The tap on the shoulder caught me off guard as I found myself in a foreign spot in a foreign land. It's not often you're asked to hitch a ride on the team bus, but because a coach took pity on a couple sportswriters—who were otherwise going to be stranded at a practice rink far from downtown Montreal—there I was with my eyes fixed on the road ahead, so as not to notice players' private conversations behind me.
The tap came again, followed by a shout: "Hey!" I turned to see that it was Teemu Selanne trying to get my attention, telling the person on the other end of his phone call to "hold on a moment."
Thoughts of what had I written negatively about Selanne lately raced through my mind. But no, I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.
Selanne gestured enthusiastically at a building the bus was passing and said, "Have you eaten there yet? You have to eat there. Best steak in town," he added with an all-knowing wink and smile.
And with that, Selanne was back on his cell.
Even the common man has a place in the world of one very uncommon hockey player.
Never mind his 20 seasons in the NHL, his Stanley Cup, 10 All-Star games, five Olympic appearances, Calder Trophy, the Rocket Richard Trophy, his three 50-goal seasons or four 100-point campaigns.
Forget all the numbers and accomplishments. Teemu Selanne is a one-of-a-kind human being who loves the game like no one before him, carries himself like a king in a sport full of princes and will be missed like few others once the upcoming 2013-14 NHL season concludes.
If we can believe the cleverly crafted video the Anaheim Ducks recently released, this will be the final year for the Finnish Flash—a last lap of NHL rinks during a season in which his Ducks are scheduled to make at least one visit to every outpost in Canada and the U.S.
Oh, what a whirlwind tour it should be.
In person, Selanne is a better person than he is a hockey player, and that's saying something. This guy just never has a bad day. Selanne is the life of the party, always ready with a quick line, yet, he never comes across as abrasive or overbearing. He's funny, smart, clever, charming and, on the ice, as competitive as they come.
Certainly when Selanne burst on the scene by scoring 76 goals and 132 points during an 84-game rookie season in 1992-93, the league knew it has something special. With so much curiosity directed toward the sudden influx of Eastern European talent coming from the Slavic nations, Selanne proved those fair-haired Finns have a little game, too.
Traded from Winnipeg to Anaheim, Selanne evolved into a franchise icon with the new Southern California team and served as the perfect partner with dynamic speedster Paul Kariya, who was yearning for a running mate.
The Selanne-Kariya combo clicked like few others, but it didn't bring Anaheim a Stanley Cup. In fact, it didn't look like Selanne would ever reach the pinnacle of hockey, as injuries started to deter him by his early 30s.
And then Selanne's fortunes changed, thanks in large part to the 2004-05 NHL season lost to a lockout. Selanne took advantage of the down time to undergo a much needed surgical procedure on his knee that might allow him to regain those speedy wheels of yesteryear. When the NHL cranked back up in 2005-06, Selanne returned to his beloved Anaheim with a modest one-year deal that basically said he had to prove himself again.
Forty goals and 90 points that season was a precursor to Selanne's 48 goals and 94 points the next season that ended with a hoisting of the Stanley Cup in 2007. Weeks short of his 37th birthday, Selanne flashed tears of joy in Anaheim's jubilant locker room, a celebration that extended well into the Orange County night.
The love affair between Selanne and the Ducks fanbase has never eased since. The father of four (his oldest son is already drawing interest from Canada's junior hockey), Selanne is 43 and starting to contemplate life after hockey.
He has a beautiful home behind the prestigious gates of Coto de Caza in Southern Orange County. He has a residence in Finland where most of his extensive auto collection is stored. Selanne has opened a steak house in nearby Laguna Beach and loves to play golf.
Once Selanne retires, he will not be without things to do.
If the NHL wants to do this right, it should organize a Mariano Rivera-like tour in which Selanne receives a gift on his last visit to each NHL city just as the Hall of Fame-bound Yankee has enjoyed during his farewell tour.
Selanne would be the recipient of a gift instead of being the one giving them out.