For most NHL regular season games, hockey fans are solely focused on cheering their team on to a win, securing the two points in the standings and calculating how the game affects their team’s playoff hopes.
But on rare occasion a game transcends the sport, becoming more than just a battle being fought on the ice. Unforgettable moments are created as a city and its fan base push the standings and stats to the back of their minds for a brief time and find themselves emotionally invested in the spectacle of the game; in the here and now.
The hockey match played at the MTS Centre on Dec. 17 was one of those games, as Teemu Selanne — the “Finnish Flash” — returned to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996.
Selanne got his start in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets back in 1992. As a rookie, he took the league by storm scoring a record 76 goals and 132 points during his campaign, which remains an untouchable NHL record to this day.
His incredible skill and agreeable personality made him an instant fan favourite in Winnipeg and around the league. Selanne became a beacon of hope for Winnipeg Jets fans in a time where the future of the hockey club looked bleak. And while Selanne was unceremoniously traded, the impression he made on the people of Winnipeg was still evident as the Ducks first touched down in Winnipeg.
The night that the Ducks were scheduled to arrive, 30 or so fans waited until two or three in the morning for the Ducks’ team bus to arrive at the Fairmont hotel, chanting for Selanne as the bus finally pulled up. Selanne was a class act, and reportedly came out to sign autographs for everyone.
During the pre-game skate, the crowd gave Selanne a standing ovation as he hit the ice for the first time, and cheered every time he touched the puck. Deafening chants for “TEEMU” rose up from the crowd before the singing of the national anthem, which was met by a gracious salute from Selanne, who sat on the Ducks bench.
When Selanne first hit the ice for the first time just thirty seconds into the game, he was met by another standing ovation.
The Winnipeg crowds that pack the MTS Centre have already earned notoriety for being hard on opposing teams: whether it’s the standard goalie heckling, booing the best players on the visiting team or — as happened when the Phoenix Coyotes came to town — booing whenever the other team touches the puck.
But with everyone in the building buzzing over the return of Winnipeg hockey legend, the fans showed their unwavering allegiance to both Selanne and the Jets.
While it was certainly a bizarre and almost comical display, it was a clear message to the world that Teemu will always have a place in the hearts and minds of Winnipeg fans. Anytime Selanne was shown on the scoreboard — even when he notched an assist on Niklas Hagman’s first period goal — the fans erupted in cheers.
But as the game wore on the, cheers for Selanne waned as the new hockey heroes in Winnipeg stole the show and the fans once again focused on the game’s significance in the tight Eastern Conference standings.
When all was said and done, and the final score read 5-3 for the home team, and it was safe to say that, as far as fan support was concerned, the transition from the original Jets franchise to the new, transplanted franchise was confirmed.
It was a night in which the fans — and the 90s superstar they still adored — finally got the required closure to what was a very difficult time for hockey in Manitoba.