“When I was growing up, I never could’ve dreamed of having a career like this.”
Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is having himself quite a season. He’s second in the National Hockey League in wins (29), second in shutouts (5), sixth in save percentage (.927), seventh in goals-against average (2.31) and tied with Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets for the least amount of losses (8) among goalies who have played 29 or more games.
Of course, this season isn’t exactly an anomaly. The Kempele, Finland native has had quite a career. Drafted in 2004 by Nashville, he owns the franchise record in every major goaltending category, including games played (549), goals-against average (2.37) and wins (298).
Let’s focus on that win number.
Rinne is knocking on the door of a very exclusive club. Only 33 goalies in the NHL’s 100-year history have amassed 300 or more wins in their careers. The netminder is looking to become just the 34th ever and just the fifth goalie to win them all with one team (assuming he retires a Pred, of course).
“For goalies, when you hit any milestone marks — especially wins because they’re hard to come by — it’s special,” Rinne said. “To get to 250 and 300, it means you’ve been successful but also that you got to play a long time. Hopefully it’s something I don’t have to wait too long for.”
If he plays and wins Thursday night’s game against the Calgary Flames, Saturday night could be the night. Whether it comes against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday or against the Ottawa Senators on Monday (or even later), the milestone is just around the corner and it will add to the already special season he’s having. Earlier in the 2017-18 campaign, when he blanked the St. Louis Blues back on November 24, Rinne registered his 45th career shutout, breaking Miikka Kiprusoff’s all-time record for shutouts by a Finnish-born goaltender.
“He is somebody I really looked up to,” Rinne told me just days after surpassing the Flames great. “He was one of my idols. Then I had a chance to play against him so that made it more special.”
Trying not to laugh, he then added, “Hopefully there’s plenty more to come so I can kind of run away with that one a little bit.”
Rinne’s pedigree hardly suggested he was a man destined for NHL greatness. In June of 2004, he was drafted in a round so late that it doesn’t even exist anymore.
“We ended up grabbing him in the eighth round,” Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton said. “That’s a feather in our cap for somebody who’s as good as he is. He’s a franchise goaltender, an All-Star in every means and, hopefully, somebody who will take us back to the Stanley Cup.”
In retrospect, it seems crazy that a goalie of his stature could slip so far but, at the time, it wasn’t crazy at all.
“[European Scout] Janne Kekäläinen is the one that recommended him to me,” Fenton continued. “We didn’t have that many viewings because, when it comes to somebody who didn’t play that much and he was a hidden commodity, you have to go with your gut and you have to go with what somebody might see. Janne saw it, came up and told me. As we went through that year, we talked about possibly taking a swing at certain guys at certain times. He was one of those swings.”
Didn’t play that much is right. Rinne’s Kärpät team was too busy riding starter Niklas Bäckström who was in the crease for 58 of 71 games en route to a championship that season.
“He always came in with a smile on his face,” Bäckström recalled via phone from Helsinki. “Whether it be when he got to the rink or one minute before a game, it was always there. That’s the thing I remember the most is his smile and making everyone around him happier.”
The Minnesota Wild’s all-time leader in games (409), wins (194) and shutouts (28), Bäckström says Rinne’s consistent success over the years has actually hurt him in the eyes of his native country.
“Here in Finland, the national team is so big,” Bäckström said. “Pekka is playing in the playoffs almost every year so he hasn’t had the chance to play for the national team a lot. But, last year with the run to the Final, that was really great to see. He finally got that appreciation here in Finland. People finally realize how good he is and how well he’s done for so many years there in Nashville.”
Not only is Rinne getting the recognition overseas but the Predators franchise has an emerging fanbase as well.
“Now, when you come here, you see Pekka jerseys,” Bäckström said. “And not just in his home town but throughout Finland. You see t-shirts and Nashville caps and all that.”
Rinne told me he hopes his success can leave a lasting impression and inspire young Finnish kids.
“Hockey is the biggest sport in Finland and the NHL gets a lot of coverage in Finland and in Scandinavia,” Rinne said. “So, yes, I do think there’s a lot of kids watching us play who want to be the next, maybe, Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros or Miikka Salomaki. It’s great and, a lot of times, you don’t think about that aspect of it.”
“He’s not just a great hockey player, he’s a great person,” Bäckström said. “He’s a great role model for the kids here in Finland and for everyone to see that everything is possible if you just believe in yourself and you’re willing to work to fulfill your dreams.”
Work ethic. That’s been the key to Rinne’s success over the years. Even as far back as the early 2000’s when Bäckström played with him.
“He takes hockey really serious,” his old teammate said. “Even back then, even in practice he hated to let in goals. He’s a guy who — back then and still today — he works really hard. He was always ready to learn and willing to learn and I think he’s the same guy still today. In hockey nobody’s going to be perfect. Everyday there’s something you can learn.”
Backstrom never got a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. In his 10-season career with the Wild, he put up some all-star caliber numbers but the team could never make it past the second round of the playoffs. But there was no jealousy when it came to watching his former teammate last May and June.
“As a friend, it’s really fun to see the success he’s having and well he’s doing,” he said. “All the work he’s been doing and all the hours he’s put in, to get so close and not to win, I know how much it hurt him. But I also know how proud he is of what they did last year. I know for sure he wants to do it again and I think it’s possible.”
To recap, Rinne already owns the record for shutouts by a Finnish-born player, he’s on the verge of becoming just the third Finnish goalie with 300 NHL wins and, if destiny is on Nashville’s side, “Pekka Rinne” would become just the second name of a Finnish goaltender ever etched onto the Stanley Cup.
All that said, where would he rank all-time among his countrymen?
“It’s too early to rank him with the top players,” Bäckström said. “Take Jari Kurri. He was the guy who pretty much opened up the door for all Finnish players. And you’ve got Miikka Kiprusoff. He opened up the door for European goalies and Finnish goalies. But, for sure, he’s up there with them.”
He may be three wins away from No. 300 and getting there may put him into a group with some of the best goalies of all-time but one thing is for sure: Rinne’s attitude won’t change.
“It’s the best league in the world playing against the best players in the world but he’s still the same guy,” Bäckström said. “He’s a guy with a big smile on his face every day, enjoying life and enjoying hockey.”
And that — even more than the 300 wins, a shutout record and maybe even a Stanley Cup at some point — is Rinne’s best feature.
GRAPHIC: Chas Kelly