Former Anaheim goalie Guy Hebert recalls a game in 1998 when Teemu Selanne kept the Ducks bus waiting before a game in Calgary so he could sign autographs. “He finally told us he’d get another ride,” said Hebert, who figured his teammate would grab a cab. Instead the trusting visiting player asked the fans for a lift to the Saddledome.
“They could have kidnapped him or something,” says Hebert, “but that’s Teemu.”
The fans will lift Selanne again when the Ducks make his No. 8 the first retired number in franchise history before Anaheim’s game on Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets, his first NHL team. It will be a celebration for fans and teammates -- okay, maybe not for the head coach -- as much for Selanne. Few players have won more wows and smiles than the affable Finn, who put together some of the greatest numbers in an NHL and international career that produced numbers that will surely land him in the Hall of Fame: 684 goals, 1457 points, a Stanley Cup with Anaheim and a rookie-record 76 goals in 1992-93, his first season with Winnipeg. There's also an astounding 102 points in 96 games of International play with Finland and four Olympic medals, including the last, at age 43 in Sochi, that made him the oldest player to win one.
It says enough about the respect Selanne had earned over the years that after his Ducks were ousted by the L.A. Kings in the seventh game of their second-round series last year, that both teams stood to salute Selanne at center ice. The winger was actually going to make this 75th retirement announcement stick. He stayed around the Honda center until 1:30 in the morning signing autographs, as if his last paycheck depended on it.
There was always something a bit childlike about Selanne on and off the ice, including the way he never really tired of the game and never grew jaded from admiration. In each of the last two seasons, Selanne announced his return through playful videos. In 2012, he was typing at his computer when a woman left a large pile of papers on his desk. “Teemu,” she said, “I need these back by three.” Selanne then tossed his pen against the computer and said, “Forget this. I go back to play hockey.” Selanne actually wrote the script for this year’s video in which he hit several errant golf shots before heaving his clubs into the water in frustration. After wading into the water to retrieve them, a soaked Selanne then called Bob Murray, the Ducks’ GM, to tell him, “Hi, Bob, it’s Teemu. I’m coming back, but this is it. This is my final one.”
Selanne never had direct deposit and was still the only Ducks player who picked up a physical paycheck from the rink office. He joked last year with SI about feeling the power of paper, but added more thoughtfully, “If you never see the money, you don’t appreciate it. You think it will just always be there and you don’t work to earn it.”
One nameless teammate joked that with four children named Emil, Eetu, Ledevi and Veera, Selanne was getting paid by the letter E. Another Ducks teammate, Ben Lovejoy, recalled the thrill of playing with Selanne when he joined the Ducks during the 2012-13 season. “My favorite card was the Teemu rookie card,” Lovejoy said. “In Pittsburgh I played with Crosby and Malkin, but I didn’t grow up idolizing them. I idolized Teemu.”
Lovejoy also remembered the night when the Ducks wore their throwback eggplant jerseys that the club used in 1996, Selanne’s first year playing in Anaheim. As the players put the old jerseys on, Selanne made the rounds of the room to tell each teammate what member of the ’96 team sat in their stall. Then he rattled off as many good stories as he could about each of the former players so the new ones could appreciate what tradition there was with a relatively new franchise.
Selanne has earned other supporters, too. Alex Gilchrist the Ducks’ PR chief, recounts the vast numbers of fans he knows by name and how he often relays their backstories on team bus rides in different cities. Two seasons ago, Gilchrist received an email from a man whose son Selanne had once visited in a hospital. “Teemu promised when my son got out that we could be his guests,” the man told him. Gilchrist later approached Selanne to relay the request, saying, “You probably don't remember this boy, but . . .”
“Of course,” said Selanne, who proceeded to take out his iPhone to show Gilchrist some footage of the visit.
Selanne has stayed behind in the Anaheim area, raising his kids in the States and overseeing his restaurant, Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach. If there is one caveat to Selanne’s retirement night, it could be the cooled relationship with Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau, whom Selanne criticized in his autobiography for reducing his playing time last season. Selanne slipped to just nine goals in 64 games last season and added two goals and four assists in 12 playoff games.
Selanne’s popularity is unmatched in Finland. In September 2013, a film about his life entitled SEL8NNE, became the highest grossing Finnish documentary in history.
Among its revelations: Selanne’s older brother Panu battled addiction for much of his life. Panu doesn’t work, but survives largely off the finances of his brother, who once smuggled money to him while he was in prison. At one point, Teemu joked that money for Panu was always something he’d build into his budget, even though he wasn’t sure what excuse his brother would use to ask for finances. Selanne also got engaged at 16, but broke off the engagement after realizing he wasn’t ready for marriage. His former fiancée is interviewed in the film and appeared wistful about her time with Teemu.
Selanne cared more for play and thrills than discipline growing up in Espoo, Finland’s second-largest city, where he often copied homework off his twin brother, Paavo, and swiped food off other plates at extended-family dinners.
“He is still doing that with the whole table,” said Paavo, a shop teacher in his home city. Their parents decreed that the restless boys couldn’t shower until they exercised. So Teemu was certain to stay out and drain his sweat to excess. He also craved speed, from fast skating to fast driving. The Jets had rules about dangerous off-ice activity, so Selanne drove in the World Rally Championships under the pseudonym “Teddy Flash,” finishing 24th in 1998. In 1999, he crashed his car while training, rolling over twice, and seriously injuring Kalervo Kummola, the president of the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation, who was driving another car. Kummola broke both arms and a heel in the collision.
In the middle of his record-setting rookie season, Selanne made a proclamation to his Winnipeg teammates. “I’ll play three years, four max,” he told them, because of the wear of the 82-game NHL season. “Around that time I found the secret to long career,” he says. “Love it, appreciate everything about it, be a kid. Hockey has never worn me out, because I’m not always thinking about it. I want to miss it a little.”
Selanne nearly quit in 2002 after a particularly bumpy flight from San Jose to Dallas. “There is something about not being in control of your speed,” he said. “After that flight I said, I cannot do this again.” But that retirement was a deke, like all the others. After the Ducks won their only cup in 2007, Ryan Getzlaf asked Selanne for a signed thank-you stick for his home collection after Selanne’s announced departure. The next season he had to ask again after Selanne wavered. Last season, Getzlaf had five Selanne-signed sticks in his son’s room. “I quit asking,” the Ducks captain told SI last March. “I’m afraid to ask this time, too.”
This good-bye should be for real. It is time to let in the memories.