They’ve booed big names like Alex Ovechkin, Chris Pronger and Ilya Kovalchuk. They’ve jeered former heroes like Shane Doan and heckled players who aren’t even on the ice.
But it seems even the most ardent Winnipeg Jets fans can’t bring themselves to boo one player – Teemu Selanne.
The Anaheim Ducks’ forward still has a magical hold on this city, where he launched his NHL career with a flourish in 1992 as a 22-year old. He scored 76 goals that year and piled up 132 points, breaking league records and winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Winnipeg traded Selanne to Anaheim in February of 1996, just before the Jets moved to Phoenix.
Selanne returns to the Manitoba capital for the first time Saturday, as the Ducks face the Jets at the MTS Centre, and the city is gearing up to give him a warm embrace. His return has been a lead item on local news shows, a big press conference has been arranged for him on Saturday, and a local bar is holding a Teemu Selanne theme night featuring Selanne Jets jerseys and hockey cards.
Getting a ticket to the game is virtually impossible. The arena sold out long ago, and as of late Friday there were just four tickets available on Stub Hub, a popular online ticket reselling site. The asking price was $225 apiece for the seats, located high up in the farthest reaches of the MTS Centre.
“He has always been so pro-Winnipeg, he’s almost like an honorary Winnipegger,” said Michael Bailey, who has tickets to the game and plans to wear a Selanne Jets jersey. “I would never boo him.”
That seems to be the general sentiment with one online fan forum even recommending fans boo every Duck player whenever he touches the puck, but cheer for Selanne. He is “the only visiting player I will cheer for,” said Jeremy Harder, who is also going to the game. “All the fans I talk to are saying this will be the game to be at this year. Some even say this ranks higher up and will be louder than the home opener. I know I had this game circled on the calendar from day one, before Selanne even announced he was coming back to play this season.”
The Jets players have taken Selanne’s return into account as well and for one it will be an especially notable experience. Antti Miettinen, 31, grew up in Finland watching Jets games on television because Selanne played for the team.
“I was watching Jets more than any other team because Teemu was one of my idols,” said Miettinen, who joined the Jets on Friday after being claimed off waivers earlier in the week. “At that time he was a young player, an exciting player, everybody followed him. I followed him too. I’ve been trying to copy him but I found out early on it’s not going to work out so I found my own way. It’s probably the biggest game in the regular season for him in a while, so it’s good for him and it would be nice to play against him too.”
Winnipeg coach Claude Noel is also well aware of the hype. “There will be a lot of buzz in the building regarding Selanne and there should be, he’s had a great career,” Noel said Friday. “He’s been a tremendous player in the league and he still is.”
Selanne, 41, sounded a bit overwhelmed by all the attention during a conference call this week. “It was a dream come true to start the career in Canada and obviously all the memories that I have there, it’s just so awesome,” he said, adding that this may be his only return to Winnipeg since he hasn’t decided if he will play next season. “There’s a reason why the [licence]plates on the cars have Friendly Manitoba, because it’s a really friendly city and unbelievable fans.”
He talked about still having friends in Winnipeg and how he never got over the shock of being traded to Anaheim. “When I got traded, I didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye to the people and the city,” he said. “That’s why I’m really looking forward to going back there.”
When told Jets fans can be notoriously harsh on opposition players and even booed Doan, a former Jet, Selanne laughed and replied: “That’s funny. Hopefully they are not going to boo for me.”