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Selanne returns to cheers in Finland

by Risto Pakarinen
HELSINKI – It was Christmas on Tuesday for fans of both Jokerit and Teemu Selanne.

Skating in his home country with the Anaheim Ducks, Selanne received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd. Both teams were already on the blue lines, when the announcer finally introduced the three Finns on the Ducks. Toni Lydman, unable to play, waved from the bench. Saku Koivu got a hair-raising welcome from the fans. And then, the spotlight was on Teemu, who took the ice with 13,000 Finns on their feet, taking the noise levels up another 20 decibels.

"It was awesome. It was unbelievable. I didn't really know what to expect, and I will always remember that welcome," Selanne said.


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A couple of minutes later, when the ovations was starting to fade, he and Jari Kurri -- another Jokerit and NHL legend -- received a brand-new Jokerit membership card, with the numbers 8 and 17, from Jokerit chairman Harry Harkimo.

"These are emotional games for those guys, it was great to see the ovation and the recognition that Teemu and Jari got," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "They've been on the forefront of Finnish hockey for a long time.

"I had the pleasure to play with Teemu when he was a rookie in Winnipeg, and a few years before that I had my hands full trying to stop Kurri from scoring the 50 goals a year with Wayne Gretzky. I'm very familiar with both players and it was great to see them get the recognition in their home country because they have represented their country first class in every way."

When Harkimo became the majority owner of the club in February 1991, the team had been promoted to the Finnish SM-liiga the year before, and would finish ninth that season. In 1992, a 20-year-old Selanne scored 39 goals in 44 games -- a club record -- leading the league in goals. He was also the league MVP.

So when Harkimo gave Selanne a big hug after the membership card presentation, it was filled with decades of appreciation, and respect, and love.

The last few days have all been a big buildup for Tuesday's game, which was Selanne's big homecoming. While Selanne said it didn't have an effect on his game, he did admit that there were some butterflies in his stomach beforehand.

"I wouldn't say that I was nervous, but I would say that I was really excited," he said. "It sure wasn’t just a normal warmup, it was pretty special, and tried to find some familiar faces in the stands."

Just like the Jokerit team, the Finnish fans were a little timid in the beginning, especially when the Ducks took a quick 2-0 lead in the game. Of course, the fact that Selanne and Koivu collected assists on the goals, made the goals a little easier for the Jokerit fans to swallow.

But Jokerit came back, and the crowd came back, chanting "JO-KE-RIT" when their team tied the game in regulation time. The only thing missing from a perfect night was a Selanne game-winning goal. Ryan Getzlaf scored the 4-3 goal in overtime.

"It wasn't our best game, and I've been struggling with a little cold, and jet lag, but it was a fun game, and that was the most important thing tonight," Selanne said before stepping out of the Hartwall Areena, to meet his fans and to sign autographs.

When asked if he now has seen it all, Selanne grinned.

"When I get back to Winnipeg," he responded, referring to Anaheim's trip to Manitoba on Dec. 17.
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