ANAHEIM, Calif. -- This wasn't how Teemu Selanne envisioned his final game in the NHL playing out.
Then again, it's hard to tell exactly how Selanne pictured his career eventually coming to an end. After all, there always has been a chance that Selanne's last game of the season for the past decade could be the last game of his career.
He nearly walked away from the game in 2004 before returning to play for the Anaheim Ducks and momentarily retired after winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 before returning for one more season, which turned into seven more seasons.
It would be only natural to suspect that Selanne, who will turn 44 in July, isn't really retiring this time, either. It's just a pesky thought in the back of his mind that will eventually get checked into the boards when next season rolls around and he's watching games on television. But this time, Selanne promises, he's really walking away for good.
"I just felt now it's time," Selanne said as he stood in the center of the Ducks' dressing room Friday night after a 6-2 Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. "My role got smaller. I still felt that I could play way more with a bigger [role], but when it started going down, it's time. It had to come. I felt it was the right time. I'm still going to watch, and I'll try out for some beer league teams."
For the first time in his career, Selanne skated off the ice and was content with it being his last time as a professional.
"No regrets," he said. "I've been flirting with the decision for a long time. The passion and the fun always brought me back, and I still love this game. I still know I can play, but it's better this way than having a different situation. It's the right time."
Despite being at peace with his decision, Selanne still couldn't hold back his tears as he walked into the Ducks' dressing room for the last time and removed his uniform and skates.
"I tried to hold it back, but when I came here I couldn't hold myself anymore," Selanne said. "It was something new. I didn't know what to do out there. It's still hard to realize it's all over now. Tomorrow morning it's going to be a weird feeling. I'm going to miss a lot of things, but it had to end sometime and somewhere."
Selanne returned for his 21st and final season because he felt as if the Ducks had the pieces in place for a championship run. His instincts were proved correct as the Ducks won the Pacific Division, had the best record in the West and the second-best record in the league. But in the first-ever postseason matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Ducks, the Kings simply had more at the end of their Western Conference semifinal series, ending the Ducks' season and Selanne's career in the process.
During his final postseason series, Selanne scored goals in Games 1 and 3 and showed glimpses of why he earned "The Finnish Flash" nickname when entering the league as a 22-year old in 1992. He played the final 1:52 of the game after Ryan Getzlaf reminded Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau that Selanne needed to finish his final game on the ice.
"He deserved it," Boudreau said. "I was going to do it anyway, but Ryan mentioned it with six minutes remaining to make sure 'T' had the last shift. I'm sure it's an emotional night for him. It's not the way he wanted to go out, but what a fabulous player and a person."
Selanne was breathing heavily as he tried to keep his emotions in check over the final seconds of the game. He looked around at the stands, looked up at the banners hanging in the rafters and looked over at his coaches and teammates on the bench. When the teams went through their handshake line after the game, there was a slight delay when it came to Selanne as each player wanted to give him a goodbye longer than one word.
"It's sad. That guy has been an unbelievable player in this league for so long," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "Everyone respects him. He deserves that respect. To see him go to know that next year we'll play Anaheim without him out there is going to feel weird. I couldn't be more happy for him. He had an unbelievable career. I guess you feel bad in a way that we ended it this way."
When the handshake line was done, Kings players stuck around and tapped their sticks on the ice in a show of respect as Selanne raised his stick and thanked the crowd.
"There are not many guys left in this league that have earned the respect and admiration of not only the fans but the players he plays against," Kings forward Justin Williams said. "I think we would have stayed out there 20 minutes if we could. If this was his last game, and I imagine it is, he has nothing to be upset about. He is an awesome player."
Wayne Gretzky will always get credit for growing the sport of hockey in California, and rightfully so, but Selanne deserves credit for making it thrive in Orange County. The Ducks could have easily been a disaster when they entered the league 20 years ago. They were originally named The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim after the 1992 Walt Disney Pictures film "The Mighty Ducks," a movie about a rag-tag, youth-hockey team coached by Emilio Estevez. It would have been easy for hockey fans to dismiss the expansion team as, well, a Mickey Mouse club.
But Selanne, along with his old friend and teammate, Paul Kariya, not only made the Ducks a respectable team but a championship contender. Although they parted ways in 2001, Kariya would help the Ducks get to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003. Selanne returned to help Anaheim win the Stanley Cup in 2007. During that time, hockey rinks popped up all over Orange County with kids wearing Selanne jerseys from La Habra to San Clemente.
"I've seen big changes here," Selanne said. "It's night and day. It has been great that the ex-players have been staying in the games and trying to make these programs better. They're doing a great job with the youth hockey, but we still need more rinks, and that's one thing I want to be a part of in the future. I'm going to try to make this game bigger here."
Selanne, as he has always done during his career, stayed in the dressing room until he had answered every reporter's question and shook hands with every player, coach, employee, usher and janitor who approached him. It's a big reason Selanne not only retires as one of the best players to ever play hockey but one of the most liked and respected.
"The universal respect is held for just certain people," Boudreau said. "[Kings coach] Daryl Sutter is someone I saw had it. Bobby Orr had it. And Teemu Selanne has it, and it's deserved. He never passes up an autograph [request]. When we're out of town and the bus is waiting, Teemu is always the one signing autographs. He is universally loved and respect by his peers."
As he took one last look around the dressing room, recalling the first time he walked through the doors in 1996 after being traded to Anaheim from the Winnipeg Jets, he smiled and shook his head.
"On one hand, it feels like yesterday, and on the other hand, it feels like a long time ago," Selanne said. "It goes fast. I always tell the young guys, 'enjoy every day because it goes like that, so quickly.'"