Now that he’s a recent inductee of the Hockey Hall of Fame, let’s review Teemu Selanne’s rookie season for the ages.
“The Finnish Flash” would land in Winnipeg and quickly began to rewrite the history books. The Jets already had a proud history with European players, but Teemu proved quickly he was different from the rest.
The Jets selected flashy winger Teemu Selanne with the 10th overall pick in the 1988 Entry Draft.
General Manager John Ferguson’s last first-round selection didn’t arrive in Winnipeg until 1992, but he scored 76 goals in his first season with the Jets and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year for 1992-1993. He remained with the Jets until being inexplicably traded away in February 1996 in a move that still irritates Jets’ fans to this day. Unsurprisingly, Selanne went on to a prolific career spent mostly with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He scored over 600 goals during his career and he was one of the best players to wear a Jets uniform.
Many believe the 1992-93 NHL season was among the finest staged in the League’s history. From the addition of two teams through expansion, to the sudden prominence of European players, to the heroics of Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux, to the crowning of Montreal as Stanley Cup champions, the season was full of memorable moments.
Entering a home matchup against the Minnesota North Stars on Feb. 28, 1993, Winnipeg Jets rookie Teemu Selanne had 47 goals and was inching toward the NHL’s 15-year-old rookie record of 53, held by Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders.
But Selanne had gone three straight games without a goal the previous week, his longest “drought” since the season’s opening month.
Any chatter surrounding Selanne’s slowed scoring pace was silenced when he scored four goals.
The 1992-93 NHL season provided one of the great moments not only in hockey history, but all of sports, when Mario Lemieux returned from cancer treatments to go on a torrid scoring spree to win the points race. Two nights later, on March 2, (my 26th birthday by the way), Selanne broke the rookie record at home with a hat trick against the Quebec Nordiques, famously tossing his glove into the air and shooting at it with his stick in one of the most iconic celebrations in NHL history. The record-breaking goal came in Selanne’s 64th NHL game, but the moment had been almost five years in the making.
After selecting Selanne with the 10th pick in the 1988 NHL Draft, the Jets planned to wait before bringing the speedy wing to Winnipeg. He attended team training camps, but Selanne was expected to develop his raw skills with Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish League. That plan irked some Winnipeg fans and media, who were eager to see the prospect in a Jets uniform.
“As an organization, we had a philosophy of not bringing players over from Europe until they were ready. We didn’t think it was an advantage for European players to come to North America and play in the minor leagues. That was a cornerstone of our philosophy,” said Mike Smith, who took over as the Jets general manager weeks after the team drafted Selanne.
“Teemu also didn’t speak English. He started his military service. I remember once having dinner with him in Helsinki. I asked, ‘What do you do in the army?’ He said he ran six miles. I said, ‘Well, what did you do at your off-ice practice?’ He said he ran five miles. I said, ‘You’re probably the only hockey player in the world who ran 11 miles today.'”
By 1991, the Jets were pushing hard for Selanne to come to Winnipeg. But still reticent about moving, the young Finn wanted to wait. By 1992, after suiting up for Finland at the Olympic Games in Albertville and winning a Finnish league championship along with the Aarne Honkavaara trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer, Selanne, who was then considered a Group IV free agent, was ready for the NHL.
That’s when the Calgary Flames swooped in with an offer sheet. And for a moment, Teemu Selanne’s career in Winnipeg had ended before it ever started.
“The Jets matched the offer. The offer sheet had come in at about $1.5 million higher than what the Jets had offered, so there was a lot of angst in Winnipeg about, was any player worth this kind of money,” Selanne’s agent Don Baizley said. “I think he was really determined coming over under that sort of pressure. He was going to prove to people that he was a good player. It wasn’t the offer sheet so much as the reaction to the offer sheet.”
After four years of negotiations and watching from a distance, the Winnipeg Jets finally had their man.
Coming to a new culture with a new language in a new league would be daunting for Selanne. But the 22-year-old wouldn’t be doing it alone. The Jets had a veteran Finn on their roster, Teppo Numminen, who could take Selanne under his wing. What’s more, the 1992-93 Jets featured one of the youngest and most international rosters in the NHL, built around three foreign-born rookies: Selanne, Russian Alexei Zhamnov and American Keith Tkachuk.
They even employed a Finnish assistant coach, Alpo Suhonen, before adding Russian Zinetula Bilyaletdinov to their staff.
“We were a melting pot. We had all the Russians and Teemu and Teppo Numminen and [Swedish veteran] Thomas Steen,” Jets coach John Paddock told NHL.com. “I think we had six rookies on the team. Any time you put six rookies on a team in the NHL and there’s maybe one North American amongst them, that’s a big adaptation. There were some growing pains.”
The Jets were 5-12-1 through the season’s first month. If there was a silver lining to the rough start, it was the play of Selanne, who was showing flashes of his scoring prowess, particularly when he scored a hat trick in his fifth game of the season.
“He got everybody excited. It was hard to keep up with him,” Steen said. “You could flip the puck into the neutral zone and that was always a breakaway for him. He was the first guy on the puck, you knew it. He could do it blindfolded.”
With 11 goals in his first 12 games, Selanne quickly became a fan favorite in Winnipeg. But his scoring wasn’t resulting in wins, and his mounting frustration was on display during a home game against the Montreal Canadiens that the Jets would lose 3-2 in overtime to drop their record to 8-14-3.
At the end of the second period, Selanne was ejected after receiving a game misconduct for a vicious high-stick. It would be almost nine years before the generally mild-mannered Finn earned his next game misconduct penalty.
Things changed for the Jets and Selanne on Dec. 28 when Smith traded Ed Olczyk to the New York Rangers for Kris King and Tie Domi. The deal gave away a veteran scorer but added to the team’s toughness, giving Selanne some extra space to work with.
“We knew we weren’t going to add a lot offensively. But I think we gave the Jets a bit of an identity. If someone was going to try to physically intimidate him, they had to answer to not just Tie and myself, but some other tough guys. So [Teemu] could just concentrate on hockey,” King said. “The thing I first noticed about Teemu was he was the first player on the ice and the last player off. You could really tell that this kid just loved hockey.”
Immediately after acquiring King and Domi, the Jets started winning, enjoying an 11-1-2 surge over the next month. Not surprisingly, the sudden run was keyed by Selanne, whose eight-game goal streak happened to coincide perfectly with the team’s crucial eight-game winning streak. By the end of January, the Jets were 25-22-5, and the League’s newest superstar had 40 goals.
Bossy’s record was within sight and the entire province of Manitoba was fixated on the Finnish Flash.
“The passion from the people is something you don’t see anywhere else, only in Canada. They make you feel so important. They make you feel unbelievable,” Selanne said. “When things started getting better, it was like a snowball. People got so excited. I’m so happy I started my NHL career there. What great memories.”
By the second week of February, Selanne’s scoring pace had tapered off. Three goals in six games would be considered a blistering pace for most players — but for Selanne it was a slump, leading some to believe the rookie may have suddenly hit a wall.
“In Europe, you play less games. So every game you’re well-rested. Back then, it wasn’t charter planes, so there was a lot of time at the airport. I think that would have been the biggest adjustment,” said Numminen, who noticed how naturally Selanne took to being a local celebrity. “He was already that [famous] in Finland. So he was used to it. I think from the beginning, he was great with the fans.”
Any critics lamenting Selanne’s “slump” were silenced by the end of the month. He scored 11 goals over a five-game span to smash Bossy’s rookie record. From there, Selanne continued his uncanny pace, scoring 20 goals in March and closing out the month with a nine-game goal-scoring streak.
He finished the season with 76 goals, a rookie record that may never be matched.
The Jets lost a six-game Stanley Cup Playoff series to the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round and missed the postseason each of the next two seasons before trading Selanne to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1996. And in 2007, Selanne would win his only Stanley Cup with the Ducks.
When the Finnish Flash decided to end his historic career, he’s been honored as one of the game’s all-time legends, an icon who took the NHL and the city of Winnipeg by storm with the greatest rookie scoring surge anyone has ever seen.
Over twenty years later, the man at the center of that storm still has trouble describing his magical first season.
“It was unbelievable. Something that you couldn’t even realize what I did until next year or the year after,” Selanne said when reminded of the anniversary. “Obviously it’s a long time ago. The whole year was like a dream.”