Finland in November is a dark place as it is, but in 1991, it was darker than ever. The housing bubble had burst, several banks went bankrupt, and the unemployment rate shot from 3.5 percent in 1990 to 12 percent by the end of 1992.
And there he was, a 22-year-old, baby-faced part-time kindergarten teacher who had scored an incredible 36 goals in 35 games in the Finnish second-tier league, to follow up on his 43 goals in 33 games in major junior the year before. His club, Jokerit, had been on the brink of bankruptcy for years and was demoted to the second-tier league. In his four years with the team, Jokerit not only got promoted back to the elite league, they won the Finnish championship in 1992.
He clinched the championship when he took a long pass at the red line, accelerated, left the defenseman behind, and beat the goalie with a backhand. Then he circled back up toward center ice, threw his glove in the air, and shot it down using his stick as a rifle.
His name was Teemu Selänne.
Back in 1977, when Team Finland captain Veli-Pekka Ketola returned to Finland from Winnipeg, he looked back at his time in the WHA in an early memoir. He told a story about tens of thousands of people lining up on the streets of Winnipeg to see the Avco Cup parade.
“I can’t even imagine that any Finnish athlete would ride down the [Helsinki main street] Mannerheimintie in a convertible. Finns are just different; we don’t cheer people that way. Not even [four-time Olympic winner] Lasse Viren,” he said.
“If my team drove down the streets of Pori after a championship, there’d be just five people there — and they’d be throwing eggs,” he added.
And yet, when Jokerit won the Finnish championship, they did have a parade, and thousands of people did gather at the Helsinki Senate Square to celebrate with their heroes.
Suddenly, everything was different. Everything.
Selänne left Finland as the league’s leading goal scorer, with 39 in 44 games. In fact, in his 97 games in the last three seasons in the SM-liiga, Selänne had scored 76 goals. After a season in the second-tier league, another gone awry due to a season-ending leg injury, and two seasons in the top Finnish league, Selänne, 22, was ready for the NHL.
And he took Finland with him.
As he left Finland, Jokerit announced that his number had been taken out of rotation. While it hadn’t been officially retired, it was reserved for Teemu’s use only. The club was obviously holding on to some hope of getting their star player back at one point.
“We can never replace Teemu as a person, but we’ll have to try to replace him as a player, and we need to get at least two new players,” said Jokerit owner Harry Harkimo.
Teemu was on a first-name basis with Finland. There’s never any need to use his last name, everybody knows who Teemu is.
Selänne’s image in Finland was a mix of superhero and the kid next door. By day, he was a part-time kindergarten teacher, and by night, a goal scoring machine. He was a poster boy for milk — literally — and he had already played for Finland in the 1991 World Championship on home soil, in the 1991 Canada Cup, and the 1992 Olympics.
In hindsight, it’s almost impossible to think that fans in Finland hardly ever saw Selänne play once he left the country. There were no NHL cable packages so the first order of business for hockey fans in Finland was to check page 235 on the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s teletext service, a habit that is still hard for many to break.
The first Finnish morning TV show had started just three years earlier, and once Teemu got going, highlights of his goals were shown on the show.
And there were goals.
He started the season with 11 goals in 12 games, and had 40 by the end of January. Mike Bossy’s record for goals in a season by a rookie stood at 53, and Selänne had 13 to go, with 32 games remaining.
That season, one Finnish network even aired an NHL game live from Los Angeles. Of course, the Kings played the Jets that night. Sure, there was someone named Wayne Gretzky on the Kings, and yes, they would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but in Finland, it was about someone else. It was Jari Kurri vs. Teemu Selanne. It was about that torch. Even if the Jets didn’t win much, bowing out in the first round or not making the playoffs, it didn’t matter as long as there was Teemu.
With all the goals, and Bossy’s record in Teemu’s crosshairs, the Selänne watch became intense in Finland. (Valio, a Finnish dairy company, aired their new milk commercials with Selanne ordering a glass of milk in a Canadian sports bar). The Jets took the status of Finland’s favorite NHL team away from the Oilers as the entire nation followed Selänne’s quest to beat the record. Fittingly, Selänne’s career-first hat trick had also come in an October game against the Oilers.
And just as famous as the Selänne celebration after his 54th goal of the season, the shooting-down-of-the-glove-in-the-air, almost as famous were the two men in Team Finland sweaters holding signs with “5” and first “3” and then “4” on them, as Selänne scored a hat trick in the game against the Quebec Nordiques.
In the summer of 1993, Selänne was in the papers every day. He raced in a rally under an alias (Teukka Salama, “Teddy Flash”), he toured Finland on 1000 cc motorbikes, he did charity work, played in a tennis tournament, and ran a hockey school or two.
Hockey’s popularity skyrocketed in Finland in the early 1990s with record attendance in the Finnish league, and new magazines popping up in the market. On TV, an NHL magazine program brought the highlights to Finns. All that was partly thanks to the rags-to-riches story that was Helsinki Jokerit — with Teemu as their big building block — and partly due to Selanne’s phenomenal first seasons in the NHL.
And in the fall of 1994, when Selänne returned to Helsinki with the Jets, people lined up on the streets again. Not only to see Teemu, but also to see the Calder Trophy he won after the 1992-93 season, and the Stanley Cup, which made its first visit to Finland.
Everything seems funny 20 years later. We can now go on YouTube and watch those milk commercials. Selänne is working out at the gym and running in the Finnish forest before leaning back on the porch of his sauna, having a glass of milk. It seems so innocent, and Teemu’s so young.
The slogan is: “Milk. It doesn’t go to your head. It goes to your legs”.
Maybe that really is Teemu’s secret.
(If you want to see this story in its natural habitat, please click here).