Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Selanne Effect

Some people have it. What it is can be different from one person to the next. It can be a magnetic, outgoing personality, the friend to all, that everyone notices when they enter a room. It can be a stoic strength that is envied and emulated but rarely copied. Or it can be a unique genuineness, an honesty that transcends language and is felt as opposed to conveyed. This honesty carries with it a sense of purity that draws out the better qualities of people that encounter it.

This is the Selanne effect.

I’m about five months younger than Teemu, so as a fellow person of middling age let me take you back to 1992. The sports headlines since the previous year’s draft had been dominated by Eric “The Next One” Lindros who at the time thought he could do better in any other market than the one who drafted him in Quebec City. Of course I and many other Winnipeggers shared a disdain for Lindros, not because we had any special affinity for Quebec City, but because in our heart of hearts we knew the same thing could very well happen to us in the next go around. Eric of course ended up going to an American club and Quebec ended up with some valuable properties in return, but it felt like the beginning of the end for small market NHL teams.

During all of this a young Finnish player named Teemu Selanne, chosen tenth overall by the Jets in 1988, quietly moved to Winnipeg with a modest amount of fanfare. At the time the Jets were doing what they always did, scratching and clawing their way into a playoff spot, only to be eliminated by the Oilers in the first round. The Jets original superstar, Dale Hawerchuck had been traded away for Phil Housley and the Jets where a decidedly dull and mediocre team. The economy was down, the city was down, the hockey club was down; the fall of 1992 was dreary. It was the perfect time for a hero.

At the time the Jets hockey club was trying to hype Teemu as much as they could, but as a jaded twenty-something my thoughts were, whatever, another European, what else is new? Indeed there had been a long list of European experiments that had gone off the rails in the previous seasons with the Jets and I was, in my twenty-something way, underwhelmed. That is until Teemu actually started to play, and I experienced the Selanne effect first hand. Teemu exploded into the National Hockey League and took everyone by complete surprise. Coaches, players, fans; everyone was taken aback as the young Finn seemed to score at will. There was a new energy on the Jets and it spilled over into the fans that sent it back again in a tremendous feedback loop that culminated in a record shattering 76 goal rookie season for the one that was now dubbed the “Finnish Flash”.

Through all the adulation, hysteria, and new found hockey glory running through Winnipeg, you could sense at the centre of it all was just a kid who loved to play hockey. Here was a spirit who embraced the people of Winnipeg because they embraced the game and the game was his life. The small city, the cold, the old rink, and the crazy fans all seemed to fit into the Selanne effect. Winnipeggers needed a hero and the hero needed them, it was one of those strange and rare convergences of circumstance, and everyone knew it was special. It also validated the fact that a superstar could end up in a small market and still be successful both on and off the ice. As the “Next One” looked average, the “Finnish Flash” blew through the record books.

We of course all know that in real life happy endings are few and far between. In the winter of 1996 even though our hero had fought and slayed many dragons, the hockey club had been sold and was heading out of town. It appeared to all the experts that even a superstar couldn’t save the small market Canadian hockey club, and on one fateful day near the end, Teemu Selanne was told he had been traded. By most accounts Teemu was furious, he stormed into the dressing room and ripped off his nameplate, and stormed back out again. By his own account he felt that he had been betrayed and cheated out of the opportunity to say goodbye to the people he had grown up with, the people that had taught him why the game was worth playing. It was one of a very few regrets that Teemu carried with him to Anaheim and was one he was reminded of every time a number 13 jersey appeared in the stands during the years that followed.

Now we come to the end and our hero is in the twilight of his playing days. By most reckoning Teemu Selanne has had a hall of fame career, going on to win a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks and consistently, year after year, being their top player. With the re-emergence of both Winnipeg and its hockey team though, Teemu has made his way back to old ground, and back to the people who seem to understand him best.

On Saturday December 17, 2011 Teemu Selanne stepped back onto the Winnipeg ice to a thunderous ovation usually reserved for conquering heroes. Teemu looked up and saw the faces that he’d longed to say goodbye to all those years ago and waved, biting his lower lip, remaining stoic and humble like the hero he is. Through the storm of emotional energy the game carried on, and every time number eight touched the puck a swell of noise followed. After, ironically, a Jets victory, the old Jet did one final lap as the third star. The circle had been closed, and the debt that Teemu felt he owed Winnipeg had been repaid.

Through all the hype, media attention, and storming crowd noise, one still came away with that same old feeling. Teemu is simply a man who loves hockey and he embraces the place where it all started because the people of that place love the hockey he plays. It is that genuine honesty that cannot be conveyed in words, the same old feeling that drew out the best of Winnipeg in 1992 and again on Saturday.

It is the Selanne effect.

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