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Selanne adored as a national hero in Finland

by Corey Masisak
HELSINKI -- If Teemu Selanne or his teammates had any doubt about the reception he will receive this week while the Anaheim Ducks are here, a gigantic poster draped over the side of Hartwall Areena near the main entrance with the 41-year-old's face on it was probably a good indication when they arrived Sunday morning.

Selanne, along with countrymen Saku Koivu and Tony Lydman, will be feted this week as returning heroes of Finland. The reason Selanne's face is on the side of the building is in part because of his popularity (though Koivu is also a national hero), but also because Jokerit, the team that plays in the arena, is where Selanne played in his youth and cultivated his now legendary talents.

"It is really special for us," Selanne said. "I don't think many players have a lot of chances to come play in their own home city with their NHL team, so it is very special for us and we're going to enjoy it."

Jari Kurri's No. 17 hangs from the rafters at Hartwall. Twice in fact -- once for his exploits with Jokerit and the other for his contributions to Suomi with the national team. Kurri was the first Finnish player to become an NHL legend, and Selanne is the second and his No. 8 will surely be there soon after he retires.

He passed Kurri for the most NHL goals scored by a Finnish player during the 2009-10 season, and 59 points in the upcoming campaign would make Selanne his country's all-time leader in that NHL category as well.


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Selanne has also been a superstar at the international level. He has suited up for the men's national team 91 times and scored 54 goals.

Before he set NHL records for goals and points by a rookie (76 and 132 in 1992-93), before he collected the most points in Olympic history (37, spread across five competitions), before he bested Kurri to be the top Finnish goal scorer in League history, even before he became "The Finnish Flash," Selanne was a Helsinki kid who became the top player in SM-liiga in 1991 and helped Jokerit to only its second league title in 1992.

"It's going to be interesting, I don't think I've ever played against Jokerit," Selanne said. "I don't know that many players on their team anymore, except for (Jokerit captain) Ossi Väänänen, and a couple of the other guys.

"If somebody had told me in 1994 that I'd be playing in the regular season opener in Helsinki in 2011, I wouldn't have believed him. I still love hockey and especially since the lockout year. The older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that I can still play the game I love. I'll play as long as it's fun to go to the rink every day."

This is not the first time back to Finland to play in front of adoring fans for Selanne. He was here in 1994 with the Winnipeg Jets, and again in 2004-05 to play for Jokerit (with Kurri) during the NHL lockout.

At 41, this could be the last time Selanne plays in Finland -- at least if everything goes according to plan for the Ducks. Finland will host the 2012 world championships, and having one of their favorite sons available to play at what could be the end of his career would be a magical tale, but that would also mean Anaheim either didn't make the playoffs this coming season or was bounced in the first round.

"Well, I'm going to be selfish and say I hope he doesn't play for Finland, because that's part of my job is to make the playoffs with our hockey club and I know he wants to make the playoffs as well," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "We feel that we have a hockey club here that can challenge for a playoff position. Once you get in, it is wide open. On the other hand, I know the people of Finland would love to see Teemu play for his country in the World Championships. We'd prefer that he not. If he has that choice because things don't work out for us, then I'm sure he'll represent his country as he always does."

In the media room at Hartwall, there is a smaller version of the Selanne poster, along with two others -- one of Väänänen and one of Vesa-Matti Loiri, a famous Finnish actor/musician/comedian. The stylized photos have the words "Minä" and "Me" below them, which is I and we in Finnish.

It is part of Jokerit's advertising campaign, posters of those three, along with random fans in the same style, can be found throughout the area at bus stops.

There is only one on the side of the arena, though, and for this week Jokerit's favorite son has returned home.

"When you have a player of Teemu Selanne's caliber he is famous world-round, but he's very, very famous in his home country and he represents his country very well," Carlyle said. "I knew him a long time ago when I was playing and he was in his rookie year. He only scored 76 in his first year, so he didn't have a very good year to start. He was a special player and he remains so. We're lucky to have him. As we've said many times, he's the face of our franchise and he continues to do that."
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