Jul 5 2017
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John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images
Pekka Rinne
Nashville Predators
Jul 5 2017

All of a sudden, it was just exhaustion.

It’s funny — before that moment, when Hagelin put in his empty-netter, I swear: I felt like I could play all summer. I felt like I wanted to play all summer. I think we all felt that way.

We had worked so hard to get to here. And if hanging on to all of it meant that this one game had to go into overtime … or into the next morning … or into June, and July, and August — well, you know. I think that would have been fine with us. It was almost like we were going through an entire season’s worth of emotions in those last few moments before they scored. We were scratching and clawing, playing desperate hockey. Doing everything in our power to try to come back. And even right up until the end there … watching Hagelin skate the puck toward the empty net: The season still felt alive.

And then, suddenly, I felt very tired.

I didn’t cry. Not right then, anyway. At first — I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just this emptiness. All of a sudden, they scored. And that was just … it. Suddenly, you moved around, and it felt super heavy. And your body felt heavy. And you felt so tired. You couldn’t cry, not even if you wanted to.

We lost. It was over. There was nothing there.

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And then you got to the locker room, finally, where no one could see you or hear you, and all of that emptiness turned itself into emotion. Looking around at everyone — everyone who had fought with you all the way to a Cup final, to a Game 6, to a bounce away from a Game 7 — and it was hard to keep your emotions in check. They weren’t even all bad emotions. I was proud, for sure — both of this team and of myself. And I definitely wasn’t breaking sticks or anything. But I was still … I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to explain. There was nothing left to do, you know? So I just sat at my locker, and I looked at everyone, and I thought about everything, and I cried.

A lot of the guys did. A few of the guys talked, eventually. Mike Fisher got up first, and said some words. He talked about how proud he was to be a Predator, and how proud he was of this season. I think a lot of us were still too emotional to talk yet — so it was good of Mike to get up. After that, Joey spoke. Obviously he’d been injured, and was having to watch from the crowd, and wanting to be out there so bad — I know how tough that had to have been. And then P.K. spoke, and of course he was awesome — pure P.K. He talked about how fun this was. And about how glad he was to be here. And about how much confidence we should take with ourselves going into the next season.

It was a really good speech. They all were. But to be honest, that last part … at first, when P.K. said it, I think it was kind of hard to wrap my head around. “Next season” just didn’t really seem like it mattered much in that moment. Wait till next year — it’s a cliché for a reason, right? No one’s ever talked about “next year” while holding a trophy. And so I think I just sort of put it out of my mind. I left the arena, went back home, and had a nice, quiet night. My old goalie coach, my friends and family, my girlfriend — they all came over to keep me company. And we just enjoyed a little wine, shared some stories, had a few laughs. It ended up turning into a lot of reflection — a lot of looking back, and thinking about how I got to where I am, now, here in Nashville.

And the more we all talked that night, the more I began to realize something that now seems obvious. I began to realize how much my own story, coming up over these last few years as a hockey player, and Nashville’s story, coming up over these last few years as a hockey city … well, how much they really have overlapped, in this special way.

John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images

I still remember, on draft day in 2004, getting the news: Nashville.


Mostly, on draft day, you’re not thinking too hard about comparing cities to each other. It’s more like, Is it in the NHL? O.K., then good. You’re just feeling lucky to get drafted. But I won’t lie — coming from Finland, and never having been to the States, there were definitely … some NHL cities I had a better grasp on than others. New York, Chicago, L.A., you know, cities like these — I knew what they were about, more or less, and could at least have pointed them out on the map. Nashville? No, not so much.

I’ll never forget turning to my agent, when we heard it was the Predators, and giving him this … look. This look that was just, like, No clue, man. Beats me. I don’t know where that is. What do you got? You know, expecting him to fill me in. And that’s when I saw the look on his face — he’s also Finnish — which was just priceless: It was the same look I had.

He didn’t know where Nashville was either.

Eventually, I did some googling, and found out the essentials: Tennessee. Southeastern part of country. “Music City.” (What does that even mean? I’m thinking. Like, how can a city have … more music than other cities.) Cowboy hats. Country this, country that. “Honky tonk.” “Blue grass.” (Weird image.) Johnny Cash. Faith Hill. Tim McGraw. O.K., it’s a start. I don’t really know half of those words, but it’s a start.

The truth is, though, that most of that information I googled, I ended up just sort of tucking it away — because it wasn’t until four years later that I actually got called up to the Predators for good. Those years in between I spent with the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators’ AHL club. And that was still an adjustment, for sure — it was my first time in the States, and my first time living away from home. But just being in Wisconsin, and that whole region, there was at least something that felt very, I don’t know … hockey about it. There’s always that universal language of hockey, you know? And if you’re in a place that speaks “the language,” then as a hockey player, it just has a way of feeling like home.

And if there was one thing that you would hear about Nashville, from the older guys on the Admirals, guys who had been up with the NHL team for stretches, it was this: Nashville wasn’t Wisconsin. They’d talk about how Nashville was a cool experience, and a fun city to live in … but when it came to hockey, well: They just didn’t speak the language. You’d hear about how, like, on the jumbotron during games, they would spend time showing fans the ropes, teaching them hockey — what’s hooking, what’s tripping, what’s icing, what’s offsides and whatever. You’d hear about how the atmosphere was more like football fans who had gotten lost at a hockey rink, than hockey fans. And you’d hear about how the team was never really a contender — and no one seemed to mind.

And it’s funny how reputations stick. Because, by the time I got here, in 2008 — I was still expecting all of that.

But I’ve gotta say: People knew their stuff. Honestly. I felt like, as soon as that puck dropped, our fans — they were as hockey-savvy as any in the league. And calling it a “football game” atmosphere, yeah, that might be right. But not NFL football. More like … college football. It’s almost like our home crowds are the NHL crossed with the SEC: Just a sea of people, having a good time, going nuts watching a game, and — most of all — being extremely loud. And we love it.

And it’s been like that from the moment I got here.

John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images

As the years went by, though … and as I grew to appreciate Nashville as a hockey city more and more … one thing really began to eat at me: That the Predators, as a team — we weren’t holding up our end of the bargain. The fans were doing their part, for sure, and had turned this into a hockey city. But we weren’t doing ours — we weren’t performing like the sort of team that a hockey city deserved. We weren’t contenders.

It’s not like we were terrible. We had decent records most years. And we’d make the playoffs a decent amount. Sometimes we were pretty good. But it felt like, to a lot of people, “pretty good” was the cap on what this franchise could be.

And I really disliked that mentality.

We were a lower-budget team, in a city without any hockey tradition, and I think because of that, people would often disrespect us, sometimes without even knowing it. In 2011, for example, we made the playoffs, beat the Ducks in the first round, and then lost in six to the Canucks in the conference semis. Not bad. But people weren’t just saying, “Not bad.” They were congratulating us, on this great season we’d had. It was almost like people literally couldn’t picture the idea of us doing any better than that. Like the idea of Nashville, as a city, hosting Stanley Cup games — it was too strange to even think of as possible. Like our purpose as a franchise was to be a part of the league — but never the story of the league.

After we beat Detroit in 2012, though — one of the greatest franchises, with all of those Cups and Hall of Famers — I think that was the start of everyone slowly beginning to take us a little more seriously. Everyone from the media and how they covered us, to our management and how they supported us, to our fans and what they expected of us. That was the moment when I think we began to say to ourselves, like, O.K. — this is a franchise that can be a contender.

And yeah, that was five years ago. But I think that’s what people don’t understand — about the Predators as a franchise, and about Nashville as a city: It’s all been in place now for a while. It’s all been there. This hasn’t been that city with the “rules of hockey” jumbotron, or whatever, for a really long time. Nashville has been ready to be a great hockey city for years.

All they were waiting for was a great hockey team.

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The first sign that we might finally have one, I think, came last June.

I was hanging out with James Neal when the trade for P.K. happened. And it’s so funny: Before we even could talk about the hockey aspect of it all … before we even could talk about anything … the first thing James says to me — I’ll never forget it. He goes, “Check his Instagram.” So I go to the app on my phone … load up P.K.’s page … and … wait, what? What’s he doing now? I guess P.K. was … somewhere in Europe at the time? And he’s swimming in the water … with a floatie? Shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go, Predators, baby, Predators! Let’s go!” And I just remember turning to James, not even sure what to think, and just being like, “Oh my god. What is this guy doing?”

But take another look, of course, and that video — that’s the best of P.K. in a nutshell: handling a tough situation like a pro, and dealing with adversity in a really positive way.

What surprised me most about P.K., as I got to know him this year, was how laid back he is. I think, just from knowing him only through the media and on social media, and stuff like that … you see him as this big celebrity, almost. This super loud guy. And I think I kind of half expected him to be that same guy in person — showtime all the time. But when you meet him, he’s just a really good dude, easy to talk to, very impressive. And somehow you always leave an interaction with him with a smile on your face. He just does his thing.

And I think that’s how P.K.’s personality — and his level of play, of course — really left its mark on our team this year in a significant way. No matter what happened, on the ice or off, good or bad, all season long — it felt like we hung in there and we kept it positive. We just did our thing.

John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images

Another sign that we had a special group, I think, came right before the playoffs. We’d finished eighth in our conference, and drawn the No. 1 seed, Chicago — the same Chicago team that had knocked us out in ‘10 and ‘15, and had won three Cups this decade. The same Chicago team that was a popular to win it all again this year. And when we drew them for our first round matchup, the general reaction on our team seemed to be … calm? Almost a quiet confidence.

Which might seem strange, on the surface — but I think it said a lot.

Obviously, we weren’t lucky to draw the Blackhawks. Anytime you draw the No. 1 seed in the first round, especially a team like Chicago that has won Cups together, it’s a tough break, and it’s going to be a challenge. But for us … as crazy as it sounds … I think it set us free a little bit. It’s a liberating feeling, almost, going into a series as a huge underdog like we were. We knew how well we were playing — and we weren’t scared.

And I think it showed.

And then winning that series … it just meant everything. It really just gave our team a signature win, to sort of hang our hat on. Now, it was like: We didn’t beat just anyone to advance — we beat the No. 1 seed. And we didn’t beat just any No. 1 seed — we beat the Blackhawks. And we didn’t just beat the Blackhawks — we swept them. It was this big, huge, loud win, and I think it was exactly the kind of win we needed as a franchise. And as a city … it’s hard even to describe. The city was buzzing after. It was wild.

It felt like we had finally given them the moment they’d been waiting for.

Bruce Bennett/Pool/USA Today Sports

And then from there … honestly, it was all kind of this amazing blur.

I think mentally, for us, something changed after that Chicago series — just belief-wise and confidence-wise. Our momentum during the postseason … it wasn’t this slow build, picking up with each series, after each win. It was more like: With that Blackhawks sweep, everyone took notice of us, all at once. We pretty much went from being the 8-seed to being a legitimate contender — overnight. And we loved it.

And I think our fans did too. It was like they were this sleeping giant, and now they got to prove to the whole world, with this big spotlight on them, that Nashville and hockey were two things that belonged together.

It was like this whole … movement had started. And suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of it — and everyone wanted to step up. From all of the young guys who filled in when called upon in the St. Louis series; to Neal and Josi each with their huge game winners against Anaheim; to Sissons coming through with a hat trick to send us to the final — the list just goes on. It really felt like we tapped into something special during that run. Everywhere you looked, someone new was stepping up big.

And no one came up bigger than our fans — all 20,000 of them, packed into Bridgestone — in that Game 6 clincher against the Ducks. The atmosphere in those last couple of minutes, when we were just skating out the clock … knowing, after all these years, that we were going to the Cup final … it was electric. My focus is usually pretty unshakeable when I’m on the ice — but those last couple of minutes, I have to say, they kind of caught me off guard. And then even I got emotional. It was just one of those truly special things. And I’m grateful that I got to be a part of it.

Joe Sargent/NHLI/Getty Images

And then we lost.

Right up until Hagelin’s empty-netter, I thought we would win. Honestly, I’m still having a hard time accepting that we didn’t. It just felt like … man. It just felt like “our” season. Until the very end … it just really did feel like it was our destiny to lift the Cup this year. And so to have to watch another team do it — in our city, in front of our fans — that was a tough pill to swallow. And it probably won’t stop being tough for a while.

But now it’s a couple of weeks later, and I’ve been able to distance myself a little from that feeling — and from this season. I’ve been able to get a little more perspective on it all. And the first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to write this letter to our fans. Because I wanted to let them know that the amazing journey we’ve been on during these playoffs, and this season, and these last few years, and even this last decade — it’s cut both ways. It’s been our journey, but it’s been everyone’s journey. It’s been about our growth as a hockey team, but it’s been about our growth as a hockey city, just as much.

It’s been a Predators thing. But it’s been a Nashville thing.

And for as much as I’ll never forget that empty-netter … I’ll also never forget my entire street of neighbors putting up Preds signs in their front yards. I’ll never forget the sound of that arena, in those last two minutes of Game 6 against Anaheim — unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life. And I’ll never forget 100,000 people, flooding the streets of downtown before Game 6 against Pittsburgh, cheering for us, and representing us, and letting us know that, win or lose, we were all in this together.

And yeah … we lost. But we’re in this together, still, all the same.

So I just wanted to say thank you, to everyone — for letting me grow along with you as we’ve gotten to where we are now. And we’re not all the way there yet … but it’s like my man P.K. said: Let’s get there next year. And if not next year, then the year after that, or the year after that, or the year after that.

But eventually, I guarantee it — Nashville will win a Cup.

All the great hockey towns do.

Pekka Rinne
Nashville Predators