It seemed only fitting that the Nashville Predators’ first in-person press conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began some 16 months ago was to say goodbye to the player who‘s been the franchise cornerstone for the last 13 years.
Pekka Rinne is without question the greatest player to put on a Predators’ uniform. General manager David Poile even said as much on Tuesday after 38-year-old goaltender announced his retirement from the NHL.
Trying to encapsulate what Rinne has meant to the Predators’ franchise is no easy task. Trying to define exactly what he’s meant to the Nashville community, well that’s even more difficult.
"For years, Pekka has been the face of our franchise on and off the ice," Poile said. "The role he played in making the Predators organization into something so much more than just a hockey team cannot be understated, and what he means to our team and community makes him one of the most special players and people you'll ever meet.
"It's cliche of what you would want from your best players, but Pekka gave us a chance to win in every single game he played and led our team during the most competitive era of our franchise.”
Rinne earned favor with the fanbase through a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude and by simply doing the right things. That included being generous with his free time and making himself accessible in the community.
The 6-foot-5 Finn, along with former teammate Shea Weber, formed the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund, which has raised more than $3 million to be donated to the Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt to support cancer research.
His other humanitarian efforts include his work with the Best Buddies program, which helps advocate for individuals that suffer from intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Make-A-Wish foundation and the Peterson Foundation for Parkinson’s.
For Rinne, it wasn’t about stunting for the cameras, in fact, always one to deflect any praise, it was quite the opposite. How he carried himself both on and off the ice was more about setting and holding himself to a high standard.
"What Nashville, the organization, the city means to me, this organization gave me a chance and I was able to grow into a man in this city, start a family, a lot of bigger things than hockey,” Rinne said. “I'm forever thankful for that and grateful…Every single day I feel appreciated, I feel loved. It is a special place and a special relationship with the organization and the people of Nashville.
"Nashville has become my home, and I have tried to make this community a better place than when I first arrived. Over time, I've learned what this organization is all about, and that's family. I'll cherish the memories and friendships I've made for the rest of my life."
As important as his philanthropy was, Rinne’s performance on the ice was just as integral to changing the national perception of Nashville: the country music-loving hillbillies with a hockey team to Nashville: the bona-fide hockey market with a damn good hockey team.
In the last five years alone, the Predators won their first two Central Division titles, their first-ever Presidents Trophy, their first-ever Western Conference championship, played in their first-ever Stanley Cup Final and set franchise records for wins in a season (53) and points in a season (117) – both in 2017-18, the same year Rinne became the first Predators goalie to win the Vezina Trophy.
“He's the most important athlete in Nashville in the time period that he's been here,” Poile continued. “…The selling of hockey as a sport in Nashville. Combine that with what he does in the community, there's nobody that matches that combination for what Pekka has meant and has done for the Nashville Predators and the city.”
Four All-Star appearances, four Vezina Trophy finalist nominations, 369 wins, 60 shutouts, 39,413 minutes played and 17,627 saves later, Rinne worked his way up from an unknown eighth-round pick to the most beloved player in franchise history.
And while Tuesday was officially goodbye, there’s always the jersey retirement ceremony to look forward to.
“I’ll always be a Nashville Predator,” Rinne said. “No matter what.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_