Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rinne: Late-Bloomer Turned into a Star Goaltenders

By Larry Wigge

It all comes down to Pekka Rinne. 

During the first round of the playoffs, the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings faced off ... and the Predators prevailed in five games, primarily because of Rinne.
Jimmy Howard, his counterpart in goal for the Red Wings, was overheard in the first round of the playoffs saying, "When you think you have him beat ... you probably don't."

In the playoffs, keeping the opposing team off the board in essential. The playoff pendulum swings back and four with save ... after save ... after save.

Some might look at the 6-5 Rinne and think he has to be awkward standing in his goal crease. But looks can be deceiving with the 29-year-old puckstopper.

Now, Nashville faces a 0-2 hole in the second round to the Phoenix Coyotes. The pressure is on that awkward 6-5 netminder. 

But you needn't look further than at Rinne's 43-18-8 with five shutouts. That classifies him as one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy with New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist and Los Angeles King Jamie Quick.

The stopper.

All you'll find out by looking at him is that the Rinne, the Kempele, Finland, native, was bypassed by scouts until he was finally drafted by Nashville in the eighth round, 258th pick overall, in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

"He's got a great glove. I tried him there a couple of times. Then I thought I could beat him low with a couple of quick shots at his feet," Blues center David Backes said playing against him divisionally. "He's definitely not just a big guy taking up space in front of the net. He's very quick at the bottom and top part of the net."

Instead of fast forward, with Rinne you have to go back to find out what makes him tick, what attracted him to the Predators.

That takes us back to the tryout camp held by the Predators in 2005. Rinne was up against more heralded goaltenders like first-round pick Brian Finley and Mirolslav Hanujak (203 overall in the 2003 draft) and Kyle Moir (139th in 2004).

Goaltending coach Mitch Korn recalls the day fondly.

"Seven years ago, Barry Trotz and I had just finished working out Pekka and three other draft choices -- all picked ahead of him," said Korn. "I walked off the ice and said to Barry, 'I want That One.' " 

He was pointing at Rinne.

"He wants the puck so bad, that one of the big things he had to learn was patience," said Korn. "He was such a great athlete. Waiting for the puck, knowing that he has so much more time. Too busy when he came over here from Finland.

"He got a good start in North American hockey at Milwauke (American Hockey League). He was never rushed." 

It was an even better story.

This is pretty heady stuff for Pekka Rinne, the son of Jukka (a construction supervisor) and Helena (who works in the production of cellphone parts) when a young Pekka put on his cousin Jari's old goaltending pads when he was just seven and thought he had grown out of a job went he had a four-inch growth spurt with he was 16-17.

There's more obstacles other than a growth spurt.
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero recently told the story of how his former boss, Predators GM David Poile, sent him over to Finland to get a a look at Rinne. But ...

"I saw his team play twice, but (Minnesota Wild goalie) Niklas Backstrom played both games," Shero said. "I don't even remember if I filed a report on how he stopped the puck in the pre-game warmups."

"The way I remember it, Ray was our backup plan," Poile said with a straight face. "I remember Janne Kekalainen (European scout) told us he was a late-bloomer with great size.

"We were looking for goaltending depth at the time and Janne identified him as a guy we would want to look at in the draft ... and he's turned out to be a great development story."

As it turn out, Backstrom hurt his knee and the backup took center stage in Game 5. Pekka -- that late-bloomer -- stole the show.

"Pekka shut down the oppostion in the third period and blanked them for two overtime period," Kekalainen reported.

The story is a classic in fact ... and lucky breaks for the Predators.

"I have had a good background," Rinne said. "I've always had good instincts. Played the angles well. We always had a good goaltending coach, he stressed whenever possible to rely on my glove.

"Always use my glove."

This is pretty heady stuff for Pekka Rinne, the son of Jukka (a construction supervisor) and Helena (who works in the production of cellphone parts) when a young Pekka put on his cousin Jari's old goaltending pads when he was just seven and thought he had grown out of a job went he had a four-inch growth spurt with he was 16-17.

There's more obstacles in addition to being the backup to Backstrom. Seemed pretty funny to mock himself.

"Big goalie. Backup. Big gamble, eh?" Rinne laughed. "But I've always had that dream. Never even thought about what I would have done with my life, whether I would have done what my parents do for a living. Nothing like that. Always had confidence I could do this."

And now it's Pekka Rinne who sends his old equipment back to Finland for his cousin, who, five years older, is still a goaltender in a recreational league there.

"He's a big goalie -- and despite the fact that there can be big holes with a tall and slow goalie -- Pekka is a big goalie who has the athleticism of a smaller goaltender," said Korn.

"He's 6-5 and really quick. I can only wonder how much of the net opposing shooters see," added Trotz.

"He's fun to play in front of," said Predators defenseman Shea Weber. "You won't find a more competitive goaltender. I saw that the first time I played with him in Milwaukee (American Hockey League) four years ago."

Seeing Backstrom and Rinne in lockers next to one another at the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal was a stark reminder of what Oulu had in goal when the team won back-to-back Finnish Elite League championships in 2002 and 2003.

"We have both come pretty far," Backstrom said.

"He was the backup," Rinne laughed.

Then he corrected himself, saying, "Actually, I watched and learned a lot about patience from him."

Patience. That could be the bottom line to Pekka's story.

"I'll never really thought about the NHL as a career until I was drafted," Rinne said with a gee-whiz enthusiasm. "It was kind of funny if you think about it. I didn't know anything about them ... and they really didn't know anything about this backup goalie from Oulu.

"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if I was going to be here for one week, one month or what. Some days I was homesick for my parents. But I just looked at this as the chance of a lifetime for me. I didn't mind going to Milwaukee. I knew I would get a chance to play there and put to use a lot of the things I couldn't work on in game action playing behind Nik."

You could say Rinne's career started during that great growth spurt of his when he was 16-17.

"I started working with a guy named Ari Hilly back in Finland after I grew so much. I had to have time to grow into my body. Get stronger. Train harder and learn how to work with my body in goal," he explained. "Ari helped me work on my quickness, my patience and my angles. He still text-messages me all the time when he catches one of my games on TV."

Work in progress. Better yet, progress realized.

Rinne says his two Finnish championships and getting the Admirals to the Calder Cup finals in 2006 are the highlights of his late-developing career. He hopes the two-steps-forward-one-step-back fate of his earlier career between the pipes is over.

After that 2005-06 season, Pekka returned to Finland and was beaten by three strangers while walking home after a friend's bachelor party. He sustained a dislocated shoulder that required surgery and put his future on hold for several important months at the start of 2006-07.

"You shake your head and wonder why anyone would do something like that," Rinne said. "But you can't stop living. The way I look at it is it was just another message telling me I have to work hard to overcome every obstacle I face.

"The way I look at it my career stated in Milwaukee. New culture. New language. I've learned that nothing can be taken for granted. I have to prove myself every day to stay here."

Obstacles. Pekka Rinne faced many of them. But he overcame every one of them ... and became one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.

An 0-2 deficit to Phoenix. That's just another of those obstacles.

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