My first memory of watching a live sporting event in Winnipeg is colored in a dozen shades of vagueness.
I can see myself sitting in the pews of the old barn on Maroons Road, as Billy Mosienko and the Winnipeg Warriors whirled about the local freeze. I do not, however, recall their foe that evening, or which side won, which side lost or if the skirmish ended in a stalemate. I don’t recall the year, just the vintage. It was sometime between 1955 and ’60. I can’t say if the popcorn was good or bad, although I imagine it was scrumptous because when you’re a sprig of less than 10 years popcorn is generally good. And I can only guess that I attended the Western Hockey League match with family members, most likely my father and older brother.
I do know this, though: After that experience, I was hooked on hockey.
It wasn’t just the game itself that left me spellbound. It was the atmosphere, as well. I had never sat among so many people. Excited people. Loud people. Mostly, they were men, a large percentage of them wearing hats and neckties. I remember feeling so tiny, like a speck of sand on a beach of humanity.
Odd thing is, when I picture that scene in my mind’s eye, it’s in black and white. Not color.
Why that is, I cannot explain. I mean, I know the Warriors wore gold with black trim and their opponents that night surely were adorned in jerseys of some colorful hue. Yet it is a black-and-white memory, slightly grainy and somewhat drab, like a freeze-frame from 1960s Moscow.
Whatever, I find myself in retreat to that evening more than a half century ago because of Teemu Selanne, who was to call that same old barn, the Winnipeg Arena, home from the autumn of 1992 until the frigid days of February 1996. And it occurs to me that in more than 50 years of watching hockey, also scribbling about hockey for two River City newspapers, I cannot think of a shinny star whose sheen has remained so intense for so long.
What’s that you say? Bobby Hull? Nope. Don’t wish to go there. All that glitters is not the Golden Jet, mainly due to the tarnish of off-ice improprieties. Domestic violence is never a favorable selling point and tends to serve as a dimmer switch on one’s legacy, so Hull, while still adored by thousands, is loathed by many.
A case, of course, could be made for Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. The passage of time has not been unkind to our favorite Swedes, who, almost 40 years after they spurned Pegtown for the glitz and glam of Gotham, remain hockey deity. Like Selanne, they were not with us for a long time. Just four years. But they helped usher in a different, more artistic, swashbuckling way of playing the game and produced two World Hockey Association championships for the Winnipeg Jets.
The adulation directed toward Selanne, however, is otherworldly.
It’s one year shy of 20 since the Jets general manager of the day, John Paddock, peddled the Finnish Flash to Anaheim in exchange for a string of beads named Chad Kilger and Oleg Tverdovsky, yet Selanne still is a rock star. When they raise his No. 8 to the rafters tonight at the Honda Center prior to the Jets joust with the Disney Ducks, no small squadron of River City rooters will have made the pilgrimage to Orange County, Calif., to witness the ceremony.
So, what makes Selanne so special? Why travel halfway across a continent to watch some hokey jersey-raising salute to a guy who played just four of his 22 National Hockey League crusades in Jets linen?
Well, it’s about those 76 goals in his rookie season…unthinkable. Unparalled. Never to be matched. Ever. Perhaps the singular, greatest achievement in the history of River City sports. Any sport. So, that would be the starting point in any attempt to explain Selanne’s immense and enduring appeal.
I believe it to be more than numbers, though. Much more. I think it’s as basic as this: Teemu Selanne is a good guy. No…he’s a great guy.
Many of us have become jaded by the blight of boorish behaviour of pro jocks. We see their names on police blotters and court dockets every day. They’re thugs, cheats, liars, murderers, con artists, rapists, wife beaters, child abusers, drug abusers, racists…name the crime, they’ve done the time.
That’s one reason I believe what most people see foremost in Selanne is his ample goodness. His earthiness. His one-of-usness. To us, he’s still that ever-smiling, unassuming, freshly scrubbed Finnish lad who likes us as much as we like him.
He remains a beacon for that reason, and none shine brighter.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.