‘Perfect player to cheer for’ was face of franchise on, off ice for Nashville
by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Independent Correspondent
Pekka Rinne‘s No. 35 will be retired Thursday when the Nashville Predators host the Dallas Stars at Bridgestone Arena (8:30 p.m. ET; BSSO, BSSW, ESPN+, NHL LIVE).
But if you ask his protege, they easily could move the celebration to Nissan Stadium, which can seat 69,143 fans and will be the site of the 2022 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.
“They could fill the stadium for it,” said Juuse Saros, who took over as Nashville’s No. 1 goalie after his friend and mentor retired last summer. “It’s pretty special for the whole city.
“Probably not going to be many dry eyes in the stands and I think that comes from how Pekka is as a human being, so likable and treats everybody with respect. It’s just who he is.”
When it comes to measuring Rinne’s impact in Nashville and the reason he was a no-brainer as the first Predators player to have his jersey retired, it’s important to look beyond the 39-year-old’s accomplishments on the ice.
Sure, Rinne retired after 15 seasons as Nashville’s all-time leader in wins (369), shutouts (60), saves (17,627), goals-against average (2.43), games (683) and minutes played (39,413:29). Yes, Rinne was the face of the Predators even before backstopping their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 or becoming the first to win a major NHL award when he took home the 2018 Vezina Trophy after being voted the NHL’s top goalie.
Rinne also played in the NHL All Star Game in 2016, 2018 and 2019 and helped Nashville win its first Presidents’ Trophy in 2018. But as Saros said, his legacy goes beyond big saves and moments, wins and awards. It’s about more than Rinne the goalie. It’s about Rinne the person, how he treated others and how much he gave of himself in the community, forging a connection that made him the defining player of an expansion franchise that began play six years before selecting him in the eighth round (No. 258) of the 2004 NHL Draft.
“He’s such a good person, such a great competitor,” said David Poile, the Predators general manager since 1998-99. “After every home game, you’d go down to the locker room and, win or lose, 15 minutes after the game he’d be out there with guests from the Children’s Hospital.
You’re looking to sell hockey when you start a franchise, and how do you do that? You do that by participating in the community, by having star players, by winning. Pekka embodied all three of those characteristics and he became the perfect player to cheer for on a nightly basis and he became and was the face of our franchise.”
Rinne won the 2021 King Clancy Memorial Trophy, voted as the “player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.”
Rinne launched the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund with former Nashville captain Shea Weber during the 2012-13 season, and it has raised more than $3 million for cancer research awareness. In his first full season with the Predators, Rinne also built a strong relationship with Best Buddies, a non-profit advocating for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, after meeting Mike Maguire, a man with Down Syndrome, and building a friendship that continues today. Rinne attended the Best Buddies Prom and Gala annually, but his presence in the community always extended beyond publicized visits.
Rinne was out in the community helping after devastating floods in 2010, again after a Tornado struck Nashville in 2020, and a few weeks later when the COVID-19 pandemic started.
“He’s not just our best player, he’s been our best person,” Predators president and CEO Sean Henry said. “He does things because he knows he can pick people up. He is the kindest guy I’ve ever been around. The fact that he happens to be one of the best that’s ever played the position, that’s incredible, but the reason people love him is that spirit he has.”
That spirit was evident in how the 6-foot-5 goalie played the position. Where others may have tried to rein in their positioning to rely on a big frame to make saves, Rinne played with aggression and athleticism, using his gifted glove hand to snatch pucks even when they were shot along the ice or toward his blocker, a flair that almost transcended a sport still new to many in the area and endured him to Nashville’s growing fan base.
Rinne tried to refine that style as he aged, decreasing his reliance on athleticism with technical improvements and tactical adjustments. When the Predators improved defensively, which made it harder for Rinne to find his timing in games, he kept himself engaged by handling the puck more and knocking down dump-ins with the enthusiasm of a highlight reel save.
That led to Rinne becoming the seventh goalie in NHL history to score with a shot when he hit the empty net in a 5-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 9, 2020.
“People in Nashville talk about that more than any other moment,” Henry said.
They talk too about Rinne’s last game in Nashville, on May 10, 2021, when he made 30 saves in a 5-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes in the regular-season finale that no one at the time knew would mark the end of his remarkable career. But as Rinne reflected back on that moment, taking a lap after teammates pushed him back onto the ice to recognize the crowd chanting his name, he couldn’t imagine a better ending.
“It still gives me goosebumps thinking about the last game,” Rinne said. “It was like a movie, a picture-perfect ending, and I really got to say goodbye to the fans.”
On Thursday, they all get to do it one more time.