Given his modest roots, it’s heartwarming to see goaltender Pekka Rinne as an elder statesman in the NHL, even as he continues to play some of the best hockey of his long career. Not only was he an excellent last line of defense for the most successful Predators team ever – the edition that went to the 2017 Stanley Cup final – but he has also become one of the most veteran Finnish players in the league.
At All-Star Game weekend in Tampa, young Florida Panthers star Aleksander Barkov stood by himself in the corner of a buzzing hotel lobby while other elite NHLers moved to and fro. Barkov was alone until Rinne, his fellow Finn, came over and chatted up the humble center. On a more regular basis, Rinne has been a mentor for his Nashville backup, Juuse Saros. While Saros is one of the smallest netminders in the NHL at 5-foot-11, he always liked the 6-foot-5 Rinne’s style and idolized him growing up in Finland. Now, Rinne influences Saros in person. “He has helped me a lot on and off the ice,” Saros said. “Any question I have, he’s usually got the answer. He even gives me tips on some players if he knows their habits.”
The story of how Rinne was discovered is well-known in NHL circles, but an abridged version is necessary. He was taken in the eighth round of the 2004 draft – a slot that doesn’t even exist in today’s seven-round draft – as a flyer by the Preds thanks to Finnish scout Janne Kekalainen. Other members of the Preds brass (such as then-assistant GM Ray Shero) had only seen Rinne in warmups, because the youngster played behind Niklas Backstrom for Karpat Oulu and didn’t see the crease often.
Clearly the gamble paid off, as Rinne holds Nashville’s franchise records for wins, shutouts and games by a goalie. And just as Rinne has been a mentor for Saros, Backstrom was a mentor for Rinne. “I always looked up to him and paid a lot of attention to him in practice,” Rinne said. “The way Niklas carries himself, he’s a super-nice guy, and he was very good to me, very helpful.”
It’s impressive what an incubator those Karpat Oulu teams turned out to be. Backstrom had a stellar career with the Minnesota Wild before returning home, while Jussi Jokinen has played in the NHL for more than a decade. Mika Pyorala eventually did a year with the Philadelphia Flyers organization, as did Mikko Lehtonen with Nashville. “We had so much talent back then on those teams,” Rinne said. “A lot of those guys had success either in Europe or here in the NHL, and it’s awesome. I have very special memories from those days, and that being my hometown made it special.”
While his long career is winding down, it’s too early to plan the retirement party. Rinne’s past two seasons have been his strongest since 2010-11, when he was a second-team NHL all-star. Going to the Cup final in 2017 was huge for the veteran, even with all his past individual success.
“Last year, we all as a team gained a lot of confidence, going to the final,” he said. “But also, it’s expectations inside the room. It shows on the ice. We expect to win, and it’s no different for myself. I’ve always believed that it goes hand in hand with the team, just that a goalie (on his own) can never make your team successful, and together we’ve done a great job.”
With his imposing frame and bear-trap reflexes, it’s amazing to think in retrospect that Rinne almost went undiscovered. But Nashville took the risk, and the team’s most important player ever was their reward.
“A lot of people have covered that story, it’s pretty funny how I was drafted,” Rinne said. “Never in my wildest dreams…of course I dreamed about the NHL, but the Finnish League was my main goal. But as you reach certain goals, you set other goals. I’ve been extremely fortunate. If you asked me back then, I never thought I would play this long in the NHL and have the success I’ve had.”
Born: Nov. 3, 1982, Kempele, Fin.
NHL Career: 2005-present
Stats: 311-168-66, 2.37 GAA, .919 SP, 51 SO
All-Star: 2 (First-1, Second-1)
Trophies: 1 (Vezina-1)
DID YOU KNOW?
Rinne and Mika Pyorala have an on-ice connection from their days with Karpat and also share a family bond. Pyorala married Rinne’s twin sister Anna. The couple has two sons, and when Pyorala’s 2016-17 season with Karpat finished, the whole family came over to watch Rinne in the Stanley Cup final. While Rinne missed the 2018 Olympics, his brother-in-law was there repping the family, as Pyorala suited up for Finland.