Selanne love-fest in Winnipeg still strong

If you’re too young to remember the Winnipeg Jets the first time around, it may explain why you don’t quite understand the hold Teemu Selanne has on hockey fans in Manitoba.

After all, you may wonder, he only played the first four-and-a-half years of his career there, right?

And how do we explain it, exactly?

Perhaps it’s that Jets fans lived their NHL dreams through Selanne in the 15 years they went without NHL hockey, celebrating his every goal during his days in Anaheim, San Jose and Colorado as a link back to a time when the Jets still soared in Winnipeg with the Finnish Flash leading the way.

Or was it how much they appreciated that whenever a hockey writer asked Selanne over the past decade about whether NHL hockey could return one day to Winnipeg, the classy winger always spoke proudly of his time in Winnipeg and confidently of the ability of the city and province to support a team again one day?

Maybe, really, it’s that magical first season Selanne had in Winnipeg that Jets fans all cherish to this day.

Perhaps it’s that smile that lights up a room.

“It’s a bit of everything,’’ John Paddock told ESPN.com Wednesday.

Paddock had a first-row seat to Selanne’s sensational arrival in 1992-93 as Jets head coach.

“To score 76 goals any year, let alone your rookie year, is electrifying," said Paddock, now an assistant GM with the Philadelphia Flyers. “And on top of that, he was such a fine personality. What could you say bad about him?’’

Whatever the reason, 15 years don’t seem to have dulled the affection Jets fans have for Selanne.

“It's funny, when I go to visit [other] teams' buildings, there are a lot of Winnipeg Jets [No.] 13 jerseys still there, so that makes me feel really good," Selanne said this week on a conference media call.

And Saturday night in Winnipeg, 15,000-plus die-hards will get to tell the Finnish Flash just how they still feel when Selanne’s Anaheim Ducks visit the MTS Centre.

“They’ve got a new height they’re going to try to go to,’’ said Paddock, who still has a summer place in Manitoba. “Those fans are so loud anyway. I don’t know how they can get louder. But they’ll be trying to anyway.’’

The feeling, of course, is mutual. There’s just something about where he began his NHL career and the way Winnipeg embraced Selanne.

“I actually still have a lot of friends there," Selanne, 41, said. “I keep in touch with them all the time. I think pretty much every place I've played I've always had a special relationship with the fans. Winnipeg was really, really special.

“The people -- the reason their plates and cars have 'Friendly Manitoba,' because it's a really friendly city and unbelievable fans. It was a great four-and-a-half years there.”

He last played an NHL game in Winnipeg on Feb. 4, 1996, three days before a trade that rocked his world. He was off to Anaheim in a package that saw Oleg Tverdovsky and Chad Kilger come the other way.

Selanne said he was obviously shocked, it never donned on him that he might have to play elsewhere in his NHL career. Call it naivety, perhaps.

“Especially coming from Finland, we don't have that culture there that you're going to be traded,” Selanne recalled. “There are a lot of guys that play their whole careers on the same team. So it was kind of a weird business to realize that there's no feelings. You can get traded any time, and there's no control with that.”

It didn’t take too long that he realized there are worst things than making a living in Southern California. He absolutely loves it there, winning a Cup with the Ducks in 2007 after returning to Anaheim after the lockout for a second tour of duty.

It’s why when the new Jets called last summer, inquiring about the unrestricted free agent, he was touched to get a feeler from his original NHL city, but Anaheim is home.

“I have been here such a long time in Anaheim, and I've been so happy with this franchise and this team, I don't think I can leave anymore from here,” Selanne said. “But I was very honored that they called.”