Only in Winnipeg

It could have only happened in a small town on the prairies that had been deprived of the National Hockey League for 15 years. It started when more than 50 people met the Anaheim Ducks’ bus at 2:40 a.m. in front of Winnipeg’s Fairmont Hotel to get a glimpse — and maybe even an autograph — of a hockey player who hadn’t played in Winnipeg for 15 years. Then, the Ducks’ coaching staff decided that to avoid the oncoming media frenzy, it should call a 10:15 a.m. news conference just to appease the Winnipeg public’s insatiable appetite to hear the words of just one player.

Think about this for a second: Teemu Selanne is a 41-year-old Ducks rightwinger who once played in Winnipeg. In fact, he played 3 1/2-seasons in the ‘Peg between 1992-96. He played in only 231 regular season games, scored 147 goals and 306 points. He holds the Jets 1.0 records of 76 goals, 132 points, 24 power play goals 387 shots and five hat-tricks in a single season. But he hasn’t played in Winnipeg for almost 15 years!

But that’s what Selanne means to Winnipeg hockey fans. He’s a guy who played for a very brief time and hasn’t been back for a decade and a half, but will remain the most important player ever to have played in the city. Bobby Hull and Dale Hawerchuk come back to Winnipeg all the time and neither of them — arguably better and more important players to the history of the Winnipeg Jets — have to hold news conferences.

"I’m excited to be here," said Selanne who admitted he was stunned by the fact Winnipeg fans were waiting for him at the hotel in the middle of the night. "Those guys are diehard hockey fans. The other guys on the team couldn’t believe it. That’s why this date has definitely been circled on my calendar.

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"This is so special. People here in Winnipeg have supported me for 20 years. It’s too bad it’s only going to be for one day. But one day is better than nothing."

Selanne, dubbed "The Finnish Flash" by a Winnipeg Free Press columnist in 1993, was selected in the first round (10th overall) by the Jets in 1988. He played in Finland until 1992 and after 3 1/2 marvelous seasons in Winnipeg was unceremoniously traded to the Ducks along with Marc Chouinard and a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for Chad Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and a third-round pick. The deal shocked Winnipeggers, despite the fact everyone knew the team was already destined for Phoenix.

"I only played here for four years but the fans really supported me," Selanne said. "When I was traded it was really a shock to me. It was tough. I thought I would be here a long time, but then I was gone so quickly. I didn’t even have time to say good-bye to my friends. 

"I never expected to play an NHL game ever again in this city. I was so happy to hear this city got an NHL franchise back. Sometimes I just shake my head about this city. I loved it here and I never wanted to leave. The people here have so much passion for hockey."

His family flew in from Anaheim to be with him on Saturday night when the Ducks faced the Jets at MTS Centre and he was thrilled to report that his boys got in on Thursday and spent more than three hours playing outdoor hockey in the ‘Peg. He also said he was excited about playing at Winnipeg’s new downtown rink.

"It’s a dream come true for a hockey player who started his career here to come back and play a game here," he said. "I haven’t been nervous, but I think that if I was playing at Winnipeg Arena and it was against a team that was wearing the same jerseys we used to wear, I’d be a lot more nervous. I don’t know anyone in this organization. It’s not the same as the old organization and the arena is different and the uniforms are different.

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"This is all different. It’s about the fans now. This city is so great and I’ve always had a special relationship with these fans. I’ve heard the atmosphere in the new building is unbelievable. I’ve heard it’s really rockin’ in that building. I’m excited about playing there in front of these great Winnipeg fans."

This season, his 20th in the NHL, Selanne has 10 goals and 21 assists and is 18th overall in NHL scoring. At 6-foot, 190 pounds, he looks slimmer now than he did when he played in the ‘Peg 15 years ago. The birth certificate says 41 but he doesn’t look a day over 30. Really.

"I have a lot of wonderful memories of playing in Winnipeg," Selanne said. "But it’s the people who are so special. This is such a small town really. Everyone knows everybody else and everyone is so friendly. I had such a fun time playing here. It’s a special place."

Selanne makes his return to Winnipeg official on Saturday night at 6 p.m. CST. One senses this type of excitement, an excitement that built up over 15 years as Winnipeg fans watched an old hero play someplace else, could only happen here.  

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