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Selanne blazed a trail from Finland to Winnipeg

Thursday, 12.15.2011 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Risto Pakarinen - Correspondent

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Selanne blazed a trail from Finland to Winnipeg
Teemu Selanne is a legend in Finland, where his greatness was born
What had seemed impossible just a few months earlier had become possible, thanks to a baby-faced Finnish kid.

He received a long pass at the red line and took three quick steps that gave him the edge over the defenseman, and then there was just the goalie to beat.

The kid accelerated some more, then waited, moved the puck to his backhand and lifted it to the back of the net. Exhilarated, he turned toward his teammates that were following the play, threw his glove up in the air, and using his stick as a fake rifle, shot it down just before disappearing in the team huddle.

Teemu Selanne's second goal of the game, and 10th in his 10th playoff game, had just clinched Helsinki Jokerit's Finnish championship, the club's first in 19 years.

Teemu Selanne takes to the ice for Team Finland during the 1996 World Cup. (Photo: Getty Images)
The year was 1992.

Selanne had scored 36 goals in 35 games in Finnish Division I, and 43 goals in 33 games in the major junior league. He had recovered from a major injury -- he broke his shin bone and calf bone -- and bounced back to score 33 and 39 goals for his Jokerit team, to play in the 1991 Canada Cup, lead Team Finland in scoring in the 1991 Worlds, and win that Finnish title in 1992, before leaving for Winnipeg.

The world had changed quite a bit between the mid-1970s, when Heikki Riihiranta and Veli-Pekka Ketola turned pro and left the Finnish league to play hockey in Canada, and 1992, when Selanne, the Kid Wonder of Finnish hockey at the time, decided it was time for him to do the same.

Like Riihiranta and Ketola almost 20 years earlier, Selanne made his home in Winnipeg. And then the poster boy for Finnish hockey just kept on scoring goals.

Exactly 325 days after the Canada Cup-clinching goal in Finland, Selanne's glove flew through the air again, now in Winnipeg.

While Riihiranta and Ketola had been doing their pioneer work under a radio silence in the WHA in the Manitoba prairie, a hockey nation followed Selanne's journey toward Mike Bossy's record for most goals in a rookie season. While there was hardly an Internet to talk about during Selanne's rookie season, Finnish media was keeping an eye on the kid. All eyes were on Winnipeg as he hit 50 goals, and was just one hat trick away from tying the record.

In Finland, it was already early morning of March 3, 1993, when Selanne grabbed a loose puck at center ice. He took a few explosive steps, left the defenseman in his dust, and lifted the puck over the Quebec Nordiques goaltender Stephane Fiset with a one-hand backhand shot -- finishing his hat trick.


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The glove went up, the stick turned into a rifle, and Selanne shot his glove down before being embraced by his teammates. It was Dallas Eakins (now the coach of the Toronto Marlies) who tried to catch the glove -- and fumbled -- and it was Tie Domi who had made that long pass to the neutral zone, but those are just fun facts you can check on video afterward.

At that moment, nobody cared.

"I was just so excited. Now when I look back and I see when I broke Bossy's record and I threw the glove in the air and I shot it down, I'm like, 'Oh my God, what was I doing?' I was just so pumped and so happy," Teemu told Toronto Sun last year.

Thousands of miles away, a few hours after the game had ended, as Finns were waking up to another day and checked the NHL scores on their text-TV, the morning show was already running with the story. The hat trick, the record, and the glove and the stick. 

The storyline was simple: Selanne had broken Mike Bossy's record? There was nothing the kid couldn't do!

While Selanne may today regret the maybe-not-so-spontaneous goal celebration -- and really, he shouldn't -- it did become an overnight sensation. Gloves were flying through the air in Finland after memorable goals, especially in junior and road hockey games.

If Winnipeg hadn't already been the Finns' favorite city, and the Jets their favorite team, they became that in 1992-93. Again. Winnipeg had a stronghold on the Finns, thanks to not only Riihiranta and Ketola, but also Markus Mattsson, Hannu Järvenpää and Markku Kyllönen, and of course Teppo Numminen. That Manitoba town might as well have been called Finnipeg.

Before Selanne turned things around, though, Jari Kurri had turned Finns into Oiler fans.

One of Kurri's idols growing up in Finland was Veli-Pekka Ketola. Selanne, in turn, looked up to Kurri, and now there's a whole generation of players who have once wallpapered their rooms with Selanne posters.

Selanne has arguably done more for the NHL's popularity in Finland than any other player in history. Ketola and Riihiranta were the pioneers who punched a hole into the wall of pro hockey, Kurri burst right through it (with Esa Tikkanen and Reijo Ruotsalainen in tow), and 20 years ago Teemu Selanne came and blew the whole wall up.

With a stick for a rifle.
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