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Predators players play street hockey with neighborhood kids
Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

The street hockey party was already rocking when the gold van with the Nashville Predators logo pulled up and Yannick Weber and Nick Bonino piled out of it like Starsky and Hutch.

These kids had been playing for an hour Wednesday afternoon, 14 of them, back and forth in the cul de sac of a Nolensville neighborhood. These games happen all the time on this block, my block, after school and on weekends. But they’re usually more like 4 on 4, and there usually isn’t a crowd of more than 20 adults watching in lawn chairs with Predators gear on and a bunch of pizzas on the way.

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Now the kids were realizing why all the fuss, as their eyes widened and they crowded around Weber and Bonino.

“Hey guys, can I play?” said Bonino, who was part of the Pittsburgh Penguins team that beat the Predators for the Stanley Cup last season, before signing in the offseason with the Predators.

“You want to play with us?” one of the kids said.

“As long as you’re not Penguins, I guess!” Weber said.

And yes, that was Weber taking a shot at Bonino, his teammate a few seasons ago in Vancouver.

“I’ve known him a long time,” Weber said later of Bonino, “so I’m allowed to tease him once in a while.”

It was time to divvy up teams. But before giving you the full play by play, let me make this clear for you: I had nothing to do with this. Zero. Zilch. I found out about it a few days earlier and was sworn to secrecy because the Predators don’t want these to become circus scenes.

I found out from my neighbor Gail, who made this happen. She saw a link on Facebook to apply on the Predators official site to have players come out for some street hockey. This is something the team has been doing a few times every fall for several years, an idea from Predators senior vice president Gerry Helper.

It’s one of countless things the Predators do around Nashville. All pro sports teams should and do get involved in their communities, but it’s well-documented that this franchise is especially good at it. And for Gail and her Canadian, hockey-crazed family, this was a dream opportunity.

She invited several kids (and clued in their parents) from the neighborhood Wednesday whom she knew to be hockey enthusiasts like her son, Ethan, and now those kids were watching Weber break away and smash the ball into the net for the first goal of the game. When you’re a third-pairing defenseman in the NHL, you’re going to take your scoring opportunities when you can get them.

They played for another good hour. And though nearly 20 people with sticks ran in a clump on that asphalt at times, there were a lot of good hockey plays. Weber and Bonino weren’t just out there standing around until it was time for pictures and autographs. They were shooting, passing, stealing the ball.

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They were also parenting when needed – twice, sticks to the legs caused younger players to sob for a few seconds, and Weber and Bonino comforted them and gave them pep talks. A really young player showed up in goalie gear; Bonino tried it on for a few minutes.

Overheard: “Hey Dad, Nick Bonino says he’s a better goaltender than Pekka Rinne!”

Overheard, from Weber to a kid: “Dude, you’ve got to get your stick down, you’re like P.K. (Subban), jeez.”

Overheard from the sideline: “I’ve seen a lot of these, and this is a pretty good game.”

That came from Phil Pritchard. Hockey fans know him as the Keeper of the Stanley Cup – he’s been traveling around the world with it since 1988 from its home base at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

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Nashville Predators kicked off the home slate with a lot of fanfare and one large banner.
Autumn Allison/USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee

He’s been in Nashville this week with the Campbell Bowl that the Predators got for winning the Western Conference – it will be in the concourse for fans to see before Thursday’s game against Dallas – and as the kids played, hockey-savvy parents were getting pictures with him and the trophy.

It ended on a Bonino goal, shortly after the “Next goal wins!” call went out. Then it was time to gather for mementos and, what do you know, Predators mascot Gnash rolled up in his own gold van.

Overheard from a teenager, as the young kids flocked to Gnash: “Why is he called Gnash anyway? That’s a cringe-ey name.”

Cringe-ey? Teen angst aside, the day was a big success.

“This was amazing,” Weber said. “I was really happy to see this many kids come out and be passionate about the Predators and about hockey.”

“Amazing” was Gail’s word, too, for the way Weber and Bonino were with the kids. This was about providing a life experience for them. That’s important to keep in mind because …

Overheard that night at my house as Gail and her family watched Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist score in an eventual win over the Washington Capitals: “YESSSS!”

Yeah. She might be the biggest Penguins fan in the world.

Contact Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.