If everything had gone according to his original plan, Pekka Rinne would be headed for retirement at the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. He would be making his farewell tour now, visiting rinks for the last time, shaking hands with old opponents, maybe even snagging some parting gifts along the way. From there, the Predators goalie would hang up his mask and decide what would come next: owning a restaurant, opening a clothing store, finding another job in hockey, working on his tennis serve...
“That was my thing,” Rinne says. “I always thought that this year would be my last year.”
He had believed as much since Nov. 3, 2011, when his 29th birthday was celebrated by signing a seven-year, $49 million extension with Nashville. Back then it was the most lucrative contract awarded to a cap-era netminder, not to mention a daunting term length that Rinne couldn’t imagine playing past. “Sometimes it felt like a burden weighing on your shoulder,” he says. “Early on, it was hard for me to accept. I put a lot of pressure on myself. It felt like I’m getting paid a lot, for a long period, and I always felt like, man, I don’t know if I’m worth it.”
Clearly the doubt has disappeared. Entering Monday night’s tilt against Ottawa, the 36-year-old Rinne led the league in goals against average (1.96) while ranking second in overall save percentage (.930) and first at 5-on-5 (.950). He is hardly the only NHL goalie fending off pucks and Father Time alike; Ottawa’s Craig Andersen and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist have each started more games and were born earlier. But Rinne has shirked a pension for a historic path: At this rate, he could become the first repeat Vezina Trophy winner since Martin Brodeur (‘06-’08) and the first in league history to capture both after turning 35.
No wonder those retirement plans have been put on indefinite hold.
“I remember seeing guys who were 36 and thinking, ‘Okay, that’s pretty much the age I’m aiming for,’” Rinne says. “And now that I’m there, I’ve been having so much fun. I feel much better than ever.”
But that’s life. Plans change. Just ask Ray Shero.
In Feb. 2004, the Predators assistant GM was seeing prospects in Helsinki when pro scout Janne Kekäläinen asked if he wanted to tag along on a taxi ride to nearby Oulu, Finland and check out a backup goalie … who wasn’t even playing that night. Fourteen years later, Shero remembers three things: the blackout northern sky, the sub-zero winter temperatures, and the fruitless task of trying to evaluate Pekka Rinne during warmups.
“What if he played and gave up nine goals?” says Shero, now the Devils’ GM. “He was probably better off staying on the bench for Nashville’s sake. What a story.”
Four months later, entirely at Kekäläinen’s behest, Nashville tabbed Rinne with the final selection of the eighth round, 258th overall. When his agent texted the news, Rinne had been attending a big midsummer party at his friend’s cottage. “I was like, you must be joking,” he says. “I didn’t really expect that.” Of course, the Predators couldn’t have expected to unearth the face of their franchise with a pick so late that it no longer exists, either.
This truth began crystallizing at his first development camp. Watching a series of mobility drills from behind the net, staffers gushed over Rinne’s size (6’5”), quickness and focus. “We looked at each other at the same time and said, ‘That’s the one,’” then-goaltending coach Mitch Korn recalled several years ago.
Armed with a flytrap glove and supreme puck-handling skills, Rinne soon became a pillar of the Predators’ early forays into NHL relevancy, leading them to consecutive second-round appearances and finishing as a back-to-back Vezina finalist in ‘10-11 and ‘11-12. “The Big Eraser,” ex-coach Barry Trotz called him. In between, Rinne was rewarded with that whopper extension, which came at an otherwise tumultuous time for the organization’s finances, and not long before both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber would sign offer sheets.
“We were having trouble keeping our players,” GM David Poile says. “The fact that we were able to keep one of our top assets with us, that was for sure the longest commitment we’d ever made.”
Time passed. Rinne developed an on-again, off-again pattern of performance through four seasons, backstopping Nashville’s first-ever run to the Stanley Cup final in ‘16-17 but getting pulled from two of three starts against eventual-champion Pittsburgh. Even after tasting a Western Conference title, though, Rinne still figured that his clock was ticking when last fall rolled around. Then the Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy and Rinne led the NHL with 27.49 goals saved above average, earning a trip to—and triumph at—the awards ceremony in Las Vegas. That’s when the plan changed. “It was pretty clear to me that coming into the last year of that deal that I wanted to keep going,” he says.
On Nov. 3, hours before blanking Boston in a 26-save shutout, Rinne hit the ice for Nashville’s morning skate with a stomach full of chocolate cake. “It wasn’t too pleasant,” he says, laughing.
Okay, so the indigestion sucked. But everything else must’ve tasted pretty sweet. Even Rinne, who describes himself as “not a huge fan of birthdays,” admits as much. Earlier that day, the Predators had commemorated the seventh anniversary of his last deal by re-upping Rinne for another two years ($5 million annually), ensuring that he will stick around through 2020-21. Upon signing the paperwork, Poile had walked Rinne to the locker room, where the entire team was gathered to celebrate: candles, singing, the whole shebang.
In 33 years as an NHL GM, Poile had never recognized a contract like this before. Money is an inherently personal matter. And what if another player got jealous? “In my mind, Pekka transcends any thoughts I had about that,” Poile says. “I wanted everyone to know how special we felt Pekka was, the importance in our history, the importance of having him going forward.”
The org chart in Nashville is littered with longtime employees, but few have directly influenced the team’s steady rise like Poile and Pekka. As such, they have a strong relationship; when Nashville advanced past the second round for the first time in ‘16-17, it was Poile who hugged Rinne during the celebration and whispered to the goalie, “Finally!”
And so Poile wanted to wait until Rinne returned for training camp before opening extension talks face-to-face. Finer details needed ironing out; Poile recalls “quite a few discussions” about where the team was headed. But once both parties expressed a mutual desire for Rinne to retire wearing navy blue and gold, the rest wasn’t hard. “I was open that I wanted to stay here,” Rinne says.
It’s not hard to see why. The Stanley Cup window remains flung wide open, largely thanks to Poile’s bold trades and shrewd salary management, which has the league’s best blue line locked up through ‘19-20. Rinne, meanwhile, remains the only Predators player whose contract contains no-trade/no-move protection, which means that he can continue enjoying what he calls “a super-regular life” in Nashville. The vibrant downtown restaurant scene. The ample hiking trails. The friends he has developed outside hockey, just ordinary folks around town. The nice weather that lets him play tennis with his girlfriend during the season. “Don’t know if I’m allowed to,” he says, laughing again.
Of course, there are always reminders of his age. For starters, the NHL has never been younger or more collectively skilled. The night before calling from a road trip to chat for this story, Rinne got juked by Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson on a penalty shot and wound up faceplanting into the 20-year-old’s kneecap. “Yeah, f---er,” Rinne says, employing profanity as a term of endearment. “I was very impressed.” And the Predators already have tabbed his heir apparent in countryman Juuse Saros, 23, who calls Rinne “a big idol for me.”
Even so, Rinne is far from slowing down. On Nov. 22, he eclipsed Miikka Kiprusoff for most victories among Finnish goalies with 320. Last week, he moved into 25th on the all-time wins list with 325. He still eats just as well—cake aside—and still trains just as hard, but reports taking weekly yoga classes in the summer and seeking out the Predators’ massage therapist “way more than I used to.” With the help of goalie coach Ben Vanderklok, he also fixed his posture by keeping his back more upright and stationed himself deeper in the crease. “In the past I would trust my athletic ability more and I would play way more desperate, just read and react,” Rinne says. “Still play an athletic game. Just let the game come to you. To me, that feels like it has made a big difference.”
Whenever Rinne does finally retire, Poile envisions No. 35 becoming the first jersey to hang in the Bridgestone Arena rafters. “I don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse,” Poile says, “but if we’re going to start somewhere, he’d seem like a logical place to start.” Unlike two years ago, though, Rinne no longer has a date for that in mind. He still wonders about what the future may hold—the restaurant, the clothing store, the possibility of keeping a house in Nashville to spend winters. Maybe he will take time away from hockey to pursue something else. Maybe he will stick around for another year, celebrating with candles and cake.
“But,” says Rinne, “who knows?”