GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the dog days of Teemu Selanne’s second NHL season, he turned to Winnipeg Jets teammate and fellow Finn, Teppo Numminen, with a concern.
“He said ‘No way I’m going to last here more than five years. There’s too many games!’” recalled Numminen, who had experienced the same shock five years earlier. “I just laughed.
“Twenty years later, it hasn’t seemed to affect him.”
The 2013 season has felt like one big retrospective for Selanne. He’s had a Finnish documentary film crew following him around for the past few years to try and capture the last days of his career. With Dwayne Roloson’s retirement, Selanne, 42, is now the elder statesman of the league, and on Saturday in Phoenix, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of breaking Mike Bossy’s rookie goal-scoring record during an epic 76-goal season.
“All the interviews and the clips and the things I’ve seen, it brings back a lot of memories,” said Selanne, before flashing that trademark wry smile. “Sometimes, it refreshes the memory.”
With Selanne and his Anaheim Ducks teammates in the midst of three consecutive games against the Coyotes, including back-to-back contests at Jobing.com Arena, it was hard to avoid another painful memory. Had history proceeded down a different path, this might have been home for Selanne.
The Jets had already visited Phoenix during the 1995-96 All-Star break, and everyone associated with the team knew it would be their last season in Winnipeg. Most observers assumed that one big piece would not be making the trek southward, because the club’s payroll was too high in a league with no salary cap and a market that used the weak Canadian dollar but paid players in U.S. dollars.
The Blackhawks had signed Winnipeg restricted free agent Keith Tkachuk to an offer sheet before that season, forcing the Jets to match it and hold onto him for at least a calendar year. Center Alex Zhamnov was playing out his option year, while Selanne had just signed a five-year deal worth $14 million, making him the most attractive trade bait.
The rumors persisted all season, but Selanne was heartened by a phone call he received from former owner Richard Burke.
“He called me two weeks before the trade and said ‘I know you have heard some trade rumors, but I just want to call you personally and tell you you’re not for sale. You’re going to be a huge part of our success down in Phoenix,’” Selanne said. “He didn’t have to do that, and I obviously appreciated it, because I was a young player and I had been worried about it. My wife was nine months pregnant. The last thing we needed was all that change.”
Burke didn’t keep his word. Two weeks later, Selanne was dealt to Anaheim along with forward Marc Chouinard and a fourth-round pick for forward Chad Kilger, defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky and a third-round pick in what might represent the worst trade in franchise history. Seventeen years later — 13 in Anaheim, sandwiched around detours to San Jose and Colorado — Selanne is still going strong. With six goals and 11 assists this season, he’s now up to 669 career goals.
“I was very angry,” Selanne said. “When somebody tells you you’re not going to be traded and then you get traded you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ Why tell me I’m not going to be traded? I was very disappointed with how it happened.”
Injury concerns might also have played a role. Selanne suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in his second season, limiting him to 51 games. But even during that season, and in the ensuing, lockout-shortened season, he averaged more than a point a game, totaling 147 goals and 306 points in his 231 games in a Jets uniform.
His rookie season remains one for the ages. Longtime Coyotes equipment manager Stan Wilson recalls — when Selanne had 47 goals heading into a weekend game against Minnesota — getting a call from some buddies in his home province of Saskatchewan who wanted to make the eight-hour drive to Winnipeg to see if the rookie could notch No. 50.
Selanne didn’t disappoint, scoring four times against the Minnesota North Stars, who were in their final season before moving to Dallas.
Heartened by their good fortune, Wilson’s friends decided to stick around one more game to see if Selanne could catch Bossy at 53. He did, scoring three times against Quebec and punctuating the record-breaking goal by tossing his glove in the air and shooting it out of the sky with Curt Keilback on the call.
“It’s the most incredible thing I’ll ever see one player do,” Wilson said of Selanne’s 76-goal, rookie season. “I have one of the worst memories going, but I remember a lot of what he did that year because everything was a highlight.”
The key to Selanne’s success was his burst, Numminen said.
“Nobody had a faster first few strides than him, and I don’t think I’ve seen any player since who could match it,” Numminen said. “He surprised a lot of defensemen with that and he surprised a lot of guys with how strong he was. He didn’t get knocked around.”
The on-ice success was clearly crucial to Selanne’s popularity, but his well-chronicled, outgoing personality was the clincher in small-town Winnipeg.
“He’s a lot like (Shane) Doaner in that way,” Wilson said. “He has time for everybody and sincerely has time for everybody, not because he has to have time for everybody.
“In his rookie year, they would get 200-300 autograph requests sent in every day, and he’d want to do them all. They had to put them away and say ‘Hey, we’ll have to do it at end of the season.’”
Having Selanne back in town is a constant reminder of what might have been in Phoenix. An outgoing, highly skilled, high-scoring wing coming into his prime in a new market. Who knows how much that would have helped solidify the franchise’s fortunes in its early days?
“Here and there I think about it because that was my team,” Selanne said. “That’s where I expected to be and those were the guys I expected to play with. Everything I heard from the guys, like Teppo, who played here was how much they loved it so that made it even harder.
“I would have loved to play here. I really wanted to. But you try and move on, so the thing I think about is how lucky and thankful I am to be playing such a long time. I would have never imagined I’d still be in the league at age 42. A lot of good things have happened so I try to enjoy it and be appreciative.”
How much longer Selanne will haunt Phoenix with what-ifs has not been determined. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, as will Anaheim forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Saku Koivu and Corey Perry.