Teemu Selanne has unretired more times than he can remember. He's not the speed demon at 43 that he used to be, but as he showed at the Olympics, he can still be dangerous—and he's quite capable of leading the Ducks to another Cup
THIS IS the season for unlikely heroes. The Stanley Cup playoffs are about many things: blood and guts, Game 7s and beards. But they are also about improbable performances. Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden had played just six regular-season games in 1970--71 when he led Montreal to a title and won the Conn Smythe Trophy—the season before he won the Calder as rookie of the year. Thirty-nine years later, lumbering Blackhawks defenseman Dustin Byfuglien became a crease-crashing forward and scored 11 goals in Chicago's run to the Cup. In the NHL spring is a time to honor the unsung.
Teemu Selanne wants to be a difference maker this postseason. And if that role can be played by a rookie or an in-the-slot scrapper (box, page 47), then why not by one of the purest goal-scorers in history—even if he is the NHL's oldest player? Because just when it seems as if the 43-year-old Selanne, who had career lows in goals (nine) and average ice time (14:03) through last Saturday, has put off retirement once too often, the Ducks' winger flips the hourglass and does something to add to his legacy. As Finland's captain at the Olympics in February, he scored four goals, led his country to a surprising bronze medal and was named MVP of a tournament that also included such luminaries as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin—who are, respectively, 17 and 15 years Selanne's junior. Last month, when Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau put Selanne on a line with young guns Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the trio combined for 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in five games.
There's no mistaking the late-model Selanne for the 22-year-old who scored a rookie-record 76 goals in 1992--93, a mark that in terms of its invincibility rivals Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Wayne Gretzky's 215-point season in '85--86. Selanne isn't as explosive or as fast as he once was. The release on his shot isn't as quick. But the Finnish Flash does have flashbacks. Against the Panthers on March 23 the righthanded Selanne took a lead pass from Getzlaf as he was gliding through the left face-off circle in the Florida zone. With a predictable backhand seemingly his only option, Selanne spun toward the sideboards and forehanded a pass between two Florida defenders back to Getzlaf, who converted the nifty give-and-go for his 30th goal of the season. "Teemu was the only guy in the building who thought he could make that pass," says Boudreau. "When you think it can't be done, he does it again and again."
Surely this will be Selanne's last trip to the playoffs. By his own exaggerated count he has unretired 75 times. "This time it's finished," he says with a grin, before adding, "as long as we win the Stanley Cup, right?" Don't bet against it. While the Devils' Martin Brodeur and Jaromir Jagr, Selanne's fellow fortysomething future Hall of Famers, will be watching from afar, the unpredictable Ducks enter the postseason with one of the league's best records. And with Selanne striving to keep pace with his past and savoring every minute, they could very well win it all. "He beats you with his head because he's so smart," says Boudreau. "He just doesn't panic in tight situations, where other guys might.... [The Olympics] showed that in a short series or tournament he can lift his game to match the best in the world."
"When you want to make the most of your time, you get really hungry, hungry, hungry," Selanne says. "I'm restless."
SELANNE IS deserving of more than a tip of the cap. Through Saturday, he ranked 11th in career goals with 684, and third in game-winners with 110. It's not unthinkable that he could end his playing days the same way that 36-year-old Flames sniper Lanny McDonald did in 1989, scoring one final goal to help clinch the Cup. "Perfect ending," says Getzlaf. "Couldn't you see it?"
In the middle of his record-setting rookie season with the Jets, Selanne—taken aback by the NHL's long schedule—told his Winnipeg teammates that he only planned to play for three or four years. He found, though, that as the season wore on, his body adjusted to playing two to three games a week, and that he was thriving on all the minutes he was getting. "Around that time I found the secret to a 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."
Boudreau figured as much when the season began. He rested Selanne toward the end of games on consecutive days and, before the Olympics, took him off Anaheim's top two lines. The coach wasn't demoting Selanne so much as he was hitting the refresh button. Still, Selanne didn't like his modified role and took it out on the opposition in Sochi, where he played on the top line, added to his record for most points in Olympic history (43) and, in his sixth Games, tied a record by winning his fourth hockey medal. When he moved back into the rotation on the Ducks' top two lines last month, Selanne thrived, scoring two goals, with five assists. "It's no fun to sit around and play 12 minutes," Selanne says. "You play for the thrill, when everything matters."
Selanne cared more for thrills than he did for 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 people's plates at family dinners. "He is still doing that with the whole table," says Paavo, a high school shop teacher in his home city. By the time Teemu was in his 20s, he also craved speed, whether he was on skates or behind the wheel. The Jets had rules about players participating in dangerous off-ice activities, so Selanne drove in a World Rally Championships race in Finland under the pseudonym Teddy Flash, finishing 24th in 1998.
Ironically, Selanne nearly quit hockey when he was playing for the Sharks in 2002, after a bumpy flight to Dallas. "There is something about not being in control of your speed," he says. "After that flight I said, 'I cannot do this again.' " But that retirement was a deke like all the others. In '07, after the Ducks won their only Cup, Selanne announced that he was calling it a career. Getzlaf, then 22, asked Selanne for a signed stick. Getzlaf got another one the next spring, after Selanne again announced that he intended to retire. Getzlaf is now in his ninth season in the NHL; he has five signed sticks from Selanne. "I quit asking [for sticks]," Getzlaf says. "I'm afraid to ask this time too."
In each of the last two seasons Selanne and the Ducks have announced his return to the NHL with playful videos. In the 2012 edition he is typing at a computer when a woman leaves a large pile of papers on his desk. "Teemu," she says, "I need these back by three." Tossing his pen against the computer, Selanne says, "Forget this. I go back to play hockey." He wrote the script himself for this year's video, in which he hits a series of errant golf shots before heaving his clubs into the water in frustration. After wading in to retrieve them, as well as his cellphone, Selanne calls Bob Murray, the Anaheim GM, to say, "Hi, Bob, it's Teemu. I'm coming back, but this is it. This is my final one."
Selanne is the only Ducks player who picks up a physical paycheck from the team's office; he has never had direct deposit. "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."
THE OTHER Cup contenders are easier to read than Anaheim. The Bruins will bump and grind you into mush. The Blues will outskate you and crowd your space in center ice. The Ducks are either calculating chameleons or plain schizophrenic. At Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25 they beat the Kings 3--0 by playing like the Kings, keeping a puck-possession team away from the puck, playing strong up the middle against a club with great depth at center and getting better goaltending from Jonas Hiller than L.A. got from Jonathan Quick. Fast forward to March 31, when Anaheim trailed 4--0 at home against the speedy Jets, who had outshot the Ducks 31--11 through two periods. In the third Boudreau shuffled his lines and Anaheim took the first 13 shots of the period. The Ducks staged the largest rally in franchise history, winning 5--4 in overtime. "They had nothing," said Winnipeg winger Blake Wheeler. "Then they flipped a switch and became a different team."
Boudreau's penchant for line shuffling, often in-game, could explain Anaheim's inconsistency. In one game last week he moved Selanne off the line with Perry and Getzlaf and paired him with Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano, playing Selanne, a natural right wing, on the left side. The move didn't take. On Jan. 21 the Ducks became the last club in the league to lose a game in regulation at home, but they then proceeded to lose four of their next seven overall. Still, their mercurial nature makes them difficult to scout, and their Achilles' heel, a 3--6 record in shootouts, the worst of any team in the postseason, will disappear in the playoffs, when games are decided in overtime. "It can be our time again," says Selanne. "Do you believe in happy endings?"