Winnipeg Jets: Teemu Selanne’s smile was the real Finnish flash

Back in the day, when I was cheeky and totally irreverent, I would refer to Mike Smith as Mikhail due to his fondness and fascination for Russian hockey players.

Actually, it was more of an obsession for comrade Mikhail.

Considered something of an egghead in National Hockey League circles because he held a doctorate in Russian studies and wrote books (as if that’s a bad thing), Smith collected two things: Native American art and comrades. Under his watch as the mad scientist general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, he turned the town into Little Moscow. It was here an Igor, there an Ivan, everywhere a Vladimir. Trouble was, he didn’t always recruit the best of Mother Russia (hello, Sergei Bautin).

Teemu Selanne

That didn’t prevent Smith from pumping their tires, though, and so it was one night in early October 1992 when the comrade and I were standing at the back of the Winnipeg Arena press box, in whispered conversation about two of the five rookies in his lineup.

Selanne is a good one,” I submitted. “You guys didn’t make a mistake with him.”

If you think Teemu is good,” Smith responded, “wait until you see what Alexei can do. He’s better than Teemu. He’ll win the scoring championship in this league one day.”

Oops.

There’s no argument that Alexei Zhamnov was among the most skilled players to ever pull Jets linen over his head and shoulders. He was an artist and a wizard, a sometimes breath-taking magician of the Kent Nilsson ilk. But better than Teemu Selanne? Not so much.

The numbers tell the tale of the two players. Longevity tells the tale. One Stanley Cup ring tells the tale. Induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame tells the tale.

But it isn’t the goals, the dashing and daring, the trinkets that are what I remember most about Teemu Selanne. It’s the joy—unbridled, pure and wide-eyed—that he took from the ice to the people.

Selanne was seldom the biggest player in the room, but he was always the biggest kid in the room. Any room. That’s why we still hear stories about how he’d step outside and join the neighborhood kids in Winnipeg for a rousing game of road hockey. Imagine that. An NHL all-star goofing around on snowy streets and shouting “Car!” whenever they’d catch sight of a Buick, Chevy or Ford rumbling down the road toward goal posts made of the white stuff.

That was Teemu.

We called him the Finnish Flash because of the lickety-split in his stride and the electricity he brought to NHL rinks, especially the Jets’ old barn on Maroons Road, but we should have been talking about his smile. That was the real Finnish flash.

Selanne arrived in River City in 1992, 22 years old and with an innocence that I don’t think he ever lost. He took Jets Nation on a magic carpet ride that winter, scoring a mind-popping 76 goals to remove Mike Bossy’s name from the record book, a freshman achievement that has not been challenged, nor is it likely to be. His rookie points total, 132, is second to only one other first-year player. That guy’s name is Gretzky, Wayne. But, in the eyes of the NHL, No. 99 was an unrookie because he had spent one season getting his feet wet in the World Hockey Association. Thus, the frosh records belong to Selanne.

Now that he has earned entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame, it’ll be mentioned that the Finnish Flash was but a passing comet in Winnipeg. Here for a good time, not a long time. And, yes, hockey fans down Disneyland way have every right to claim Selanne as their own, because he spent 15 of his 21 NHL crusades with the Anaheim Ducks compared to parts of four in Jets colors. They even had a special night in his honour, raising his No. 8 to the rafters during a 90-minute salute at the Honda Center.

But we know different. He was loaner. Teemu is ours.

That’s just how it is when a guy lights up all those cold, dreary nights on the frozen tundra with Herculean performances, and when he steps outside to play road hockey with a bunch of urchins who have posters of him taped to their bedroom walls. All the while flashing that smile.

Just like he did on Monday when he took a phone and received the glad tidings from Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald.

I owe you big time beers, boys,” a beaming Selanne told McDonald.

Yup, that’s our guy Teemu. An absolute joy.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

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Goal or coal: Sports Santa has stocking stuffers for jocks and Jills

Okay, Sports Santa, time to do your thing. You know the drill. Make your list, check it twice, tell us who’s been nice, naughty and flat-out nasty this year.

What will it be, goodies or a lump of coal or two in those Christmas stockings?

naughty santaCOAL: Kyle Walters, because he lied. The man who generally mismanages the Winnipeg Blue Bombers insisted that the signing of University of Manitoba Bisons grad Jordan Yantz to a tryout contract was not—repeat, NOT— a publicity stunt.

“He’s a legitimate quarterback prospect,” Walters told news scavengers. “Jordan is going to come in and compete for a spot on our roster at quarterback. We feel he has shown all the tools needed to play this position at the professional level, and we look forward to watching him compete in camp. This isn’t a charity case.”

Liar, liar. His pants were a three-alarm fire.

Yantz had about as much chance of earning employment with the Canadian Football League club as Walters has of being appointed GM of the Dallas Cowboys. He was given less than a handful of reps at practice and, although dressing for one preseason exercise, head coach Mike O’Shea refused to send him into the fray to take a snap.

COAL: That’ll be three lumps of the black stuff for O’Shea. Actually, make it an entire coal bin. First for gagging his assistant coaches, who are not allowed to speak to news scavengers; second for refusing to deliver an honest evaluation of his players and/or their performance without first having an opportunity to “watch the film;” and third for his role in the Jordan Yantz sham.

Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen.
Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen.

GOAL: Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen, champions of all the land’s lady curlers. The Buffalo Girls won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, no small feat, and how they were overlooked as a team-of-the-year finalist in balloting by the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association is a mystery. Apparently, their continued success in Canadian and Olympic curling has become ho-hum. Shame, that.

GOAL: The Montreal Alouettes, for having the junk to sign Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay man to perform in the CFL.

COAL: Michael Sam. What a wasted opportunity. Rather than make a strong statement for LGBT athletes, he bugged out on the Alouettes not once, but twice. He played one game at rush end, recorded zero sacks and zero tackles, was made to look the fool on one play, then skipped town and, once back in the U.S., he prattled on about the CFL being beneath his talent level.

COAL: Steve Simmons, scant days after the debut of Sam, an openly gay man playing for the Alouettes, the Toronto Sun scribe, whose work oft appears in the Winnipeg Sun, wrote: “In reality, pro football still awaits its first openly gay player.” Apparently, Little Stevie Blunder is much like that tree falling in the forest…it doesn’t happen unless he’s there to see and hear it.

GOAL: Kevin Cheveldayoff, the Winnipeg Jets general manager who proved he actually has a pulse by arranging for Evander Kane’s ticket out of River City. Unloading the underachieving, injury-prone problem child was a master stroke, especially given that Kane was done for the season. We don’t see a whole lot of big trades in the National Hockey League, and many of us didn’t think Chevy had it in him. We were wrong. Unfortunately, he went back into hibernation and hasn’t been seen nor heard from since. Sort of like that tree falling in the forest.

COAL: Cheveldayoff for allowing the very useful Michael Frolik to skate off to Calgary. For zip. Nada. If he does the same with Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, say goodnight, Chevy.

COAL: To every professional athlete who hit a woman this year.

Chris Thorburn
Chris Thorburn

GOAL: Chris Thorburn, the much-maligned man who continues to do everything asked of him by the Jets and is now the franchise leader in games played. Too often he is a fourth-liner dressed up as a third-line forward (with gusts up to the first line when head coach Paul Maurice loses his mind) and his very existence on the roster speaks to a disturbing lack of depth, but I admire his stick-to-itness.

GOAL: Bryan Little of the Jets for his understated excellence. No, he wouldn’t be the No. 1 centre on every NHL outfit, but he can play on my team anytime.

COAL: Gary (La La) Lawless, late of the Winnipeg Free Press and now a talking head with TSN. Give him the entire coal bin. While still the loudest voice at the Freep, he sucked up to Blue Bombers management by repeatedly telling readers that it takes more than 1 1/2 or two years to rebuild a broken-down CFL franchise. Hello? Can you say Edmonton Eskimos and Ottawa RedBlacks, Gary? La La also asked the dumbest question of the year, when he wondered aloud if Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea was going to “give up,” even though his club was a mere two points removed from a playoff spot with six games yet to be played.

GOAL: Jonathan Toews, a Winnipeg product and class act who captained the Chicago Blackhawks to another Stanley Cup championship.

COAL: Wade Miller, CEO of the Blue Bombers. Because he’s Wade Miller, CEO of the Blue Bombers.

GOAL: Mo Glimcher, grand poobah of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association. Mo, one of the truly good guys, will be sacking his bats after 40 years with the MHSAA, giving giving the executive director plenty of spare time to attend Bandy tournaments across the globe.

GOAL: Dan Halldorson passed away in November and the Brandon/Shilo golfer was remembered for his vital role in keeping the pro tour in Canada alive and well.

GOAL: Take a bow Joe Pascucci of Global and Knuckles Irving of CJOB. Joe was inducted into the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, while Knuckles was awarded the CFL’s Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership Award.

Big Buff is no fan of three-on-three shinny.
Big Buff is no fan of three-on-three shinny.

COAL: Dustin Byfuglien dissed the NHL’s 3-on-3 overtime format, saying, “It ain’t hockey. It’s stupid.” Yo! Buff! If you weren’t huffing and puffing so badly after three periods, you’d probably enjoy a little pond hockey.

COAL: The Reporters with Dave Hodge on TSN moved from Sunday mornings to Monday afternoon. I can do Sunday mornings, but I don’t do Monday afternoons. Move it back.

GOAL: Old friend Teemu Selanne had his Disney Ducks jersey No. 8 raised to the rafters at the Honda Center in Anaheim early in the year and, during a lengthy speech, the Finnish Flash actually thanked the small people—the cleaning lady and the Zamboni driver. Class act to the end.

COAL: Paul Maurice, head coach of the Jets. See Peluso, Anthony. That’s why.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti 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.