Time, as we’re so often reminded, has the ability to repair us after we’ve been injured. Wounds heal, indignities fade into memory’s recess, and we get on with our lives, more or less whole. That’s the conceit that most of us live by, and when we face something that disappoints us, like a hockey player moving on from our favourite team, the world gets back on its axis after no more than a few flips of the calendar.
That’s how things work under normal circumstances, at least. Tonight, though, presents Winnipeggers with a chance to experience something decidely abnormal, as one of the city’s beloved adopted sons returns for a farewell visit in what are some fairly improbable circumstances.
It’s always been my sense that Teemu Selanne’s hold on the emotions of Jets’ fans isn’t strong simply because he was a fine player during his time here, or even that he got the bum’s rush out of town in the winter of 1996, denied a last chance to say goodbye to a city that adored him. Plenty of athletes get traded under analogous circumstances, and even the best-liked of them become, after a bit of time, just another player on the enemy.
In a world operating in the standard manner, that would have been Selanne’s fate in this city as well. Had the Jets remained in town after the 1996 season, Teemu would have returned the next year as a visiting Mighty Duck, been given a warm welcome, and that almost certainly would have been that. He would have continued to be well-regarded, of course, because he’s the sort of player and person that rates respect, but over time his games here wouldn’t have been dramatically different than the visits Dale Hawerchuk made in the 90’s as a Sabre.
Of course, the normal rules of engagement were disrupted with the franchise relocating to Phoenix in the immediate aftermath of his trade to Anaheim, and that disruption is, in my view, at the heart of why Selanne’s return to Winnipeg is destined to be an emotional one for the player and the patrons alike. The feelings of everyone involved were frozen in amber, if you will, in the spring of 1996.
As a result, the fans here spent the 15 years following Teemu’s departure watching him succeed, struggle, and ultimately reach the pinnacle of the game elsewhere, but with the NHL absent from the city, he never made the transistion to becoming the enemy. Irrespective of his address at any given time, he still seemed like one of ours.
That’s not exactly a rational attitude, obviously, but if a city’s jilted fanbase were ever going to carry a torch for a departed player, I suppose that Winnipeg’s could have done worse than choosing Teemu. He’s been an exemplary pro on the ice, an engaging figure away from the rink, and he’s someone that’s made no secret of his high regard for the people here, so with that in mind, maybe it isn’t so surprising that he’s still an iconic figure a decade and a half after leaving town.
Even for those that aren’t Jets’ or Ducks’ fans, though, he’s worthy of every last bit of acclaim he gets. I’ve watched hockey for more years than I’d care to admit, and I can’t remember any player having a similar career arc to Selanne. He was excellent in his 20’s, very good for a few years beyond that, nearly finished at 34, and then managed to make it all the way back to excellent for multiple years after age 35.
It’s possible that there’s a player that’s done something remotely similar, but if that’s so their name escapes me at the moment. The unparalleled finishing kick Selanne has launched since 2005-06 has taken him from being regarded as a good player with a very high peak to a lock for the HHOF the first year that he becomes eligible. Without his post-lockout time, I’ve no doubt he would have been regarded as a slightly lesser version of Pavel Bure. That’s not really the case now, is it?
Tonight, then, Teemu will almost certainly get the send-off he really should have received the first time around from a community that’s never quite let him go. That’s nothing but good, from my POV, since not only will Jets’ fans give him the well-wishes Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke denied him in 1996, but there’s also a chance for this occasion to serve as one last cathartic farewell to that entire era of NHL hockey in this city.
I know closure is a word thrown around fairly freely, but I can’t help but think that for a few people, Teemu’s return represents a chance to heal the last remaining wound from Winnipeg’s first go-round in the league. Selanne himself has been vocal in the last few days about how disappointed he was that he never had a chance to return to the city as a player in the wake of the trade, and his relish for this game has been obvious to anyone paying even the slightest attention.
At any rate, this evening has every prospect of being a very special one, and for those of us lucky enough to hold a ticket to the proceedings, it should be a moment that even the ravages of time will find hard to fade.