PITTSBURGH -- By his own admission, Ari Hilli wasn't envisioning an epic run to the Stanley Cup Final the first time he laid eyes on Pekka Rinne. Sure, the 17-year-old was a lanky tower of goaltending potential when he joined the development program for Karpat in the Finnish league, and he was remarkably athletic considering his scrawny 6-foot-5 frame.
But, from the moment Hilli guided Rinne through his first off-ice workouts with Karpat, Hilli knew there was work to be done.
"The first time when we meet, it was a practice. His balance was not good because he was growing so quickly," Hilli said of Rinne.
Unbeknown to both Hilli and Rinne, those opening days of the 2000-01 season for Karpat's junior A club were the beginning of an enduring friendship that has helped the Nashville Predators goaltender lead his team to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, which it will open against the Pittsburgh Penguins at 8 p.m. ET on Monday.
"During his early career, we have off-ice practice where we make somersaults and that kind of activity," Hilli said. "He tried to do a somersault right away, and he jumped and came down on his back to the ground. But he never gave up."
That resilience would become something of a calling card for Rinne, who over time developed from a backup with Karpat into a starter in the American Hockey League to, at age 34, one of the featured attractions on hockey's biggest stage. To be fair, any worries about Rinne's lack of coordination during his first off-ice workouts wouldn't last too long. As soon as he laced up his gear and got on the ice, the strength and athleticism that belied his long body was instantly evident.
"When we went to the ice, I see immediately how talented he was. His eye-hand coordination was at a high level and he caught the puck everywhere," remembered Hilli. "He would fight in all the situations. He never gives up in practice. That's why he makes those big saves and why he has played in the NHL for 11 seasons at a high level all the time."
After two full seasons in Karpat, during which he won Finnish titles in 2004 and 2005 while backing up franchise player and future Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom, Rinne signed with Nashville and headed west to the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. The decision to leave Karpat at age 22 wasn't just inspired by Rinne's dream of someday playing in the NHL, but by his hope of finally being the No. 1 goaltender on a pro team, something he had yet to experience in his young career.
But Rinne's transition to North America wasn't nearly as smooth as his play on the ice. Thrown into a No. 1 role for the first time in his pro career, his path to the NHL was made even more challenging by the new culture and language Rinne had to learn -- not to mention the shift to the smaller rinks and North American game that can occasionally hamper the development of some European prospects.
When he needed help maintaining his focus and signature optimism in the face of these challenges, Rinne knew who to call.
"Of course young guys need help during that time. We talked about those things. Those things helped him," said Hilli. "We are messaging and speaking. Of course, early in his career we were more in contact. I tried to support him mentally more. Nowadays, he is good on his own. So there is not so much reason, but we contact [each other] all the time."
While Rinne was on his way to becoming an NHL All-Star, Hilli became an institution with Karpat, which has won six Finnish league titles since he was hired as the team's goaltending coach in 1998. Now 49, Hilli has become something of a goaltending guru with the club, coaching future Stanley Cup champion and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas for a season before overseeing Backstrom and Rinne.
By the time Rinne established himself as a world-class goaltender in Nashville, he still managed to make time for his mentor. The pair have trained together every summer since Rinne came to North America. And no matter how stratospheric his status in his home country became over the years, he always returned home to spend time with the man who helped shape his game.
For more than a decade now, Hilli has witnessed his former pupil's evolution from aspiring starter to established star, a national icon beloved by fans from Nashville to Helsinki. Through it all, Hilli can attest to the fact that, at his core, Rinne is still the same as the happy, hard-working teenager he first met almost two decades ago.
"He's a special person. He meets everyone on the same level all the time. He is smiling, and he has time for everyone," said Hilli. "I'm a little bit worried because the fans ask for him everywhere. You have to rest, too, during the summertime. But he is that kind of guy."
A career-defining run to the Cup Final might have ultimately delayed Rinne's annual training session with Hilli. After serving as the goaltending coach for the Finnish national team at the recent IIHF world championships, Hilli now has more time to watch his star pupil take to the ice against Pittsburgh with one of the most iconic trophies in all of sports on the line.
When the Penguins and Predators face off, he'll stay up late to watch and continue to marvel at just how far that awkward teenager has come.
"I have been proud of him many years. He is the same person, working hard," said Hilli. "Of course I'm proud of him that he is close to his goal. What we have dreamed about for many years."