In what’s surely his last season, Teemu Selanne will go out on his own terms

Ken Campbell
(Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
(Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

The sense of irony was inescapable. It was a Tuesday in late October and Teemu Selanne was standing at his stall preparing to answer questions after a morning skate for – give or take a few – the 1,513th time in his NHL career, including playoffs. Just as the first question was asked, the Anaheim Ducks dressing room sound system kicked in and began playing a familiar song. You know it. You all know it. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s been played immediately after the daddy-daughter dance at every small-town wedding you’ve ever attended. Tom Cruise danced to it in his underwear.

(Play piano in brain)
Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…
Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…
Just take those old records off the shelf.
I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself…

When Selanne played his first NHL game Oct. 6, 1992, the night he got the first two of his 132 points as a rookie, people were still occasionally taking old records off their shelves. His Ducks teammate, Hampus Lindholm, was 15 months from being born. Randy Carlyle, the coach on the other side of the building this night, was on his own farewell tour in the NHL then and he’s 57 now. Now, more than 21 years later, Selanne is saying his own goodbye to the NHL. And this time, apparently, he really, really, really means it. This isn’t like all the other times when fingers and toes were crossed. There will be no cliffhangers, no summers of wondering whether he will or won’t, no more funny videos.

This is not like the World Championship in 2008 when, after winning the bronze medal for Finland, he started his post-game conversation by declaring that, under no uncertain terms, he had played his last game. Ever. Five minutes later, he was saying he would never, ever, ever, again wear the Suomi sweater in international competition. By the time he was finished talking, all bets were off.

Talk to longtime teammates like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry about the prospect of Selanne retiring and they roll their eyes. All they know is Selanne keeps showing up for training camp. “Teemu was supposed to retire six years ago,” Perry says. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

But Selanne is adamant this time. For starters, he had never, ever gone into a season with a definitive plan for it to be his last the way he has this season. He has never before agreed to sit out one of back-to-back games, of which Anaheim has 12 this season. He has never before told the Ducks and their management team he doesn’t want the Mariano Rivera treatment. A video display and an ovation is nice in visiting arenas, but if he was going to receive 29 rocking chairs, he would have waited until late in the season to announce his retirement. For their part, the Ducks are convinced Selanne will quit next spring regardless of how the season ends up and next year they will raise his No. 8 to the roof of the Honda Center. Anaheim already decided a long time ago that his number would be the first retired by the organization. “There’s no textbook about how to retire,” Selanne says. “It’s hard because you played this game before you are four or five years old. When is it time to stop? That is the biggest question you have to answer to yourself.”

It all has a feel of finality to it to be sure. After all, Selanne is 43 and has done just about everything possible in the game. When he steps on the ice in Sochi, it will be his sixth Olympics and, if the plucky Finns can finish in the top three, his fifth medal. He’s already got his Stanley Cup and has led the league in goals three times, resurrected his career after major knee problems and secured his place in the Hall of Fame. All he hasn’t done is score 700 goals. He needs 25 this season to join the club that counts only Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito and Mike Gartner among its members, but insists he’ll retire after 2013-14 even if he’s stuck on 699.

It’s mentioned to Selanne that most guys who retire spend their first year complaining they still don’t have enough time to do anything. They wonder aloud, to anyone who will listen and a lot who won’t, how they even found time to work for so many years. “I’m going to be that guy!” Selanne declares. “I want to play the top 100 golf courses in North America, I want to travel, I want to go to the Grand Slam and I want to see a bunch of Formula 1 races.”

That’s quite a bucket list, but one Selanne can afford after career earnings of more than $73 million. And there are still 25 cars to drive, including the first he ever purchased, a ’61 Lincoln convertible he bought with his first signing bonus with Jokerit in the Finnish League. Luckily, two of his sons, Eemil and Eetu, are old enough to drive because, you know, vintage cars start leaking oil and breaking down if you don’t take them out for a spin once in a while.

Don’t try to take me to a disco.
You’ll never even get me out on the floor…

Then there’s the Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach, near his gated community of Coto de Caza, that will offer fine dining on one level and another where surfer dudes can ride the waves by day and drink beer and eat pub food by night. Selanne and some of his business partners have kicked around the idea of a restaurant for the past 10 years, but wanted to find the perfect location. That came up when a local restaurant that was housed in a French family home built in the 1930s closed its doors. Selanne has had major input on everything from the menu to the decor, but was clear about one thing: he did not want to make it into a sports bar. In fact, the only distinguishing hockey elements to the place, other than the name on the front sign, are a replica Stanley Cup and Selanne’s four Olympic medals. Think of it as Selanne’s effort to brand himself post-retirement on something aside from hockey. Hey, it worked for Tim Horton. The guy is in the Hall of Fame and won four Cups, but is better known for doughnuts and coffee than goals and hits. “There is no better man in the world than Teemu Selanne, I’ll tell you that right now,” says Jim Shumate, one of Selanne’s business partners and the general manager of the restaurant, which is scheduled to open Nov. 8. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner. As good a hockey player as he is, he’s 10 times a better person. And he’s sharp as a tack. He knows business and how the numbers work, but he’s not a micromanager.”

The Selanne legacy is a shining one on and off the ice. Teammates harrumph and mutter to themselves because he holds the team bus up signing autographs. He makes the minor league call-up feel as important as the leading scorer. His record is impeccable. Hey, everyone has skeletons in their closets, but when was the last time anyone in the hockey world ever heard anyone say a negative word about Selanne? When was he ever embroiled in controversy, either on or off the ice? After 21 years in the league, that’s an almost impossible feat. If you’re looking for dirt, about the only place you’re going to find it is in the tires of the mountain bike he rides in the summer to keep in shape. With a wonky left knee, Selanne can no longer run to keep in shape, so he maintains his conditioning by, among other things, mountain biking and swimming. In fact, one day he was on his mountain bike and met with a bunch of young kids who purported to be professional mountain bikers. They warned him that it was difficult, but he assured them he would probably be able to handle it. He waited for them at the top of the first hill for eight minutes.

The guy is a freak. He was born to play hockey and that has something to do with it, but few people realize that with that passion for the game also comes a maniacal regimen in the off-season that keeps Selanne from losing a step to players 20 years younger. With the retirement of Joe Sakic there isn’t (perhaps save for Martin Brodeur) a player in the NHL who garners more respect than Selanne. “We love Teemu – everyone loves having him around here,” Getzlaf says. “I could talk about Teemu every day and not say a bad thing about him. This year, we’re trying to make it special for him so he can leave on the right note.”

Won’t go to hear ’em play a tango.
I’d rather hear some blues or funky old soul…

Selanne hasn’t had a speeding ticket since 1999 and that one was in Finland. It cost him 55,000 Euros because in Finland speeding fines are calculated according to salary. If Selanne ever gets another one back home, he can at least be thankful he has taken a hometown discount almost every season he has played with the Ducks. Over his career, he has made about $25 million less than Jaromir Jagr, who left for three years to play in the Kontinental League. He will have earned about $9 million less than former running mate Paul Kariya, who played in the league for only half the years Selanne has.

It’s a testament to Selanne’s character and love for the game that he has never really made money a big issue. It was a terrible trade (Selanne, Marc Chouinard and a fourth-rounder for Chad Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and a third-rounder) that sent him from Winnipeg to Anaheim early in his career, just months before the Jets moved to Phoenix. After the 2004-05 lockout, during which he had his left knee rebuilt, Selanne signed with the Ducks for just $1 million, then scored 90 points. He came back the next season for $3.8 million and hasn’t signed for more than $4.5 million a season since.

It has always been about the game and the players around him. Of the hundreds Selanne has played with throughout his career, here are the five he’d want to line up with if there were one game he had to win:

Goal: Jean-Sebastien Giguere. “I’ve never seen a guy like that before. He was so competitive, he would try to stop every shot in practice and if you scored on him, he’d be really mad.

Defense: Chris Pronger. “Defensively, he’s one of the best ever. On the power play, I never saw anyone who could get the puck to the net the way he did. And he was a pretty hard guy to play against.

Defense: Scott Niedermayer. “The most effortless, smooth skater I’ve ever seen. He had no weaknesses.”

Left wing: Paul Kariya. “We had a chemistry that you don’t find very often and the best thing was we were both in our primes. We thought about the game the same way. We wanted to do everything fast and take advantage of turnovers.”

Center: Andy McDonald. “He was a lot like Paul. Really fast. He was a great guy who could play with speed and I had three great years playing with him. But I also played with some other unbelievable centers. Alexei Zhamnov in Winnipeg was unbelievable and I got to play with Patty Marleau in San Jose. I was really fortunate to have some really good centers.”

Call me a relic, call me what’cha will.
Say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill…

The most difficult thing for players like Selanne is to know exactly when to call it quits. Selanne is a proud man, something indigenous to his home country. If he plays in 70 games this season, he could conceivably get 60 points, which would be a boffo season for about three quarters of the league. But Selanne, perhaps more than anyone else, is mindful of how he faded down the stretch last season. He scored just four goals in the final 16 games and only one more in the Ducks seven-game ouster in the first round to the Red Wings.

The end is coming and Selanne, more than anything, wants out before he is remembered as a shell of the player he once was. It’s not easy, particularly for a player who loves the game as much as he does. Those guys, generally speaking, are the last ones who come to the realization that they can no longer compete in the best league in the world. They’ve built up so much goodwill that their employers hold off on telling them until it’s crystal clear their careers are over.

It has happened to some of the game’s greatest players. Watching Jari Kurri in his last season with Colorado was sad. Guy Lafleur, with Montreal and the Quebec Nordiques after he came out of retirement, wasn’t pretty. Even the greatest scorer of all-time had just nine goals in his final season. That used to be a decent week for Gretzky. Chris Chelios was a frequent and rather sour healthy scratch his final season in Detroit. Selanne doesn’t want to be one of those players. “There’s three things you don’t want to happen,” he says. “One is you have to retire because of an injury. Another is you can’t play. And another is somebody tells you that you can’t play. It’s important for me to go out with a good taste.”

So Selanne will spend the rest of this season, and the playoffs, extracting every bit of enjoyment he can out of what remains of his career. He will leave with absolutely no regrets and will have enough to keep him busy. He wants to stay in hockey, not in a Steve Yzerman way, but more in a Scott Niedermayer kind of way. Niedermayer is now an assistant coach with the Ducks who doesn’t travel and gives as much to the game as he wants. There is a real appeal for Selanne in that kind of lifestyle.

He will never be far from the game, however. Perhaps one day he’ll head up Finland’s Olympic team the way Kurri has done. And then there’s the burgeoning career of his 16-year-old son, Eetu, who was invited to the Calgary Hitmen rookie camp last summer and is playing this season for the L.A. Junior Kings minor midget AAA team. Eetu would have been at the Hitmen rookie camp last summer as well, but his invitation to the camp got put into a pile with his father’s fan mail and it wasn’t answered in time.

It’s a good time to be Teemu Selanne. He can still play the game – three goals and six points through nine games – and he’s playing for a team loaded with talent and is a legitimate Cup contender. He will play in his final international tournament in Sochi and try to win his second Cup before leaving the game for good. It will be something of a bittersweet goodbye for him, but it will be done on his terms. With that in mind, you might just want to circle Dec. 20 on your calendar, which is the night the Ducks visit New Jersey. That could be the last time we see the Hall of Fame class for 2017 – Selanne, Brodeur and Jagr – on the ice together. “It’s been a big relief for me,” Selanne says. “Every day, I see the guys a little differently, the whole game a little differently. I’m trying to enjoy every day.”

This feature originally appeared in the November 18 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.