Assault steeled Nashville Predator’s Pekka Rinne for NHL success

The words sound so strange when they come out of Pekka Rinne’s mouth.

“Pepper spray,” the Nashville Predators goaltender says with a slight cringe and shakes his head.

And at that moment, the fear from the summer of 2006 comes back to Rinne.

He was the victim of an assault by a pizzeria owner in Oulu, Finland. He was shot in the eyes with pepper spray. During the fracas, he hit the ground and dislocated his shoulder. The injury caused him to miss most of the following American Hockey League season in Milwaukee.

Considered one of the gentler and humbler star athletes in the NHL, Rinne felt vulnerable.

“I was still young, and right away you’re thinking ‘This is it,’ ” he said. “It’s a scary feeling.”

Fortunately for Rinne, the injury wasn’t “it.” Instead, the experience strengthened him, and helped him become a finalist this season for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top goaltender. The winner will be revealed Wednesday at the NHL Awards gala in Las Vegas.

“That one injury, I don’t know if it’s cliché, but it makes you appreciate what you have more,” he said.

Rinne was in Oulu for a friend’s bachelor party. During the celebration, the future groom climbed over a car, which belonged to the owner of a local pizzeria, according to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva. After an argument, the assault on Rinne took place, according to the paper.

First came the pepper spray. “It’s just a burning sensation and obviously you can’t really see. You just see kind of … you can’t see any details,” Rinne said. “You just see blurry. It’s a scary feeling.”

Then the 6-foot-5, 207-pound Rinne was tossed to the ground. At first he said he didn’t feel much shoulder pain. The adrenaline still coursed through his body. But as it wore off, he received the diagnosis from the emergency room doctor.

“I think that my biggest worry was, ‘What’s going to happen with hockey?’ ” Rinne recalled.

Eventually, rehab was ruled out, and Rinne had surgery. He estimated it took him about four months until he was able to skate again. The first month proved to be the most grueling.

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