A featherweight fighter by the name of Willie Pep was quoted as saying the first thing to go is your legs, then it’s your reflexes — and then it’s your friends.
Somehow, NHLer Teemu Selanne has managed to hold onto all three, well after his 41st birthday.
Where most athletes of Selanne’s age and ability are either admiring their new surroundings in some Hall of Fame or other, the Anaheim Ducks speedster just keeps pouring in the points, in this, his 19th NHL season.
Saturday, he returns to Winnipeg, where it all began in 1992, for the first time as a player since the original Jets traded him, four years later.
“It’s going to be very, very special day there,” Selanne said. “I can’t wait.”
In some ways it’s been a perfect sendoff season for the man dubbed the Finnish Flash when he set rookie records with 76 goals and 132 points.
One of the most popular players in the league, Selanne got a chance to open the season with two games in his native Finland, before making this nostalgic, pre-Christmas stop in the ’Peg, where fans have been frothing at the mouth for a chance to pay him a proper tribute.
“When I got traded I didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye for the people and the city,” Selanne acknowledged.
If Winnipeg’s downtown arena has been loud so far this season, in the words of another of the city’s favourite sons: “You ain’t seen n-n-n-n-nothin’ yet.”
That Selanne is around to see the NHL return to Manitoba is a marvel all its own.
A thoroughbred who’s appeared ready for the pasture on more than one occasion, he simply keeps defying the odds.
Selanne first looked done following the 2003-04 season, when a one-year fling in Colorado turned into an aching, 16-goal disaster in which Selanne’s left knee was screaming at him to retire.
Then came the ultimate blessing in disguise: the 2004-05 lockout.
With a chance to surgically rebuild the joint, Selanne returned refreshed and with that trademark fire in his eyes, posting seasons of 40 and 48 goals and capping it all with his first Stanley Cup.
A chance to go out on top, right?
Not so fast.
It turns out retiring is one of the few things Selanne takes slowly.
“The last five years I’ve been thinking this has to be my last year,” he said. “We all know it’s going to get harder and harder. We don’t know how long my knee will hold up, also.”
Last season, Selanne enjoyed one of the best years of a 40-year-old in NHL history, with 31 goals and 80 points.
“The one thing he’s proven is there is life after 40,” then-Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said. “He’s a joy to be around.”
But over the summer the knee flared up, and Selanne had arthroscopic surgery to repair some cartilage, again mulling over the R word right up until training camp.
Apparently, he made the right decision. Because going into Friday night’s game in Chicago, he led the Ducks with 30 points in 30 games, drawing admiration from around the league, including his old stomping grounds.
“An amazing player, to be able to play at the level he’s playing at, at his age,” Jets captain Andrew Ladd said.
“There’s only a certain breed that can last that long,” added Jets defenceman Mark Stuart. “Good for him.”
Selanne’s not the first NHLer to play past 40. There are dozens, actually. But he’s one of the few to make a significant impact, offensively, at this stage of his career.
“He’s gotta be a really cerebral, smart player to play at that age,” Winnipeg’s Tanner Glass said. “It’s not like he’s out there grinding it out on the third or fourth lines. He’s putting up points and is a big part of that team.”
He’s also a proud, tireless worker, who puts in ridiculous off-season hours so he can live up to his standards.
But this season, with its once-in-a-lifetime chance to play an NHL game in his native country, and with its final visit to his old home on the Canadian prairie, is, most likely, it.
“I still enjoy the game so much, even though we have been struggling,” Selanne said. “The passion and fun for the game is the only reason I’m still playing. I have to evaluate my enjoyment after this season to see how much fun it was and if I’m ready to push it again.
“Right now I still feel this is it.”
The Hall of Fame awaits, either way.