Anaheim Ducks' Saku Koivu (L), Jason Blake and Teemu Selanne (R) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Edmonton February 13, 2011. (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber)
Ask people why Teemu Selanne is so iconic in the city of Winnipeg, and you get a variety of answers.
Everyone has his or her reason for loving the Finnish Flash, who was in Winnipeg for only four years but is arguably the most popular pro athlete in the city’s history.
He was — and still is — a great hockey player, but there are a lot of great hockey players out there, so it had to be something else, something intangible.
For Jets fan Teri Masson, it was everything.
“He was a great player, but I liked his personality on top of that,” she said. “He was a quiet-spoken man and always very pleasant, very nice. He did a lot for the community when he was here, but it was just his demeanour. He was just such a nice guy on top of being a super star. His super stardom didn’t go to his head at all. He was just a regular guy. He was fabulous.
“He wasn’t hard to look at, but that wasn’t the big thing. There were lots of good-looking guys on the Jets back then. It was the whole package. He was extremely popular, he was such a nice guy, such a great goal scorer. He was just everything — everything you could ask for. That was the man.”
Ray Vandel has a theory, figuring Selanne’s legacy in Manitoba is so strong because one day he was here, and the next he was gone. The trade to Anaheim in February 1996 happened so fast, and the Jets departed for Phoenix a few months later.
“We never got to say goodbye to him,” Vandel said. “They traded the guy away, he never came back, and we lost our team. So we never did have that final say with Teemu.”
Brandon Dreyer believes part of Selanne’s allure during his rookie season wasn’t just because he scored a record 76 goals. It was because no one had any idea who he was before he got here.
“Him being Finnish, it’s an unknown,” Dreyer said, “so we embrace the unknown.”
Scoring 76 goals and celebrating by firing his glove up in the air and shooting it? Not bad, either.
“Seventy-six goals in the rookie year, and the way that he did it … and the energy that he brought doing it,” Dreyer said, remembering the good old days.
Selanne even made an impact on the people who covered him. Former Winnipeg Sun sports reporter Judy Owen, who did a big feature on Selanne during his rookie season of 1992-93, will never forget the Finnish Flash for one moment in particular.
“I was pregnant with my first child when I interviewed him and then left before the season ended,” Owen said. “She unfortunately died at three months in the summer, and when I came back in the fall the first time Teemu saw me asked ‘How’s the baby? How’s the baby?’ He was so excited.
“When I told him what happened his face just dropped. And the next couple times I saw him, he would walk by me and he would give me a little pat on the back. And I thought this coming from a pro athlete, that he would actually show that kind of consideration … it has never left me.”
Owen got an inside glimpse of Selanne during the research for her feature, spending an afternoon with the Jets star in his home. She said he’s just like everybody thinks he is: a genuinely nice guy.
“I went over to his River Heights house and interviewed him, his girlfriend Sirpa, who became his wife, and his twin brother Paavo,” Owen said. “They were just a couple of kidding brothers. Then I talked to his mom, called Finland and talked to the head teacher of the kindergarten that he taught at, and all of them just talked about what a nice guy he was.
“I think family is really important to him, and that probably does a lot to make him the kind of person he is. I never heard anybody say anything bad about him.”
While his generosity and good looks and kindness all played a role, it was his hockey acumen that was at the base of the love for him.
“I’m 39, so I saw Dale Hawerchuk, but I didn’t see rookie Dale Hawerchuk,” said Masson’s friend Lisa, who didn’t want her last name used. “And then Teemu came along and just took the entire league by storm. It’s not like he was the best Jet. He rocked the entire league, and he was ours.”
And for one more night, he will be theirs once again.