids ages 5 to 8 to try hockey for free, to the support of its Junior Predators program, the organization has created a grassroots juggernaut. And bringing the NHL All-Star Game to town is likely to create a new legion of fans.
"Bringing the All-Star Game to Nashville is a great way to introduce the sport to people who didn't think it was possible to play hockey in Tennessee," said Peter Danner, who started playing hockey shortly after moving to the area from New Jersey eight years ago.
Over that time he has seen the game grow at all levels.
"There are not just more players involved in the game, but there are also some really good players coming out of the area," Danner said before shedding his hockey gear to heading across the street for the Fan Fest. "Hockey is center stage here this week, and that will get more kids and adults excited about that game."