I wasn't sure who was more surprised to see the other.
There I was, bleary-eyed, having been invited to an early morning meeting with this past season's Vanderbilt football team. I made it. I'm in my seat.
I look up, and in walks . . . John Hynes?
A hockey guy? In college football?
The ex-Nashville Predators coach stayed all morning, too, attending meetings, watching practice, hanging with Vanderbilt football coach Clark Lea. They’ve become friends, the two coaches. But this wasn’t a social call. Hynes was paying attention. He was studying.
It was keeping with a theme, one that Hynes — hired this week to coach the Minnesota Wild — explained while back in Bridgestone Arena for the first time since incoming Predators general manager Barry Trotz fired him on May 30.
We’ll get back to that.
First, we’ve gotta talk about Thursday night.
It was just so weird.
All of it. The fact that Hynes — a Nashville resident whose family plans to still reside in Brentwood — was behind the opposing bench in only his second game with Minnesota. How he had to know the opposing team so much better than his own. How chilly the fans' reception was for him. And how that arena was empty by game’s end — because of how well Hynes' new team played for him.
The Wild roared to a resounding 6-1 victory, chasing goalie Juuse Saros early in the second period and skating all over a Predators team that'd been playing really well. A six-game winning streak died with Hynes behind the opposing bench.
"That was a huge win for (Hynes). He wanted that win," Wild forward Pat Maroon said. "The boys wanted to get that win for him . . . There's nothing better when you play your old team and get to beat them. I'm sure he's stoked right now."
Smashville, on the other hand, wasn’t so stoked. Losing bad was one thing. But losing bad to Hynes? He was booed when introduced before the game. The reception among fans was mixed during the welcome-back tribute on the big video boards: Some jeers, some golf claps as Hynes patted his heart genuinely in appreciation for the video.
Predators fans are usually good for these teary reunions. Not this time. This wasn't the ovation you’d typically hear when former players return with other teams.
And it won't be the last time Hynes hears boos in the building, I don't think. He's coaching a division rival now. Is that a rivalry I'm sensing?
Why so salty, Smashville?
Bridgestone’s cold shoulder was a bit surprising, only because the vibe contrasted sharply with everything else behind the scenes in Hynes' return, from well wishes by his former players to team staffers who had welcomed the coach back warmly.
Hynes, too, was gracious in his comments.
He thanked the Predators. They'd given his family and friends a suite for the game. And there was the tribute video.
"The Preds organization is a classy group," Hynes said. "I'm very appreciative of it . . . I'm just thankful of the way that they treated my family on the way back, and the tribute was very nice."
Thursday’s game was six months — to the day — after Trotz fired Hynes, with Andrew Brunette already in line to replace him. The move came 46 days after the end of the regular season. That’s a long time to leave a coach in limbo while the new GM perused other candidates.
But Hynes didn’t sound bitter as he greeted old faces, including Trotz and former GM David Poile. “No hard feelings,” Hynes said.
“Unfortunately, it is part of the business,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for (Trotz) and the organization. The Nashville experience was fantastic. I loved the city. I loved the people in the organization I worked with every day.
“You're always disappointed. To me, that was probably what hurt the most was just the relationships that you have with people that you know you're not going to be able to be around anymore.”
It was a predictably classy response, befitting a coach who carried himself that way in Nashville for years, even when he had reasons to grumble.
Hynes’ tenure was never graced by good timing. When he replaced Peter Laviolette at midseason in early 2020, he inherited a declining power. The Predators of Poile were still trying to stave off the rebuild Trotz finally embraced when hired in 2023.
He helped delay the inevitable for a while, but Hynes couldn’t do much more. At times, the Predators were good on his watch, often when it was least expected. But ultimately, they were never able to do anything great.
So what was he doing at Vandy?
It made sense that Trotz would want to hire his coach to start building up a depleted, young roster.
So off Hynes went, staying in Nashville, spending time with family, attending football practices, watching games on television, hoping another NHL opportunity would arrive sooner or later.
Of all the ways to respond to adversity, he chose a constructive one.
That’s why he was at Vanderbilt on a morning I’d never have expected to run into him. Hynes said he used the months away from coaching, in a sense, for self-improvement.
He sought out some of his old players and other people in hockey. He wanted real talk about how he could become better as a coach.
“I tried to take time to do that,” Hynes said. “I feel like they were really in-depth discussions. They were honest, hard-hitting answers. That was really beneficial to me.”
Hynes said he feels “energized” and “excited” and “really prepared” for the opportunity with the Wild, a foe that very much had the Predators' number Thursday.
He's hardly a villainous person in real life, but this is hockey, and he's back in it wearing new colors. Given how the night went for the home team, there is a new villain in these parts.
Predators fans aren't done with John Hynes.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: The Nashville Predators haven't seen the last of John Hynes