When Teemu Selanne arrived at his Winnipeg hotel with the Anaheim Ducks at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, there were fans outside waiting to welcome him back to the city where his star was born.
That was something he'd seen before from the puckheads in the 'Peg, when he played for the original Winnipeg Jets from 1992-96. "I always remember the times when it was minus-40 here, and the fans were waiting for hours after the game to see a little bit of you," said Selanne in a Saturday press conference.
"It's a dream come true for a hockey player to play in this kind of place."
What does he expect when the Ducks skate against the new Winnipeg Jets? From the Winnipeg Free Press:
"To be honest, I don't really know what to expect tonight. If this was still the old Winnipeg Arena and the same jerseys as 15, 16 years ago, that would be a different story. But I'm very excited. The people, the fans, that's why I'm so excited here. I've always had a very special relationship with the fans here, pretty much everywhere I have played. But this is still a regular NHL game so you have to approach it the normal way."
What he should expect: a hero's welcome in the arena, and a community embracing a family that never wanted to leave Winnipeg.
Selanne's 1992-93 rookie season ranks among the best of all time in hockey; hell, in any sport. He set rookie records for points (132) and goals (76) in winning the Calder Trophy. It was similar, in some ways, to the famous rookie race between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in 2006: Eric Lindros had all the hype and the draft "derby" that accompanied it; Selanne burst onto the scene like a force of nature and captured the Calder. (Of course, Lindros missed time with an injury; we know, shocker.)
"He's going to put Winnipeg back on the hockey map," Coach John Paddock told SI back in 1993, when Selanne's dream was to win the Stanley Cup for the Jets and drive around Helsinki in a bright red Lincoln Continental with the Cup and his friends.
Selanne will play his first NHL regular season game in Winnipeg since Feb. 4, 1996. That was his final appearance in a Jets sweater, as he was traded to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim with Marc Chouinard and Winnipeg's 4th round choice (later traded to Toronto, later traded to Montreal, who selected Kim Staal) in 1996 Entry Draft for Chad Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and Anaheim's 3rd round choice (Per-Anton Lundstrom) in 1996 Entry Draft, February 7, 1996.
From Sports Illustrated, the fallout of that trade was embarrassing for the Jets/Coyotes: "Essentially the Jets/Coyotes [were] left with Danny Markov (who had yet to play more than 59 games in a season), a 2001 second-round pick, and a 1999 sixth-round pick in exchange for Selanne."
The trade happened as the Jets were already pegged for relocation to Phoenix; a grand insult to the fans already feeling a devastating sense of loss. Via the Vancouver Sun, it was an education for Selanne:
"These are lessons for life," Selanne said. "This is a business; feelings have nothing to do with it. I learned a lot. If some team doesn't need me, I'm more than happy to go where a team wants me."
The new Jets, it turns out, wanted him last summer after relocating from Atlanta. His wife Sirpa Selanne told the Winnipeg Free Press:
Sirpa said when the new Winnipeg Jets contacted her free-agent husband last summer, she was open to a possible move.
"I told Teemu, 'no matter where you play, it's OK for me.' I'm more adventurous. I always believe things happen for a reason. I think Teemu was thinking since the kids are so old, it's harder to move the whole pack now. There are six people and you have to think about everybody's life. He loved it here, but he's also loyal to the Ducks. He was honoured that Winnipeg was interested," she said.
She also told the Free Press how anguishing it was to leave a city she and Teemu adored:
"The trade was the worst thing that ever happened. There were some rumours, but we were told they were just rumours. We didn't really believe them. It was a really big shock. The timing was so bad for our personal (lives). It was a sad time for hockey here, the team was moving away. The whole spring we were thinking we were going to have to say goodbye," she said.
In what could be Selanne's last season in the NHL, it's the Winnipeg fans that get a chance to say goodbye — and thank you.
(Ed. Note: I had a few back-and-forths over the surreal nature of a Winnipeg Jets legend facing a team in Winnipeg called the Jets that he never played for. It's not a debate for this post, which is meant to celebrate his connection with Winnipeg; read my take about it here.)