It's been a long journey for Rinne
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- You have to go to the sub-Arctic Finnish city of Oulu to begin to understand why Nashville Predators GM David Poile felt confident -- as confident as any GM can be when making the biggest financial commitment in a team's history -- that Pekka Rinne was the right guy.
You have to consider the northern coastal city of fewer than 150,000 when wondering whether Rinne is one of those rare players who will not be overwhelmed -- paralyzed -- by the expectations that always bear down on those blessed with big money and long-term security.
During the winter in Oulu, it snows like crazy.
During the summer, which is when Rinne returns, it is much more hospitable.
"It's not too far away from the North Pole. It's pretty up north," Rinne told ESPN.com recently. "Obviously, I'm lucky because I get to spend only the summers over there. We have a couple of weeks where the sun won't go down. It's pretty amazing."
Rinne's father managed a construction company and his mother worked in a factory, making small parts for cellular phones. His father still attends all of the games of the local teams for whom Rinne played growing up. And of course he watches all Nashville Predators games.
"He's the biggest hockey fan," Rinne said.
His father didn't play the game but insisted to his son that dreams are easier to achieve if you work hard.
It was to Oulu -- which is farther north than Reykjavik, Iceland -- that then-assistant GM Ray Shero, now the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was summoned by Nashville's top European scout, Janne Kekalainen, during the 2003-04 season to see Rinne.
Kekalainen was insistent that Shero see the big netminder, but the catch was he had to get there early -- for warmups -- because the 6-foot-5 Rinne rarely played, given that the starting netminder was Nicklas Backstrom, who would go on to win the William Jennings Trophy with the Minnesota Wild.
Shero recalls several things from that trip.
First, it was cold.
Second, it was really cold. So cold, in fact, that he had to buy a hat when he got there.
The rink wasn't open when he arrived, so he watched his first game of bandy, a popular Scandinavian game played with rounded sticks and a ball on an outdoor ice surface the size of a football field.
Then, once inside the rink, during warmups, he watched Rinne.
"I don't remember if he saved 10 or let in 10 in warmup, just that he was huge," Shero said. "I told Janne it was his call."
That June at the draft, Shero stopped by another team's draft table to chat with an assistant GM who'd been in Oulu at the same time watching one of his team's draft picks. Shero remarked on how they'd drafted the backup goalie from that day with the 258th pick in the draft, in the eighth round (a round that no longer exists).
The other assistant GM, whose drafted player had never left the bench during the game in Oulu, rolled his eyes as if to say, good luck, you'll need it.
Not too long ago, Rinne signed what was the longest, most lucrative deal ever awarded by the Nashville Predators, seven years at $7 million per year. We are just three-quarters of the way through the season before the contract kicks in.
"It hasn't even started yet," Poile said with a smile while watching a recent morning skate in Nashville. "But it's been an excellent start."
Rinne represents one of the three pillars on which the team's future is meant to be built. Defensive stalwarts Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are of course the other two, and their future with the team remains uncertain because of their pending free agency. In some ways, then, the signing of Rinne was the easy part, if it's ever easy to commit $49 million to a netminder.
Poile acknowledges that historically goaltenders who have earned the big dollars haven't necessarily led their teams to postseason success. Detroit has enjoyed success without breaking the bank on its goaltending. Chicago and Philadelphia met in the 2010 Stanley Cup finals with bargain-basement goaltending in the form of Antti Niemi, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. Conversely, Roberto Luongo, in spite of going to the finals last year, has struggled at times in the playoffs while bearing the burden of a 12-year contract. Ilya Bryzgalov, the biggest free-agent fish last summer landed by the Philadelphia Flyers, might not even be the Flyers' best goalie in spite of signing a nine-year deal that pays him $10 million this season. Cristobal Huet signed a four-year deal with the Blackhawks in 2008 worth in excess of $22 million, and is now playing in Europe. And on it goes.
But Rinne represented a pretty simple question for Poile when it came time to lock him up long term: "If we don't give it to him, then where are we?"
"He is the right guy, we all know that," Poile told ESPN.com.
Certainty and long-term contracts are not necessarily mutually inclusive ideas. Never mind goaltenders, but how many players sign big deals and then find they are crushed by the weight of expectations that come with such deals?
Canadiens center Scott Gomez went more than a year without scoring a goal, his seven-year contract a constant millstone around his neck. Ville Leino appears immobilized by the six-year, $27 million contract he signed in Buffalo last offseason.
Fair or not in the salary-cap NHL, a player is defined by his contract. It becomes a part of him. Being able to adjust to that kind of pressure goes a long way toward defining him as well.
Rinne acknowledged that it took time to get his head around what the deal meant for him.
"Absolutely," he said. "I think it's almost better if you don't really realize the size of the contract and all that stuff. For sure it's something that's hard to kind of realize what's going to happen when you sign a deal like that. It took a while after signing just to kind of stop worrying about it so much. Stop worrying about what other people think and all that other stuff.
"But, obviously, I couldn't be more happy and I'm going to try to every single day and every game try to be worth it. Just prove it to everybody else too."
At one point Rinne considered a shorter, five-year deal.
"He really wrestled with this. He was really concerned because it seemed like forever," goaltending coach Mitch Korn told ESPN.com. "I think he felt in his mind that it was too restricting. He was actually willing to leave $14 million the table in order to feel more comfortable."
He didn't, of course, but the fact it was a consideration suggests the thoughtfulness of the man and the significant burden that comes with such contracts.
Rinne still rents a home in Nashville. He has a longtime girlfriend but is not married. And while we do not for a moment suggest Rinne has commitment issues, signing this contract was a seminal moment for him.
But if there is a player with the personality that seems a perfect fit for both this contract and this franchise, it is Rinne.
"I think you have to respect your teammates and everybody else, respect the fans, respect the coaches, I mean everybody," Rinne said. "I don't think that's ever going to be a problem. When that fire is gone, I think it's pretty dangerous and it's time to do something else. But I'm not worried about that. I always set my goals extremely high and always expect myself to be at the top of my game. There's no excuses, never."
He is one of the best goaltenders in the world if not the best, Korn said. "And yet he's a better person," he said. "And with that comes great karma and great respect."
The Predators, in part because they are a team that hasn't historically been able to afford high-end free agents, has had to be particularly adroit at assessing the character of the players they do draft, develop and acquire.
The 29-year-old is active in the community and he has delivered MVP-like performances between the pipes.
What more can you ask, really?
"He has been a workhorse and a very consistent one," Korn said. "In general, he's brought it every night."
Former NHL netminder Glenn Healy, now a national TV analyst in Canada, loves pretty much every aspect of Rinne's game, from his size to his athleticism to his compete level.
"I love his attitude," Healy told ESPN.com. "He's a phenomenal kid.
"You'd better make sure you put the puck in the back of the net because he won't quit on a puck."
Even when he isn't fully on his game, Healy said, Rinne's size makes scoring on him a challenge.
The human tendency, when rewarded with something like a $49 million contract and long-term security, is to exhale, to relax. Yet Rinne seems to have moved seamlessly through this period.
Heading into Tuesday's clash with the high-flying Vancouver Canucks, Rinne had a 32-13-6 record on the season, his 32 wins tied with Detroit's Jimmy Howard. He was second in the league in saves, shots against and appearances.
He won 11 straight games from early January to early February and is one of only four goalies to achieve such a streak since the 1998-99 season. His 24 shutouts since the start of the 2008 season are the most in the NHL.
The day he signed his contract, Nov. 3 (his birthday, by the way), he shut out the Phoenix Coyotes 3-0.
Sitting back to enjoy that new deal? Not quite.
"It's hard to kind of put in words," he said. "Obviously, you work so hard for your time here in the NHL just to get this spot. Especially for goalies. There's 30 No. 1 goalies and 30 backup goalies, there's so many good goalies, just to get a good chance you need to be lucky, you need to work extremely hard. And obviously in a situation like this, when I sign a seven-year deal, it's a pretty amazing feeling.
"That obviously brings a lot of security but also I don't want to change anything that I do or how I think about things, and just try to enjoy the game as I always do."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.