Teemu Selanne shares love for Winnipeg and its hockey fans

Teemu Selanne knows he's destined for a warm place when he flies out of California for Winnipeg later this week.
Teemu Selanne scored 76 goals in his rookie season with the Winnipeg Jets, a record many believe will never be broken. (Phil Snell/Canadian Press)

Teemu Selanne knows he's destined for a warm place when he flies out of California for Winnipeg later this week.

The hockey legend, who set the NHL on fire in his rookie season with the Jets in 1992, is adored in Winnipeg and is still met with feverish cheers whenever he stops in the city.

"What great people there. I'm so lucky to [have started] my career there and get to know that city and the people because there's a reason you guys call that province Friendly Manitoba," he said in an interview from his Anaheim home.

The 46-year-old Finn, nicknamed the Finnish Flash for his speed, broke into the NHL by setting a record of 76 goals and winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's top rookie.

Teemu Selanne acknowledges the crowd after his game against the Winnipeg Jets in December 2011, his first return since 1996 to the city where he used to play. (John Woods/Canadian Press)
He finished the season with 16 multi-goal games, including four hat-tricks and a four-goal game.

Selanne scored his 100th career goal the following season, in his 130th game, the second-fastest player in NHL history to reach that mark.

He will suit up in Jets' blue once again this weekend to take part in the Heritage Classic alumni game but suggested no one expect that kind of output from him anymore.

He has skated just once with the gear in the past two years, since retiring. And living in California, there's not a lot of ice available.

I was so happy there [in Winnipeg]. I was so happy to be part of place where hockey's so big and the people are so nice. It really felt like a home.- Teemu Selanne

"We have only a few rinks here and the only ice time available is like 11 p.m. or midnight and I have better things to do at that time," he said with a laugh.

"I don't know if anybody [in the alumni game] is in great shape but it's good enough to play well and enjoy."

The outdoor game, featuring hockey legends from the Jets and Edmonton Oilers, takes place Saturday at Investors Group Field, home of the CFL's Blue Bombers. The current Jets and Oilers will meet for the NHL's Heritage Classic the following day.

Selanne said he's thrilled to be playing again as a Jet, a team he never wanted to leave in the first place.

His career in Winnipeg came to a sudden end midway through the 1995–96 season. He was leading the Jets with 72 points when, on February 6, 1996, he was traded to Anaheim.

"I was so happy there [in Winnipeg]. I was so happy to be part of place where hockey's so big and the people are so nice. It really felt like a home," he said.

Winnipeg fans welcome Teemu Selanne back to Winnipeg during an NHL game in December 2011. (John Woods/Canadian Press)
"When that happened, it was very tough. They always say that the first trade is the toughest; you almost feel that you have failed. I was very disappointed.

"The next day I was gone. I didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to some of my teammates or friends or the fans. I learned how tough and brutal the business can be in the NHL. There's no feelings involved.

"I understand it now but at that time, as a young player, it was hard to understand."

It took 15 years for Selanne to return to Winnipeg because the Jets moved to Phoenix after the 1996 season. Selanne's Anaheim Ducks came to the city in 2011 after the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and became the new Jets.

Selanne was cheered whenever he touched the puck, while his teammates were booed. Fans then gave him a standing ovation as a video tribute was shown welcoming him back to the city.

Teemu Selanne greets fans as he leaves his hotel to take the bus to the MTS Centre as a member of the Anaheim Ducks in 2011. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

"The way the fans took me back, it's just … there's no words to describe that feeling. I really appreciate that," he said.

"I always had a very good relationship with the fans there. They made it very memorable that day. I'm never going to forget that."

When he heard Winnipeg was getting a Heritage Classic game he immediately hoped an alumni game would also be announced and he would get an invite. Of course, he did, along with other Jets legends like Dale Hawerchuk, Morris Lukowich, Eddie Olczyk, Laurie Boschman and Teppo Numminen.

"I'm just going to try to enjoy every second. I don't have a chance to come there very often, which is kind of sad because I still have a lot of friends there," Selanne said. "The whole city's going to be so pumped.

"I can't wait."

The Oilers lineup includes the game's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky and teammates like Mark Messier, Esa Tikkanen, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, and Paul Coffey, who helped lead the Oilers to a Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1980s.

Is it a bad sign for the Jets' alumni that Selanne, who called the Oilers lineup "unbelievable", laughed when asked if he thought the Jets can win?

"Hopefully they haven't been skating for a while," he said between laughs and gasps for breath.

"I hope it's going to be entertaining because that's what everybody wants to see. It's going to be very, very exciting. Hopefully we can still skate and give a good show for everybody. It's going to be a great weekend for sure."

Asked if he'll notch a hat trick, Selanne launched into another hearty laugh.

"OK, that's not my goal. But it might happen," he said, adding he just wants to have fun and is excited to play alongside Hawerchuk, whose career he followed as a kid.

Teemu Selanne holds up the Calder trophy for Rookie of the Year at the NHL awards in 1993. (Randy Velocci/Canadian Press)

The two had similar success in their early years, with Hawerchuk also winning the Calder as a rookie in 1981. Hawerchuk also ignited the league by becoming the youngest NHL player in history to reach 100 points  — a record that stood until Sidney Crosby broke it in 2006.

And, like Selanne, Hawerchuk was traded at the peak of his career, heading off to Buffalo in 1990.

"I had a chance to play with him in 1988 in the [Jets] training camp in Moncton," said Selanne, who was drafted by the Jets in 1988 but started his NHL career in 1992.

"That's for sure one guy that I'm looking forward to but if you look at the lineup there's so many great guys and a lot of guys a I played with. It's going to be a special week."

He spends most of his ​time these days playing golf, tennis, skiing and spending time with his wife, Sirpa, and their four kids, being part of their daily routines.

Coming along with him is eldest son, 20-year-old Eemil, who was born in Winnipeg, as well as eight-year-old daughter Veera Johanna.

"We're going to show them where we used to live in River Heights," he said, adding they'll get to some of the restaurants around town.

During his playing days, Selanne also spent more than a few days at the Palomino Club and other night spots in Winnipeg but said those aren't on the to-do list.

"I don't need those nightclubs anymore."

Laine 'going to be great'

Selanne said he's enjoying being on the other side of hockey, watching as a fan and seeing the young stars like the Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews and the Finnish countrymate Patrik Laine, the Jets rookie.

There have been inevitable comparisons between Laine and Selanne, but the latter says people need to first give the youngster a chance to get comfortable.

"We have to remember, he's only 18. I was 22 years old. Those four years make a big difference in a player and a person," said Selanne.

Laine scored his goal in his debut and added an assist but hasn't earned a point in the Jets last two games. It might be hard to remember, since he scored so much, but Selanne didn't find the back of the net until three games into his first year.

"He's facing a different language and lifestyle. There's a lot of things to get used to when you come from Europe to a new country and new city," Selanne said.

"Give him the time and he's going to be great."

With files from Marcy Markusa