The backup to Niklas Backstrom for a Finnish League team in 2004, Nashville Predators scouts, including European Scout Janne Kekalainen, were hard pressed to see Rinne play in anything more than warmups. Even when the Preds took a gamble on the 6-foot-5 goalie by selecting him with the final pick of the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the anything but a can’t-miss prospect had a long shot at ever playing in the NHL.
“I wasn’t a big prospect or anything like that, so you feel like an underdog, ” Rinne said. “I was very happy and surprised when I was drafted.”
Part of Rinne’s astonishment at being selected stemmed from the fact that he’d gone undrafted in the two drafts prior to 2004. When scouts came to Oulu, Finland, they usually weren’t there to see him, but instead the highly-touted Backstrom. Once the Finn was ultimately selected as a 21-year-old, 257 names, 29 of which belonged to goalies, were called before his.
Being considered a long shot was nothing new to the organization that took a chance on Rinne; the Predators were something of a late-round pick themselves. When the NHL expanded to Nashville in 1997, hockey in the South was “never supposed to work.”
“When you’re an undrafted or late pick, there are certainly some unique obstacles that other players don’t have to face,” said Preds General Manager David Poile, who drafted Rinne 11 years ago. “You can see a desire in those [underdog] players that makes it possible for guys that are special like Pekka to finally make it. There has to be a really intense work ethic and a never, ever give up attitude and you can see that in our franchise as a whole, too.”
Establishing roots in Music City took years of patience and hard work from the NHL’s “underdog” franchise, not unlike the steep barrier of entry that faced Rinne when he came to North America in 2005. The goalie spent three years developing with the Milwaukee Admirals in the American Hockey League before earning his first real chance to be the Predators starter.
Rinne says the same determination mentioned by Poile was a key driver in his work to claim a place in the NHL.
“There are only two spots on every team, and we had really good goalies in Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason, so it took some time,” Rinne said. “But I knew that if things went well, and I kept working hard, then I would get a chance...I think that I got better as a hockey player, learned the lifestyle, the language and skills like that when I was in Milwaukee. That hard work paid off.”
The Kempele, Finland, native went on to win 29 games with a .917 save percentage in his rookie season; not bad for a player that Poile said required some “inside knowledge from Kekalainen” to even be considered worth a draft selection.
Making the NHL and producing a strong first campaign is one thing, but it’s what Rinne and the Predators franchise have done in the seasons since that make a story worth telling. Years of dedication and perseverance have seen the accolades pile up for the netminder and a rock solid fanbase form in Nashville.
In further proof of their reliance on the other, Rinne recorded his 200th win in the NHL on Saturday against Los Angeles, the same victory that was No. 600 overall for the Predators. All this in a season featuring attendance and on-ice performance records for the League’s “little engine that could” franchise.
“That’s why Nashville and Rinne are a perfect fit,” Poile said. “A lot of people said that hockey would never work in Nashville and now we’re selling out nearly every game, having a great year and we’re at the top of the standings in the National Hockey League. He too faced his challenges, but hard work got him where he is today.”
Where Rinne is currently, is second in the NHL in wins and in the Top 5 in save percentage and goals-against average. He’s come back from an injury that forced him to miss 51 games in 2013-14 to once again be one of the League’s best goaltenders and has guided the Preds to the cusp of their first playoff berth in three years.
“Pekka Rinne is synonymous with us being successful,” Poile said. “The last two years, with Rinne not being at 100 percent, we didn’t make the playoffs either time. This year, he comes back, he’s the ‘old Pekka’ if you will, and now our team is not only back in the playoffs but one of the best teams in the NHL.”
Once one of the names above Rinne on the Predators depth chart, Vokoun agrees that the 32-year-old’s season has been a special one, even for a player with his talents.
“He can move like a guy that’s 5-foot-7, and he has all the tools in the toolbox,” Vokoun said of Rinne prior to a Preds game on Feb. 26. “He’s also a good guy and he works hard...Hopefully, the Preds can keep this great thing they have going into the playoffs and take it as far as they want. When you have a team like this, you want to win the Cup. They have a really, really good shot this year.”
Rinne, like the franchise that drafted him, remains humble about what’s been accomplished over the years and during this season in particular. No. 35 says he’s simply ready to focus on the next set of milestone victories.
“I’m proud of the 200 wins, and hopefully there’s a lot more to come,” Rinne said.
Hopefully, for the pairing of long-shot franchise and goaltender, the next group of memorable wins come this spring.
It’ll just require hard work and a never, ever give up attitude.