"I'm a busdriver, not a passenger." --Teemu Selanne
This is an article from the May 22, 2006 issue
He is weavingthrough the streets of Anaheim behind the wheel of a black 2004 Mercedes CL600not a bus, although Teemu Selanne does happen to have a bus back home inHelsinki among his muscle cars and limousine and 20 or so other vehicles. (Whenyou have that many, you really do need to approximate.) At this moment, lastSaturday afternoon, 40 hours after the Mighty Ducks closed out the ColoradoAvalanche to reach the Western Conference finals, he is speaking figuratively.The point of the bus-driver metaphor--and there is almost a point a night inSelanne's world--is that if he could not dance on skates and fill the nets andbe a world-class player, he would quit. ¬∂ On Selanne's lips is the nearlyomnipresent jack-o'-lantern smile, shy two teeth since he took a stick in themouth from Team USA defenseman Derian Hatcher during the Turin Olympics inFebruary. On the CD player is a Finnish version of House of the Rising Sun,only with more backbeat. Selanne is driving to a local rink to see two of hissons, Eemil and Eetu, play a youth-league game for the Sea Bass--what is itwith Southern California hockey teams and names?--and when he arrives, hereturns every greeting and autographs every jersey and creates the kind ofhappy stir that Emeril Lagasse might if he dropped in at a potluck supper.
Leaving a Ducksoff-ice workout 10 minutes earlier, he had made a left out of the ArrowheadPond lot. Then a right, a left, then another right-left combination. Thesestreets have long since been recorded in the MapQuest of his mind. Even afterAnaheim exiled him to San Jose in 2001 (he was traded for goaltender SteveShields and winger Jeff Friesen), Selanne never left town. He kept his house inOrange County. He kept his close friendships, especially with former linematePaul Kariya, who is now a Nashville Predator.
There are a fewplayers who belong to a franchise and a city no matter which sweaters theymight be wearing: Like Luc Robitaille and Los Angeles or Trevor Linden andVancouver, Selanne and Anaheim are a team. If it looks like a Duck and actslike a Duck, it probably is a Mighty Duck--even when it is moonlighting as aShark or, for one disastrous season (2003-04), as an Avalanche. As Selanne'swife, Sirpa, says when Teemu wanders off to help the boys lace up their skates,"This feels like home."
The place isfamiliar. The only uncharted territory for Selanne is the third round of theplayoffs. In 13 seasons, nine of which he has been an All-Star, he has nevergone this deep. "This is a dream come true, and I'm trying to enjoy everymoment," he says as he watches his boys. "Since New Year's we haven'tfaced a better team than us. There wasn't one team that, even after a loss, wecould say we had no chance against. We have a shot. It's in our ownhands."
If he did notdelight more in vaunting his teammates' successes than his own--Selanne likenedJoffrey Lupul's four goals in Game 3 against the Avalanche to all the ketchupescaping the bottle in a single splat--he might note that his own hands havebeen remarkably capable. He scored the Game 7 series-clincher against Calgaryin the first round and did it again last Thursday in the sweep of Colorado witha slick, almost smart-aleck, goal that came straight out of Selanne's hockeyDNA. Early in the second period of Game 4, with the Avalanche still feigninginterest in extending the series, Selanne flew down the right flank to take apass near the half boards, faked a slap shot that froze José Théodore, tookanother powerful stride toward the goal line and, from an acute angle, firedthe puck at Théodore's pads, banking it off the goalie's right leg and into thenet. That goal, his team-leading 10th point of this year's playoffs, had itall: creativity, audacity and speed. Mostly speed.
Selanne could nothave burst into the offensive zone so swiftly if he had not submitted toreconstructive surgery on his deteriorating left knee in September 2004. He hadundergone annual stopgap 'scopes for four years, and the surgery was theunhappy exclamation point on what was supposed to have been a fabulousonce-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Selanne and Kariya. In the final throes ofthe pre-salary-cap NHL, they Butch-and-Sundanced their way to Colorado, signingin tandem a $7 million, one-year package deal. Selanne might have needed twohands to count his money--he was making $5.8 million--but with only onefunctioning leg he scored a career-low 16 goals, none in the playoffs. Selannelooked long in the tooth, even before he lost them. During the Avalanche serieslast week when asked about that nightmarish season, Selanne replied, "Thatwasn't me. That was my twin."
(He actually doeshave a twin, Paavo, who teaches wood shop at a school in Finland. "He usedto be a goalie as a kid, but I took all his confidence," Selanne explains."He thought he sucked.")
In the standsSelanne points to his left thigh. "Before [the operation] it was more thanthree inches smaller than my right," he says. "No power. It was toughdriving to the rink knowing that when you stepped on the ice, every stridewould hurt. After the [September 2004] World Cup, I knew there was no way Icould play this [low] level again. With all respect for third- and fourth-lineplayers, that's not me. I'd rather play golf. There were a lot of people sayingvery loudly that this guy is done. It bothered me a little because they didn'tknow. After the surgery I was so pumped about coming back. After the rehab,when I realized this knee was going to be as good as the other, I wanted toprove myself."
Brian Burke, thenew Anaheim general manager, cautiously repatriated the 35-year-oldrightwinger, offering a one-year, $1 million deal. If Selanne could score 16goals "in a messed-up situation" in Colorado, Burke reasoned, he couldbe slightly more productive for the Mighty Ducks, a moderate gamble as long asSelanne was willing to play diligently at both ends of the ice. Burke thought20 goals was realistic, $50,000 a pop. Instead Selanne, the rare player in his30s who actually benefitted from the lockout, scored a team-high 40 (and added50 assists), the first time in five seasons he had reached that standard. (From1996-97 through '99-2000 he averaged 46 goals a year; his 76 as a Winnipeg Jetsrookie in '92-93 remains an NHL record.) Selanne became the seventh European inNHL history to reach 1,000 points. He also forechecked and backchecked and madeevery day in the dressing room feel like Christmas morning. "Teemu doesn'thave bad days," Burke says. "When he comes to the rink, it's a goodday. Doesn't matter if we won or lost the night before. Enthusiasm is animportant attribute on any team, and he's brought that big time."
"I don't haveto try to be positive," Selanne says, "because I am positive."
Selanne has anovert fondness for junk TV (Baywatch, Desperate Housewives, Deal or No Deal),junk food (Finnish licorice) and people. He is the kind of guy who would give ateammate the shirt off his back, not that any of the Mighty Ducks would wantit. On the eve of Game 7 in Calgary, Selanne unveiled a garishstriped-and-patterned beige sport shirt--"a hippie shirt," he says.("Teemu probably wore it with a checkered suit," Kariya speculates,though erroneously. "[He'll wear] blacks with browns. A GQ editor wouldlook at him and have a heart attack.") Selanne escaped a players' fine,probably because Anaheim won the next night. He is also the only Duck without aplayoff beard, an ongoing source of dressing-room barbs. "We've gotten usedto that toothless grin, but we give him a pretty hard time about the beardthing," says Andy McDonald, Selanne's center. "He has a gift forkeeping everybody pretty loose. [As a team] we're focused, but we don't seem toget too uptight. We get that from him and Scott [Niedermayer, the captain.]
"Teemu'salways happy to see when someone else does well, always ready to help,"McDonald continues. "My first year pro [2000-01] I got called up and wasstuck at a hotel, and he gave me a car to drive. A Buick. Maybe his wife's car.That's a Teemu loaner."
Selanne will bean unrestricted free agent after the season--he vows to never again playanywhere except Anaheim--but says a new contract can wait along with the dentalwork. With the playoffs still unfolding and a Stanley Cup shimmering around afew more turns, he wants to take care of more meaningful things first. For themost gregarious of Ducks, replacement teeth are a bridge too far.
For more from Michael Farber and SI's other NHLexperts, as well as the playoff blog, go to SI.com/nhl.