Once In a Generation

by | Jan 11, 2015

It’s hard to overestimate the impact a player like Teemu Selanne has on the hockey culture of a city. But I’m pretty sure that if you measured the temperature (not literally) of Winnipeg and Anaheim today, you’d get an idea of how much he’s meant to both places.

 

The Anaheim club celebrated his impact on Sunday with a sweater (in Ameri-speak, “jersey,” but that’s really a football term) retirement ceremony which took place at 4:30 local time, with the game between the Jets and Ducks scheduled for 6pm. The place was packed, and the ice was full of trophies, including the Stanley Cup, a Rocket Richard trophy, and others. How much did local fans appreciate it?

 

They got the emotion. They gave their thanks in the form of ovations. They screamed the way the devoted do when one of their heroes makes an appearance. What they might not have been able to appreciate was the pure skill that this man brought to the game.

 

Not that they misunderstood the magic of having Selanne on the ice. His blinding, super-accelerative speed assured that. But did they truly grasp that seeing a guy like this play hockey is an unrepeatable experience in the life of most franchises? That, I’m not so sure about.

 

Chicago had just one Bobby Hull. Montreal had but one Jean Beliveau. They talk about Connor McDavid being a “generational” player, meaning that only once in a generation does a guy like him come along. But that term could equally apply to a current player, or a retired one. And every time I watched Selanne streak down the right wing or flash into the slot and score a goal, I would think about that, and ponder my luck at being on the spot for these magical moments.

 

The night he scored goal 600, back in 2010, everyone asked whether it was over. Each summer, he kept the intrigue high, only announcing that he would come back for one more year after taking a good number of weeks, sometimes months, to think about it. But even at 600, his career was nowhere close to being over. Like lots of other people, I always hoped the Selanne era would never end, because I knew, and I know, that for twenty, thirty, or more years, the treat that was watching this level of greatness will not be repeated in a Ducks’ sweater.

 

Sure, there was Pronger, briefly. Scott Niedermayer made his mark here too. Giguere. Kariya. But in the first two cases, the legacy will, likely, end up being elsewhere. Edmonton, maybe Philly. New Jersey for Niedermayer.

 

Niedermayer played just five of his nearly twenty NHL seasons as an Anaheim player, after all. Sure, he played the Ducks’ most important season, 2006-07, being the second largest piece, after the goaltender, to guide the Ducks to the Cup, but he won three of those in New Jersey too, and he’s really more their son than Anaheim’s, in my opinion.

 

As for Kariya, he didn’t win here. He may have scored some goals, but at 402, it was nowhere near Selanne’s career 684. Think about that. Kariya has a fond place in most Anaheim fans’ imaginations. And he got just 59 percent of the goals that Selanne got. And, just so you know, he didn’t show up for Selanne’s ceremony, except in a couple of brief video appearances. Word on that? That he refused the invitation, offering an excuse.

 

But forget him. Think about another great. Gordie Howe. Anyone who saw him play remembers it, and most people who were anywhere in his orbit have a story to tell about what a good man he was (is). The same is true for Selanne. The speed. The confidence. The shot—sometimes more accurate than hard, and always placed exactly where it needed to be, so deceptively good. And the after-game demeanor. Always funny.

 

Always engaging. Always willing to talk about the game, the state of the game in the larger perspective. A guy who has probably signed his name a half million times in his life, and will do so half a million more, but he never said no, and I doubt he ever will a million more.

 

Teemu Selanne was a special hockey player, but he’s an even more special man. Heck, when he nodded hello to me during a Kings’ playoff game last spring, he there as a newly minted TV guy and me there for Inside Hockey, I knew that I’d be a fan forever. Mostly because of what he did on the ice, but also in considerable measure for what he did off of it.

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