Thursday was just an ordinary night for Pekka Rinne standards, as he made 33 saves in the Nashville Predators’ convincing 7-1 win against San Jose. The night didn’t feature any highlight-reel saves that will end up on SportsCenter. The performance was one we’ve seen over and over again from Number 35 throughout the years.
But what the win meant was more than ordinary – to his teammates, his peers and his fans.
Thursday night, Rinne became the 34th goaltender in NHL history to win his 300th career game.
As Rinne was announced as the game’s No. 1 star inside Bridgestone Arena for his milestone victory, the cheers were deafening. When asked what the achievement meant to him, Rinne was speechless and had to gather himself emotionally.
“You guys have been a big part of it. Thank you,” he said to the crowd.
Being named the number one star of the night after securing his 300th NHL win, #Preds Pekka Rinne displays some raw emotional in his chat with @KaraHammer down at Nashville’s bench postgame. What a guy! pic.twitter.com/TUVJsK8g0D
— FOX Sports Tennessee (@PredsOnFSTN) February 23, 2018
To say the 35-year-old Rinne has been a big part of the Predators’ success over the last decade would be an understatement.
Since taking over the Nashville crease for good during the 2008-09 season, Rinne has been the one constant on a team that has experienced a lot of change in his tenure. He’s the longest-tenured Nashville Predators and has backstopped every one of the franchise’s marquee moments:
– The Preds’ first-ever playoff series win vs. Anaheim in 2011.
– The defeat of Detroit in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
– The NHL All-Star Game at Bridgestone Arena in 2016.
– The Preds’ first-ever Game 7 victory in 2016, discarding Anaheim in the first round.
– The clinching of the Preds’ first-ever Western Conference title in 2017.
There was a time when 300 wins may have looked like a monumental task for Rinne, when he missed the bulk of the 2013-14 season with a major hip injury. But with a clean bill of health, Rinne will likely surpass Miikka Kiprusoff (319 wins) next season as the all-time winningest Finnish goaltender.
Rinne’s legacy in Nashville goes beyond his on-ice success. He’s a consummate pro, the definition of class, the fans love him … and he loves them back. Following public practices, Rinne takes time to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. He’s been heavily involved off the ice with the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund, which was created by Rinne and former teammate Shea Weber. The 365 Fund works with Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt to raise funds and awareness for cancer research.
Following Thursday’s milestone win, Rinne told the media Nashville is his “second home,” which says a lot about a guy who was born in Kempele, Finland, a town with a population about the capacity size of Bridgestone Arena.
Now, the former eighth-round draft pick has reached legendary status with the No. 1 franchise in all of sports, in a vibrant, ever-growing, hockey-crazed city like Nashville.
“My goal was to play in the Finnish pro league and all of a sudden, here I am,” Rinne said in an October interview. “This city means so much to me. This organization has been my family for a long, long time. That means a lot to me.”
Between his achievements on the ice and likeable personality off it, it is no wonder why Rinne has always been a favorite with the Smashville faithful. And he always will be.
Two hours before puck drop Thursday evening, about a dozen Predators fans stood on the corner of 6th and Demonbreun outside the arena. Over half of the people waiting at the crosswalk were donning No. 35 jerseys.
In a lot of ways, Rinne is to the Nashville Predators as to what Steve McNair was to the Tennessee Titans in their heyday.
McNair was ‘The Man’ in Nashville while quarterbacking the Titans. He took the Titans to the Super Bowl in 2000, falling one yard short of forcing overtime. He was tough as nails. He was the heart-and-soul (along with Eddie George) of the team’s most iconic era. Titans fans will one day tell their grandkids about McNair.
Like McNair, Rinne plays his sport’s premium position at a high level. He took the Preds to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, falling two wins short of the ultimate goal. He has been a pillar between the pipes, the backbone of many good teams in Smashville. Preds fans will one day tell their grandkids about Rinne.
Even 12 years after McNair last played for the Titans, you find No. 9 jerseys scattered around Nissan Stadium on gamedays. For years to come, even after Rinne has retired from hockey, No. 35 will still be a popular jersey choice inside Bridgestone Arena.
Aside from having longevity of being a great goaltender for one team, perhaps the biggest reason why Rinne is so beloved by Preds fans is his commitment to the franchise.
Entering the 2011-12 season, Rinne, Weber and Ryan Suter – considered Nashville’s ‘Big Three’ – were all in the final years of their respective contracts. Weber signed an offer sheet with Philadelphia (which was ultimately matched by Nashville) in the summer of 2012 to get his lifetime, frontloaded contract. Suter left altogether, deciding to sign as a free agent with Minnesota.
But in November of 2011, months before Suter left and Weber played hardball, Rinne actually committed to Nashville by signing a 7-year extension worth $49 million – the largest contract in franchise history at the time. He will likely start and finish career with the Predators.
Six years and many wins later, Rinne cemented his legacy in Smashville last spring by putting the underdog Preds on his back and carrying them to a Western Conference championship – from dominating Chicago and St. Louis, to standing on his head against Anaheim.
Rinne was so good in the playoffs that if the Predators had won the Cup, he would have been the frontrunner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
After the memorable playoff run, Rinne wrote a memorable letter to Preds fans and the city of Nashville in The Players Tribune, where he penned the following:
Right up until Hagelin’s empty-netter, I thought we would win. Honestly, I’m still having a hard time accepting that we didn’t. It just felt like … man. It just felt like “our” season. Until the very end … it just really did feel like it was our destiny to lift the Cup this year. And so to have to watch another team do it — in our city, in front of our fans — that was a tough pill to swallow. And it probably won’t stop being tough for a while.
But now it’s a couple of weeks later, and I’ve been able to distance myself a little from that feeling — and from this season. I’ve been able to get a little more perspective on it all. And the first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to write this letter to our fans. Because I wanted to let them know that the amazing journey we’ve been on during these playoffs, and this season, and these last few years, and even this last decade — it’s cut both ways. It’s been our journey, but it’s been everyone’s journey. It’s been about our growth as a hockey team, but it’s been about our growth as a hockey city, just as much.
It’s been a Predators thing. But it’s been a Nashville thing.
Later on in the piece, Rinne guaranteed a Stanley Cup victory for Nashville – eventually. It’s unknown how much longer Rinne will be able to play at a high level. When his current contract ends at the end of next season, he will be 36 years old. Time is running out to win for Rinne to get his name etched on hockey’s Holy Grail.
But if in the next few years Rinne helps deliver the city its first-ever pro sports championship, he will own the title of Nashville’s Greatest Athlete of All-Time … for a long, long time.
Pekka Rinne is the best player in team history and owns all of the franchise’s major goaltending records. The No. 35 should be the first Nashville Predator number retired. If they win a Cup with Rinne in net, a statue of him should be erected outside Bridgestone Arena years down the road.
To quote the baseball movie Sandlot: Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.
Pekka Rinne will forever go down as a legend in Smashville.