Photo: Marianne Helm
Hey, everyone! It’s good to be back. As if there isn’t enough exciting hockey to write about in DC, Ian Oland and the RMNB team have hired me to be their Swedish correspondent so I can give a player’s perspective on what’s going on in the wonderful world of hockey.
I want to begin the second tour of my blogging career with a tribute to a guy who, from a young age, inspired me to become a hockey player and to work on my game — despite us not crossing paths until I was 25 years old. That man is Teemu Selanne. He’s the NHL player we all love to love. That in and of itself is a strange phenomenon in any sport. For hockey fans to (almost) unanimously appreciate a player is rare. People love Ovi, but there are people who hate Ovi. People love Carey Price, but there are people who hate Carey Price. In all my years of hockey I don’t think I have ever heard a person on either side of the glass say that they don’t like Teemu Selanne. You either like him or love him. Not a bad way to go through your career.
To give you a little backstory, Teemu and I started our careers at the same time… kind of. I first strapped on skates and took to the ice in an organized practice as a six-year-old in the same season that Teemu left Finland to join the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93. My father was born in Nova Scotia but spent the majority of his first 25 years living in Winnipeg and thus was an avid Jets fan. At the time I was barely old enough to watch hockey on TV and figure out what was going on. I wanted to like the same things as my dad. So, early on, Teemu had a couple big fans watching him from the east coast.
It was easy to find updates on him that season: he scored 76 goals. Still a mind-numbing figure and a record I don’t think will ever be broken. From that season on I was hooked. I wore number 13 whenever I had a chance up, until Teemu switched to number 8 (I am back in #13 this year). I had Teemu posters on my bedroom walls. I had a DVD of his rookie season highlights (called “The New Boss”) that I watched daily, and whenever I was on the ice or in the basement playing road hockey I was Teemu and I was working on whatever move I just saw him pull or reenacting the latest goal I saw him score. The way Wayne Gretzky looked at Gordie Howe, that’s how I looked at Teemu.
Fast forward 19 years. It’s July 1, 2011. It’s my first trip through the free agent market and who is the first team that calls? The Anaheim Ducks. After accepting the offer I spoke to my dad on the phone. He was so thrilled that I was going to get to meet Teemu. He wasn’t excited about the opportunity or the salary, at least not at first. He was just excited I would rub shoulders with Teemu Selanne.
Once training camp rolled around, I was too starstruck to talk to him. I had played only 12 NHL games at that point, so I was far from a lock to make the team. I didn’t have any reason to walk up and introduce myself as if I were noteworthy. But Teemu being Teemu, he came and found me. He asked me about my sticks, the curve, the flex, how I came up with the pattern and so on … which I’m sure he didn’t care about seeing as he had used the same pattern since dinosaurs roamed the earth. But he showed an interest when he didn’t have to.
This would become a common theme with Teemu.
By the end of training camp I was on the Ducks roster and on my way to Finland for the season opener. We spent ten days in Helsinki and a few more in Stockholm playing an exhibition game against the local SM-Liiga club (at the time, now a member of the KHL) Jokerit Helsinki before playing our first two regular season games against the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers. I remember thinking, “wait…so I’m still technically in the NHL, AND I get to go travel around Finland with Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu? This cant be real.” My father almost passed out when I told him. Saku was another of my boyhood idols, as we were also Montreal fans. (I’m sorry if that offends some readers, ha).
I remember really watching those two guys in Helsinki. How they conducted themselves blew my mind. They were kings in that city, but they treated every person they met like an old friend. They had time for everyone. This is not an exaggeration when I say every single person. If you wanted to talk to Teemu about your home town and your beer league team, he would oblige, and he’d be wildly impressed by your story! He and Saku found a way to make people around them feel important. They made the interactions about the other person, not inflating their own egos.
As the year went on, our team was struggling. We were underachieving, playing with tons of pressure and we were finding ways to lose games instead of finding ways to win them. A good example is when we went to DC. Yikes. I still wake up in a cold sweat over that one.
There weren’t a ton of on-ice highlights from me in the early going, as I was playing a 3rd/4th line role and had not registered a goal through 20-some games. Frustration was setting in, and I was starting to feel like I had to start producing or get waived. We were playing against Philly at home and as I was driving the net a puck came off the goaltender, hit me somewhere between my stick and my foot, and bounced into the net. I felt 1000 pounds lighter.
When I came back to the bench after doing the fly-by, the first guy to give me a pat on the head was Teemu. He grabbed me on my helmet and said, “only 640 more till you catch me.” Then he laughed.
He was that kind of guy. He enjoyed the success of those around him, he made others feel good, and he was able to laugh at just about anything.
This last story is a 3-in-1. We were playing on the road in Winnipeg during the Jets’ first year back in the league. It was Teemu’s return. Like me and my father, the NHL had circled that day on the calendar. When we arrived at the hotel in the ‘Peg, there were a hundred Teemu fans wearing throwback number-13 Jets Jerseys, t-shirts, and hats ready to be signed.
(Keep in mind these people stood outside in Winter-peg on December 17 for god knows how long just to see T walk into a hotel.)
As usual, Teemu made sure everyone got what they came for, be it an autograph or a handshake. But there was one moment that is etched in my memory. As I was walking past on my way to the lobby, one of the people waiting for Teemu was a boy with Down’s syndrome. He was an adult man, probably in his mid 20s, standing with someone who I presumed to be his father. As Teemu walked towards the crowd, the boy called out from the second row, “Teemu, do you remember me?” The boy’s father chimed in, saying quietly, almost sheepishly, “we met you at a season ticket holder night when you played for the Jets”.
With that, Teemu’s face lit up and he responded with a quick, “Yes, how are you?” and shook their hands like it was all coming back to him. The boy didn’t respond with much after that; he was just so beside himself, but you could see the boy’s father send Teemu a nod and silent “thank you” as he moved on down the autograph line.
Later on, I asked Teemu about the boy. He said he didn’t actually remember him, he was just trying to make sure the boy had the experience he was hoping for when he showed up that night. This is Teemu taking three seconds out of his day to create a lifelong memory for a boy who could never have that moment back again. By this point in the season I was no longer surprised to hear that he was just being quick-witted enough to make someone’s day, but to see the way he handled the situation was something I have carried around with me ever since.
The game itself was insane. My dad and his high school pals were in attendance while my mother watched from home. She said that it was strange watching the pregame ceremony to see me and Teemu standing shoulder to shoulder on the bench. I guess for her it was one of those “dreams do come true” moments. It was for me too.
After the puck dropped, the crowd gave Teemu a standing ovation for the entire length of his shifts during the first period. The building was electric, as it usually is in Winnipeg, and although we lost the game, it will still go down as one of the greatest nights of my career. After the game, I went to meet my father and his crew in the family waiting area, where there were about 100-plus of Teemu’s friends and family. He took his time and did his thing with everyone who had been supporting him in Winnipeg all those years, but on his way out he stopped and talked for a couple mins with my father and I, again. This time, probably without knowing it, Teemu had created a lasting memory for the two of us. Me, my dad, and Teemu Selanne hanging out having a laugh after an NHL game in Winnipeg. I bet my father didn’t see that coming when he tightened the laces on a six-year-old’s skates for the first time.
When people ask me about Teemu, I can say that, from my short experience, he is without a doubt one of the greatest people in hockey. Bold but true. The term ambassador is tossed around a lot, but I feel it fits for Finnish Flash. From his first shift to the final buzzer, he was an outstanding player. Few have left the game with more respect. I personally learned a lot from him in the few months I spent in Anaheim, and although I wish I could have stuck around for a lot longer, I will always cherish that time.
Not everyone gets to watch and learn from their idols, and the funny thing is, of all the things I learned from Teemu, the best of them had nothing to do with hockey. Enjoy your cigars and scotch, Teemu. No NHL’er has earned it more.
“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Until next time, adjö! (Thats goodbye in Swedish.)
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