Rinne’s absence from his friends’ trip will give them something more to do than swap stories.
“It will be fun to be together with the guys and watch the game,” Backstrom said.
That Backstrom has remained so close to his former teammate is a testament to Rinne’s patience and pleasant disposition.
Rinne was a lanky, unheralded teenager when he joined the developmental program for Karpat, a club based in the northern city of Oulu, near his hometown, Kempele. He was eventually promoted to the top team with little fanfare and an explicit understanding that he was there for one purpose: to serve as Backstrom’s backup.
Despite spending much of his time on the bench, Rinne instantly became a favorite among his teammates.
“I don’t think you’re going to find anybody who has something bad to say about him,” said Jussi Jokinen, a former teammate who is now a forward for the Florida Panthers. “He has a big heart, and he’s really a loyal friend.”
After starting out as Karpat’s third goaltender, Rinne was officially promoted to second string at the start of the 2003-4 season. Despite being on backup duty, Rinne continuously cheered his teammates with a wide smile. Although he knew that Rinne, who turned 21 that season, was essentially hoping to take his job, Backstrom developed a strong affinity for his backup.
“I can’t even remember a day that he wasn’t happy being at the rink,” said Backstrom, who spent nine of his 10 N.H.L. seasons with the Minnesota Wild and now plays in Finland with HIFK. “As a goalie it’s tough. You grow up knowing only one guy can play. I played a lot of games, and he didn’t really get the opportunity.”
But late in the regular season, Backstrom was forced from the lineup with a knee injury. Rinne filled in admirably for his friend — then amiably went back to the bench when Backstrom returned for the postseason.
Opportunity would knock for Rinne once more in the playoffs. In the third period of the series-deciding fifth game in the semifinals against HIFK, Backstrom was again forced off the ice by a knee injury. Without the benefit of a proper warm-up, Rinne took the ice and led Karpat to a 3-2 overtime win. Backstrom returned for the finals against TPS, but Rinne’s contribution wasn’t overlooked as the club captured its first league title in 22 years.
“I think everyone was happy to see him doing so well,” Topi Jaakola, another former teammate, said in an email. “Pekka and Nik had been really supporting each other. But in the end it wasn’t about Backstrom or Rinne or any other player. It was all about the team, and that made us strong.”
Jaakola said Rinne had always been willing to sacrifice individual glory for the collective good. “That helped him staying patient backing up Backstrom and knowing that his chances will come,” he said.
That late-season performance earned Rinne only scant attention from N.H.L. scouts. The Predators took him with the 258th pick in the 2004 draft — the final pick in the eighth round. (The next year, the N.H.L. would cut the draft from nine rounds to seven.)
The next season, Rinne, still with Karpat but officially the property of a National Hockey League team that would not take the ice because of the labor dispute that canceled the season, played even fewer games as Backstrom again starred in Karpat’s run to a second consecutive title.
After the lockout was resolved, Rinne barely hesitated to sign his first contract with the Predators and reported to their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee.
In his first season as an undisputed starting goalie, Rinne ranked second in the A.H.L. with 30 wins and led the Admirals to the 2006 Calder Cup finals, where they lost in six games to the Hershey Bears. After three seasons in Milwaukee, during which he enjoyed the occasional call-up to Nashville, Rinne was named the Predators’ top goaltender before the 2008-9 season.
He has been a cornerstone for the Predators ever since.
Rinne, 34, has steadily built an impressive résumé that includes two All-Star teams, but until recently it lacked a signature playoff performance. That changed when the Predators defeated the Anaheim Ducks in six games to advance to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup finals.
Backstrom, who still trains every summer with Rinne, sees his friend in the best form of his career.
“Every night he is playing at the same level,” Backstrom said. “He’s so patient now. He doesn’t really have to do much. He makes it look easy now. That’s why I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
During the Cup finals, his old friends will be watching during their annual trip in Finland, lamenting — but ultimately excusing — his absence.
“It’s fun to get together and catch up,” Backstrom said. “But it’s going to be different with no Pekka.”
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