It was autumn of 2005 when Mason, then minding the net in Nashville, saw the 6-foot-5 Finn for the first time. As they stepped onto the ice together when training camp commenced, Mason studied the new kid – the size, the athleticism, the refusal to give up on a puck until it was kept out of the net for good.
After that first session, Mason turned to now former Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn and proclaimed the lanky netminder was destined for greatness.
Almost 5,000 days later, Pekka Rinne has become just the 34th goaltender in NHL history to record his 300th victory. There have been 796 names recorded as playing the position in at least one game in the League since 1917, an elite few amassing the monumental win total.
Each and every single one of Rinne’s victories have come with him tending net for the Predators, the club that drafted him in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Draft. When Nashville General Manager David Poile and his staff made that selection all those years ago in a round that doesn’t even exist in the present day, the hope was Rinne might one day develop into a reliable netminder.
Little did they know.
With a win over San Jose on Thursday night in Nashville, Rinne took his spot as the seventh active goaltender to attain the feat, becoming the third Finnish netminder to ever collect 300 NHL wins.
A native of Kempele, Finland, Rinne has been considered an elite goaltender for most of his 10 full NHL seasons, and at the age of 35, he somehow seems to be getting better.
“He’s a supreme athlete, but the thing that separates him is his work ethic,” Mason said. “His expectations of himself are just sky high, and he’s such an ultimate competitor. He’s a great teammate, but nobody has higher expectations on Pekka Rinne than Pekka Rinne, and that’s what makes him so good, to be able to sustain that level of play.”
A finalist three times in his career for the Vezina Trophy as the League’s top puck-stopper, Rinne is in the conversation again this season, a testament to his ability make tweaks to keep up with the speed and finesse of today’s game.
“The biggest thing that has impressed me about him is his willingness and desire to continue to evolve and modify to get an edge,” Predators Goaltending Coach Ben Vanderklok said of Rinne. “For an older player, he’s not set in his ways. He’s willing to do whatever he needs to do to continue to grow his game, to continue learning and trying to get better every day.
“He’s never complacent, and he’s never content with being the same today as he was yesterday. He wants to be better today than he was yesterday, whether he was great yesterday or not. It’s not something he just says, he goes out and does it.”
Rinne has already reached the 30-win mark for the seventh season of his career and is only two shutouts away from tying his career-high of seven. Rinne’s goaltending partner, fellow Finn Juuse Saros, owns the other three shutouts to make up Nashville’s League-leading eight blankings of the opposition this season.
Saros, 13 years younger than Rinne, lived with the veteran goaltender for a time last season when he first started to see time with the Preds as he acclimated to life in the United States. Perhaps even more than the cultural adaptations, Rinne has been instrumental in serving as a trusted advisor and friend to Saros, who looks at the stallmate to his right in the locker room and admittedly still pinches himself from time to time.
“I still think it’s a little bit funny, but I’m getting used to it,” Saros said of being teammates with Rinne. “At times, its funny to think how I used to watch him play back home when I was like 13 or 14, and now being here with him. I always liked his style and I always liked to watch him ever since he got to the NHL. He’s been one of the biggest idols for me.”
Rinne fills that role for countless young goaltenders, not only in his native Finland, but also in Middle Tennessee and beyond.
A founder of the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for cancer research and initiatives at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Rinne has become a pillar in the Nashville community, donating his time to the hospital, as well as Best Buddies of Middle Tennessee, among other organizations.
And as much as Rinne is known for his stellar play on the ice, his ability to lift the spirits of those around him is just as impactful.
“You will not meet a better person,” Vanderklok said. “I haven’t met a better person in this game. He’s an unbelievable teammate, he’s an unbelievable player and he’s an unbelievable role model. There’s nobody I’d rather my daughter look up to than him, and she does.”
It’s no secret what the Predators are trying to attain. They were two wins away last season, and as the club continues to strive for the ultimate prize, it’s Rinne who will continue to serve as the last line of defense.
Considering his disposition, there’s no one better for the job.
“He’s just a selfless guy and that’s the biggest thing that drives him – he doesn’t want to let any of his teammates down,” Mason said. “He wants to know that he did everything he could to help his teammates. I think he’s just a special person. He’s a special goalie and he’s a special guy.”
It’s been a long time since Rinne first stepped foot in Tennessee – a place he had to find on a map when he was selected by the hockey club in Nashville. Now, 14 years later, he might just be able to give his second home a summer to remember.
“It’s very special to have a guy that is so passionate, that cares so much about his craft, about his teammates, about this city and trying to help this city accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” Vanderklok said. “He’s not just a world-class goalie, he’s a world-class person.”