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Why Teemu Selanne Could Go Jetting Back to Winnipeg

Teemu Selanne back to the Winnipeg Jets?

Originally published on thehockeybrain

My first encounter with Teemu Selänne came in an elevator in 1992. Newly arrived in Winnipeg and still unsure about his English skills, he nodded politely and then proceeded to do what most people in elevators do. Stare at the buttons as if they were the most interesting things in the whole wide world.

We were headed to see the same person that day and we spent a few minutes in comfortable chairs outside an office with double doors, smiling politely whenever we made accidental eye contact. I knew who he was, everyone in Winnipeg knew who he was, even if he had only been in town a few days.

He was called in first and gave me a quick, apologetic look with a little shrug as he stood up. I watched him walk inside, wondering if he could save the Jets. By the time Teemu arrived the Jets were already in dire financial straits and in the socialistic environment of Manitoba all you had to do to inspire a heated debate was talk about the government subsidies of the team. In the days before salary cap and revenue sharing, the Jets' small market handicap was a noose that kept getting tighter each year.

"He's cute, huh?" the elderly, perfectly groomed secretary sitting behind the large oak desk said.

I nodded and chuckled, "Yeah, he is."

And he was. Young Selänne was just like older Selänne – charming, good looking, polite, friendly, humble. When Keith Tkachuk, the captain of the Jets at the time, walked into a room the air all but went out, so "there" was his personality. Selänne would usually be found on the periphery, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets, looking around, smiling at anyone who was looking back. In the early days, Selänne was just another prospect rookie, albeit one from whom great things might be expected. Tkachuk was the king of the hockey mountain.

The last draft pick of deposed General Manager John Ferguson, Teemu Selänne was the hot topic around water coolers all over the coldest city on earth. He was fast, some said. He was going to be really good, others said. He was not going to be tough enough, a few remarked. No one could agree what he might mean for the team, but like all hockey towns all over North America, the discussion of hockey matters in late August and early September when the rink lights started coming on and players started returning from their summer places, was lively and pervasive. Everyone had an opinion.

Not since Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, "Duckie" to the faithful, was selected first overall in 1981, had Winnipeg gone into a season with so much hope. Not only did they have Selänne, yet to earn his nickname of the "Finnish Flash" but they had young Russian Alexei Zhamnov who, one Jets' employee used to tell me in a conspiratorial whisper, was "even better" than Selänne.

Selänne's first NHL goal came against Jeff Hackett of the San Jose Sharks on October 8, 1992. The rest, as they say, is history. Much has been written about Selänne's time in Winnipeg, about his record breaking rookie season, about his legendary "shoot the glove" moment when he broke Mike Bossy's 25 year old rookie record of 53 goals, about his winning ways, on and off the ice.

What cannot be described, despite some very impressive attempts, is what Teemu Selänne meant to Winnipeg hockey fans. They suffered through the eighties when meeting Edmonton in the play-offs always meant certain expulsion, hearing endless news coverage about the financial woes of the team, never quite making it to the "top level" of the NHL, always "building". Selänne brought a "contender-ness" to the team that the fans inhaled like it was a wonder drug.

He was, in every sense of the word, a hero. The word is thrown around a lot and it has lost some of its meaning in this era of a billion words a day being uploaded to the internet, but Selänne was the real thing. Likewise, the word "epic" is used to describe everything from a single game to a playoff series, but what happened in Winnipeg really was epic. Teemu Selänne was as close to a rock-star as could possibly have happened in a conservative city where the Mennonite mentality is still strong and the political climate was decidedly socialist.

People lined up to get autographs. Girls screamed whenever his name was mentioned. He became "Teemu" and was on the sports page every day – and not just in the local papers. He put Winnipeg back on the hockey map and people were as proud of his accomplishments as if they had been their own. His personality could not have been a better fit, he was remarkably free of bravado or self-promotion, he made self-deprecating remarks and handed credit to his teammates whenever possible.

In short, he gave the city's NHL team legitimacy. Not without players who had either already earned their stripes or those who would go on to do so such as Carlyle, Domi, Numminen, Steen, Tkachuk and Zhamnov, Selänne was in a class by himself. When you not only break but shatter a twenty five year old record held by one of the greatest players who ever laced up skates, you give the fans something unique and special. The bathed in the glow that surrounded him. He was theirs.

No player since then has quite so dramatically arrived on the scene, not even Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. He was a smirk-inducing counterpoint to Eric Lindros. In hearts, if not in minds, people thought Selänne could save the Jets.

Fast forwarding through his second season (93-94) where he suffered a torn Achilles tendon and played only 51 games (54 points) and his third season (94-95) which was shortened by the lockout and he played 45 games (48 points), we arrive at the dark season.

Everyone knew, someplace in their hearts, that it was coming. It had begun to seem inevitable. The NHL lockout, in some ways a payback for the ten day strike the players staged on April Fools's day, 1992, was devastating to the small market teams and caused, in some fashion, the death of the Quebec Nordique, the Winnipeg Jets (1.0) and the Hartford Whalers. Gary Bettman, fairly new in his job, was the most hated man in Canada.

The 95-96 season which dawned amid much controversy with the then owner, Barry Shenkarow, attempting to find funding to build a new arena without which, he kept warning, the team could not survive. The old barn really had only 10,000 good seats although it was rated for a little over 15,000 – which was still not enough to keep an NHL team in the black through those times. The rumors that the team might be lost gained a new urgency and the "loudest arena on earth" got a little quieter.

When the announcement was made on August 15th, 1995 that the Jets had been sold to Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern , a day most Winnipeggers will remember in that "where were you when" way, local television, radio and newspaper coverage was like a thick blanket of doom. Despite many efforts, including concerts, rallies, a last minute consortium attempt to buy the team and people chaining themselves to the gates of the Winnipeg Arena, it was not to be undone.

As Jonathon Gatehouse of McLeans wrote, "A bigger, or more indifferent, city might have been able to shrug it off. But Winnipeg wasn't just hurt by the loss of the Jets, it was scarred."

The remainder of the season unfolded like a funeral cortege with game tickets being impossible to find, fans gathering in every possible corner of every possible coffee house to heap their anger on Bettman, the NHL, the "damn Americans", the "damn government" and anything else they could think to hate.

For many Jets fans, there was a lemonade-from-lemons attitude and you could hear things like, "But we still have Selänne. We are going to go out, it is certain, but we are going to go out with style."

But no. Adding injury to insult, Selanne was traded on February 7, 1996 by the new owners of the team. To Anaheim. No one even knew where that was, then.  Summing up the Winnipeg fan reactions is easy: "They got our team, did they have to steal our hero away from us, too?"

You cannot imagine the devastation unless you were living in Winnipeg and were a Jets fan. My daughter cried, my son threw things around his room for two hours, my neighbour made a sign for his front lawn, I wrote millions of words and then deleted them just so I could write them again. Angry words.

The remaining games played out like a rehearsal for your own last dance, with strains of The Last Post for background music.  It was, in a word, cruel. You kicked the ice on the sidewalk, frozen in place from November until March, and wondered why they could have hockey in California. California! One sponsor gave out "A Season to Remember" t-shirts but no amount of t-shirts, face paint, cheering or dancing in the aisles was going to change the reality; it moved inexorably along, each game bringing everyone closer to the moment they couldn't imagine facing.

According to reports, Selänne was angry at Brian Burke, one of the original owners of the Coyotes, for being told his future with the team was safe and then being summarily traded. He could not have been any angrier than were the fans, robbed of their chance to say a proper good-bye, robbed of their ability to thank the man who had brought so much to the city.

When Selänne came back for his first game against the new Winnipeg Jets on December 17, 2011, he was treated like a returning war hero. From standing ovations, video tributes, media coverage the likes of which is usually reserved for royalty to a strange sort of divided loyalty even as the game progressed. Fans were cheering when he scored ... against them. Booing vigorously for his team-mates only heightened the strangeness of the dichotomy going on inside the arena. It was clearly a crowd who had not forgotten him and who suffered from that emotional trauma peculiar to those who never got to say good-bye or properly grieve a loss.

For them, it was simple: Teemu Selänne was home.

When the Jets regrouped and started playing again in Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Selänne had, indeed, been asked to return to the city where it all started.

From the Free Press: "Winnipeg called my agent and asked if they could even make an offer," Selanne said today. "But I told Don Baizley, my agent, earlier that the biggest question for me (then) was if I can play, not where I can play."

It was disappointing but understandable. Teemu Selänne is a class act. He was a member of a team and loyal to that team. They had always expressed, in clear terms, their ongoing willingness to welcome him back every season while he went through his usual "decide over the summer" phase. They were ever unequivocal about their own loyalty to him.

The fans accepted that – how could they not? But there are many who still have a glimmer of hope that one day Teemu Selänne will come back home, for real, don a Winnipeg Jets jersey and give them all one final, proper "season to remember". A good-bye year to bookend his hello year.

Interestingly, two things have recently happened that have buoyed hope amongst the Winnipeg faithful. 

The first, as reported by the NHL and elsewhere, concerned an equivocation of his welcome back in Anaheim as the Ducks general manager Bob Murray told NHL.com he would welcome Selänne's return to the Ducks if the likely Hall of Fame member is "100 percent sure he wants to play". That "if" reads a little like a soft-shoe. Not quite a "take back" but a qualifier that, when added to the information below, definitely presents a picture different from the unconditional welcomes of previous years.   

The second concerned an enigmatic statement Selänne himself made to the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti that he has three options. Those options, according to Selänne, are to (1) return to the Ducks in Anaheim or (2) play for another NHL team, or (3) retire. This is also a change from his previous statements that if he was coming back to play, it would definitely be in Anaheim.

The fact that Murray qualified his welcome is very interesting. The fact that Selänne himself has gone from stating, as he has done in the past few years, that he was not deciding "where", only "if", to offering up the option of a different team is very interesting. That there is an upcoming Olympic games is very interesting. It could well point to, if not the actuality, certainly the reasonable possibility that Selänne might join the Jets for his final NHL campaign.

Is that Karma knocking?

The What Ifs

If the Ducks are less than completely enthusiastic for his return, he would find a team that would welcome him as no one has been welcomed since Bobby Hull signed his million dollar contract on Portage and Main. With Anaheim's cap situation close to "tight", Selänne's return at anything close to his last year's salary of just over $4 million, could pose a problem they might prefer not to encounter.

I think it will hinge on the Sochi Olympics.

If Selänne decides to play for Finland in the upcoming Sochi Olympics, which would set his existing Olympic records into stone, he will want to stay in hockey shape and the best way to do that is to play.

If he wants to play out his last year in a fairy-tale fashion, bring the circle to a close and reward himself and Winnipeg for the platform from which he stepped into the NHL, then he will sign with the Jets.

If he did, and I might not put money on that, but I would not bet against it, either, it might well prove to be the most compelling human interest story the NHL has ever had. In a world where "epic" is overused and "heroes" are too often given the title, Selänne could give Winnipeg, and himself, a truly "epic" last season and emerge the sort of hero that would give some credibility back to the word. It would be an "all's well that ends well" ending for the ages.

And he's JUST the sort of guy that would do that, I think.

We could all pull out those old "Season to Remember" t-shirts.

It would be EPIC. EPIC, I tell you.

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