On the third day of training camp, Centennial Sportsplex was noticeably busier than usual, with throngs of excited Predators fans filling the stands and lining the glass around the rink.
When a familiar-looking tall, blonde man dressed in Navy and Gold coaching gear stepped out onto the ice, it became immediately clear why.
Pekka Rinne, the franchise’s legendary netminder, is back in Smashville – albeit in a different role, and much different attire, than he’s probably used to.
“[It’s] weird, I’m not going to lie,” Rinne said with a laugh. “I’ve just been pushing pucks around and learning from [Ben Vanderklok] and Dave Rook. It’s exciting to watch Juuse and [Kevin Lankinen] and all the young guys, and it’s awesome having a different point of view nowadays… It’s one of those moments where you’re just impressed by the speed of it and the way the guys play. And even though I played just a year and a half ago, it feels like it was a long time ago. I don’t know if I could do that anymore.”
Video: Rinne Talks New Role with Predators Organization
While the details of his new role with the Predators organization are still being worked out, right now Rinne is simply doing what he does best: providing mentorship, guidance and a smile to those around him.
Of course, that includes his former goaltending partner and fellow countryman Jesus Saroswho watched Rinne earn a Vezina Trophy nomination in his first full season starting between Nashville’s pipes.
“I was very proud,” Rinne said. “I knew one day he was going to be the number one goalie and not only [Nashville’s] number one goalie but one of the best goalies in the League, and he proved that last year. He’s the backbone of this team, and obviously just as a friend I’m very proud of him. It’s fun to watch him and obviously like everybody else I’m expecting big things from him this year, and he looks great. I’m just always impressed when I see him skate.”
When Saros missed last postseason with an untimely ankle injury, Rinne was there to lend some emotional support.
“I think he handled it really well,” Rinne said. “It was a big disappointment for him, for sure, missing out on the playoffs. He had such a strong season and played a ton of games and right at a key moment he got hurt. So, I’m sure mentally it was a disappointing time. But he is a pretty level-headed guy and he knew that it was just a hurdle and I knew he was going to bounce back.”
That kind of support – which can only come from a player who’s been there and done that – will no doubt prove an invaluable asset to the next generation of Predators netminders – first-round pick Yaroslav Askarov among them.
Rinne, who’s already spent a decent amount of on-ice time with the young Russian goaltender, has liked what he’s seen.
“[He’s] very impressive,” Rinne said. “He’s got a lot of skill. I think the goalies in the system overall [are] one of the strongest suits of this organization. I really like the goaltending from what I’ve seen so far, and Askarov is no different. He’s a huge talent.”
But there’s much more to Rinne’s return than the on-ice components. As a co-founder of the vastly impactful 365 Fund Presented by Twice Daily and a longtime ambassador for the Predators community outreach initiatives, the former netminder says he’s looking forward to diving back into that role as well.
“It’s everything,” he said. “It’s been such a big part of my life for so long – the city of Nashville and this organization – that I consider it my second home. So, it was easy. I couldn’t stay away from it for too long. I’ ve been missing Nashville and I’ve been missing the team, and just everything about the organization.”
The organization missed Rinne, too.
After retiring his No. 35 in February, the Predators will honor the winningest goaltender in franchise history once more when they install a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness on the Bridgestone Arena plaza later this season.
“It was very surprising at the time and obviously an unbelievable honor,” Rinne said. “It’s going to be fun to see how it’s going to look and everything like that. It’s still a bit overwhelming, having your jersey retired and having a statue in front of Bridgestone Arena, but I’m looking forward to it, for sure. ”
For now, Rinne is just excited to be back in the mix with his favorite team and the potential of a fresh season just on the horizon.
“I think last year was a great season for the organization,” he said. “I think there weren’t that many expectations from the outside… And I think the team really proved that they are one of the top teams [in the League]. So, I’m excited to see the continued growth and I really like the team… I think they have every chance to be very successful this year.”