Before sitting down for our interview, the Bruins goalie flashed the metal nameplate affixed to the replica Georges Vezina Trophy he received in June.
After a quick perusal, this eagle-eyed reporter assumed the lanky Finn was giving a rare display of pride and said, “Oh, that’s nice.”
But Tuukka Rask persisted. “No, look! They spelled it wrong.”
Indeed, they did. Whoever engraved the trophy given to the NHL’s top goaltender, well, he or she must not be a regular NESN viewer familiar with broadcaster Jack Edwards’ iconic call after a Bruins victory: “Two Us, two Ks, two points!” The engraver left out one of the Ks.
Rask wasn’t exactly mad over the unintended slight. Then again, he wasn’t exactly happy, either. Is it a little extra motivation for the man who was the best goalie in the NHL last year?
Maybe, but Rask contends he doesn’t need those kinds of things to get his engine revved. The humbling game of hockey provides all the motivation he needs. And for Rask, there’s always been something to prove.
It’s not that Rask arrived from his native Finland with a weak pedigree. When the B’s obtained his rights from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal (pure pilferage!) for Andrew Raycroft at the 2006 draft, the 2005 first-round pick was already considered one of the best goaltending prospects in the world.
But drafting teenagers is a famously inexact science, and projecting how young goalies will fare is even dicier. And while his native Finland is as good at producing goalies as it is vodka, there was also the question of adapting to the smaller North American ice sheet. He quickly answered that.
After proving himself for the Bruins’ minor-league affiliate in Providence, he had to show he had what it takes to be an NHL goalie. He did that.
When his wafer-thin body appeared to wear down during the Bruins’ epic collapse to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 playoffs, he had to prove that he could withstand the rigors of the NHL’s demanding two-month postseason. It took him a couple of years to get another chance, but he took the B’s all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013, falling two games short of the ultimate goal.
That was in the lockout-shortened season, however, and the question of whether he could excel during an 82-game schedule remained. He responded last season by finishing in the top five in goals against average (2.04), save percentage (.930) and wins (36) and leading the league in shutouts (seven), while winning the Vezina in a vote with which few could argue.
But Rask isn’t satisfied with what he’s accomplished so far—because he’s still never won the Stanley Cup as the starting goalie.
LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 24: Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins speaks accepts the Vezina Trophy during the 2014 NHL Awards at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas on June 24, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
“It’s no secret that you want to be the best and win those awards, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t win the big one,” says Rask, the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina again this year. “During your career, you’re going to be judged by your closest fans and people around the league by ‘Has he done anything?’ Meaning the Stanley Cup, of course. But I think when you win something like [the Vezina], it just pushes you to want to be even better because the expectations just get higher and higher in people’s eyes, and they expect you to be that good. People expected me to be good when I came here. I have been good and now I’ve won the Vezina, so it’s not like people will be expecting less out of me. So the challenges keep on coming. And that’s what this is all about.”
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli looks at the step-by-step rise of Rask—from farmhand to backup to well-compensated star—and nowhere can he find a hint of complacency. “He has a very common-sense approach,” Chiarelli says. “He knows what he has to do, knows what he’s done, knows what he needs to do in the future.”
That future includes a commitment to a city he’s come to love. Now in the second year of an eight-year $56 million contract, Rask lives in Charlestown with his girlfriend Jasmiina and their first child, daughter Vivien, born in the middle of the playoff series against Montreal last May. He likes the area’s European feel and being surrounded by water. “I can walk to Fenway if I want, and I can be there in a half hour. Everything’s so close,” he says. “And I love the neighborhoods—North End, Charlestown, all over the place. People are great, the food is great, and it’s a great sports town. They really pay attention to their sports.” He’s even literally dropped anchor here, having bought a boat—a 30-foot Sea Ray docked in the Seaport—with former teammate Shawn Thornton from team equipment manager Keith Robinson shortly after the 2011 Cup-winning season.
BOSTON, MA – JANUARY 04: Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins makes a save in the second period against the Winnipeg Jets during the game at TD Garden on January 4, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
But while he’s loving life in Boston, it hasn’t dulled his fiercely competitive nature, evident since an infamous milk-crate-throwing tantrum in Providence in 2009 that became an instant YouTube classic. Indeed, in postgame scrums, Rask can be blunt and often comically profane. When asked early last season what he’d do with the shootout, the root cause of many of his meltdowns, Rask said: “Gas it right away. Midseason. Take it away. I don’t f—ing want it.” After the Bruins’ improbable Game 7 overtime win over the Maple Leafs in 2013, he said of overtime: “It’s do or die. You’re either a hero…or an asshole.” And after the double-overtime loss to Montreal in May, he summed up his performance by saying: “When you suck, you suck.”
When asked about his affinity for English curse words, Rask shrugs. “Yeah, the filter’s not there all the time, but that’s just because I hear it all the time from [Thornton],” he says with a smile. “I tend to speak the truth, too. I don’t like to sugarcoat it too much. Maybe I should, but whatever.”
It’s the kind of personality that his teammates can appreciate, even if it’s sometimes deployed at them.
“He’s really energetic, really emotional, especially after shootout losses or overtime losses,” defenseman Dennis Seidenberg says with a chuckle. “You always see him crushing his sticks over the boards and stumbling into the boards. So he has a history with that. But that’s what you want. You want a guy that’s hungry for winning and a guy that’s emotionally engaged. And that’s what Tuukka is.”
While Rask’s temper can sometimes make Chiarelli cringe, the GM has known the goalie long enough to realize there’s more to Rask’s temperament. “Despite some of the outbursts that you’ve seen, he’s got a real even-keeled quality about him and his approach to things. He’s very confident in his play, so he knows he’s eventually going to come around [if he’s struggling] because he’s a good player, a very good goalie, so I think he’s patient,” Chiarelli says. “Now, having said all that, he’s got an inner fire that burns that I’ve seen on a number of different levels. Sometimes it can be uncalled for, but I’ve seen it enough that I know where it’s coming from and that it’s an outlet for him. And it’s healthy for him.”
One thing currently fueling that fire: the dreaded Montreal Canadiens, who ended the Bruins’ last season far short of the Stanley Cup Finals.
During his regular-season career, Rask has amassed a 102-60-22 record with a .928 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average. That’s pretty darn good. But it would be even better if not for Montreal. Not counting last year’s playoff series against them, he’s 3-10-3 with a .908 save percentage and 2.63 goals against average.
Rask is at a loss to explain the numbers, although he believes they’re not completely reflective of his play. “It’s just the Canadiens, and people like to talk about them, and, no, I don’t have the best record against them,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve said it before, but I’ve played some good games against them. But they have a good team, and their goalie [Carey Price] is really good, too.”
To Chiarelli, the entire team has some sort of mental block with Montreal, one that it has to face. “I think it’s a challenge for all of us to get by it, [Rask] included. It’s not an indictment on Tuukka. It’s a curse or something, I don’t know,” Chiarelli says with a mordant chuckle and shake of the head. “But it’s always a challenge, and this group has faced challenges before and gotten over it. The biggest one was the Philadelphia series [in 2010]. I think we really grew from that and responded, so I’m confident that the group and Tuukka will be able to overcome this.”
And while Rask may keep his emotions below the surface in this particular case, make no mistake: They are bubbling down below. “It definitely eats at him, but he’ll come out stronger and hungrier, if that’s at all possible,” Seidenberg says. “He really wants to win something for this franchise, and he’s doing everything he can do to do so. In the end, it will make him stronger.”
And so it is for Tuukka Rask (that’s two U’s and two K’s). He may be at the top of the hockey universe now, but he always has something to prove.