How a wacky Finnish pastime helped shape Pekka Rinne into a human highlight reel

Matt Larkin
Pekka Rinne. (Joanthan Daniel/Getty Images)
Pekka Rinne. (Joanthan Daniel/Getty Images)

Ever heard of Pesapallo? Pekka Rinne recommends YouTubing it. It’s Finland’s version of baseball, and it’s delightfully bananas to watch as a newcomer.

The pitcher stands about a foot from the batter and tosses the ball straight up, so it clears a one-meter minimum above his head. The pitcher quickly bails out of the way so the batter can take a violent swing. The batter runs the bases in a zigzag pattern before looping back for a sprint to home. It’s about 100 years old, and it’s a fast, furious game. It would eat someone with Babe Ruth’s body type alive. It requires speed, agility, athleticism and catching ability. Or, in other words, all the skills Rinne possesses.

He played Pesapallo into his teens, and it molded him into one of the world’s quickest, most athletic goaltenders. That and years of mimicking the movements of his favorites, from Miikka Kiprusoff to Dominik Hasek. Rinne couldn’t watch live NHL games growing up in Kempele, Finland, but would excitedly devour highlight packages aired every Saturday morning.

“PlayoffPreview”

Rinne is 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds but as graceful as a gazelle. He excelled in soccer and track and field as a youngster, too. When you understand he’s athletic, period, not just athletic for a goalie, it’s no wonder Rinne rates so highly on the athleticism metric in THN’s goalie rankings.

“He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette. “Even when you’re technically sound like he is, there are always times when you have to figure out how to make a second save or a third save, and I really feel like that’s where his athleticism comes through. He makes all the saves he’s supposed to, but then there are ones where he has to do something spectacular, and you really appreciate him more for the job he does. He never quits on anything, and he gives it the best effort he can on every shot.”

Rinne knows how nimble he is and how much of an advantage it gives him in conjunction with his huge frame. He also works hard on his conditioning every summer to make sure he has a ceaseless motor and maximizes his ability. As a total package, he’s almost unfair. It’s no wonder he’s a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist and two-time runner up.

Not that he gives himself much credit, though. In Rinne’s eyes, he’s only as good as his goaltending coaches. His nine-year marriage to goalie guru Mitch Korn helped him become a breakout star.

Korn recognized Rinne’s glove was so good that he relied on it too much and got beat on the blocker side too often. Korn also calmed him down and helped him be more patient instead of clamoring for the puck and reacting too early. And Ben Vanderklok, who took over in Nashville when Korn went to Washington, has transitioned smoothly into a partnership with Rinne.

“He’s been very helpful,” Rinne said. “He sees the game the same way as Mitch does, if you will, and really has followed Mitch’s footsteps in that sense. That’s a really great thing for myself. I haven’t had to change anything. We have just been trying to evolve and improve where I left off with Mitch.”

Rinne never stops trying to improve. He works with a second goalie coach, Finnish League vet Ari Hilli, every summer to stay sharp. Rinne, 33, had hip surgery in 2013-14, so he also understands he must stay limber to capitalize on his athleticism. He thus turns to yoga on his recovery days. “It’s something that helps the mental part of your game, too,” he said. “Just being able to focus on yourself, focus on what’s important and to slow things down.”

Slow things down? About the last words you’d expect to hear from one of the fastest goalies on Earth.

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the December 7 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.