If practice really does make perfect then the idea of perfection never crossed Pekka Rinne’s mind.
The Nashville Predators goalie wanted to play games while NHL owners kept players locked out. So that’s what he did. He appeared in 22 contests for Minsk Dynamo in Russia’ Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) prior to Christmas.
“I think the biggest thing is I didn’t want to have too much time off, having already spent the whole summer in Finland and staying off the ice,” Rinne said Thursday. “I was pretty anxious to get back playing. It was a good opportunity for me to go and play. I’m happy that I went there. It was a new experience and some good hockey, different hockey.”
Rinne is one of several Predators who not only must come back to North America (most already have) but also get back to a North American mindset with NHL training camps on track to open Sunday.
Right wing Patric Hornqvist played for teams in his native Sweden as well as Switzerland. Left wing Sergei Kostitsyn, who has not yet shown up at the team’s practice facility for informal workouts, put up big offensive numbers in the KHL, and defenseman Roman Josi played in his native Swizterland.
European professional leagues use rinks that are larger than those in North America. As a result the style of play is much more deliberate and focused on individual skill as players take advantage of the additional room to operate.
“It is different, for sure,” center Mike Fisher, who played in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout, said. “When I went over there it took me a few games to get used to the patience of the game. It’s a way different game. You’re going to have a lot less time here. But guys have skated and will have a little bit of jump on guys that haven’t played.”
Hornqvist, like Rinne, was not interested in any extra practice time so he jumped at the opportunity to play — for a time, at least — in front of family and friends back home.
“I just tried to get games in,” he said. “It’s tough to practice for almost six months like the other guys have been doing I wanted to play games, and I think that’s the best way to get in shape too. Of course, to play in front of my family and friends in my home city was always fun too. It was an easy choice for me to play games over there.”
For Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, the hard part was adjusting to the game over there. In 22 appearances, he was 9-11-2 with a 3.08 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage, numbers that pale in comparison to those he posted for Nashville in recent seasons.
For the native of Finland, the return to the North American rinks and style actually feels more comfortable.
“Over here the game is so much faster and more up and down,” Rinne said. “Over there there’s way more flow and based a lot more on individual skill, and there’s a huge amount of skill in that league.”
Kostitsyn displayed his skill with 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) and a plus-18 rating for Omsk Avangard. The Predators would be thrilled if the 25-year-old brought that same type of production back with him once he actually does return.
Rinne, on the other hand, could not get back to North America soon enough.
“It’s not your team,” he said. “You’re kind of over there just on a loan, kind of. So it’s a different mindset. I tried to play my best and that never changes but it’s definitely different when you’re thinking about when the NHL is going to start and what’s going to happen next.
“… I still think it was a really good option for me to go there otherwise I would have been just practicing every single day, and that’s not too [appealing] to me.”