It all began when 22-year-old leftwinger Paul Kariya, the lone superstar of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, returned from last season's NHL All-Star Game raving about Teemu Selanne's sleight-of-hand game and ebullient personality. Kariya had no idea, but he was jogging the memory of Anaheim general manager Jack Ferreira, who suddenly recalled a newspaper report that suggested the Winnipeg Jets (soon to be the Phoenix Coyotes) were dangling Selanne in trade talks. The next thought that rose in Ferreira's mind was Selanne's 76-goal rookie season in 1992-93. Ferreira picked up the phone.
Selanne had gone out of his way to make Kariya feel welcome at his first NHL All-Star Game. They were introduced one after the other during pregame ceremonies, and they stood side by side on the blue line chattering and nudging each other like awestruck school-boys as the Eastern Conference stars were introduced. "We were saying, 'Oh, god, there goes Jagr. He's so unbelievable! And Lemieux—oh, there's Lemieux! He's so great!' " Kariya says now, laughing heartily. Selanne and Kariya played the game, went their separate ways, and that was it. Or so Kariya thought.
Nothing indicated that the trajectory of Anaheim's four-year-old franchise was about to dramatically change—until a few weeks later when Ducks coach Ron Wilson walked into the dressing room and curled a finger in the direction of the team's last two No. 1 draft picks, 19-year-old forward Chad Kilger and 19-year-old defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky. Once he had them in his office, Wilson said, "Guys, I'm going to cut right to the chase: You've both been traded to Winnipeg for Teemu Selanne."
And? "They thought I was pulling their leg," Wilson says of the highly regarded youngsters. "I said, 'Seriously, guys, this is serious.' " Wilson laughs at the retelling. "The problem was, the whole time...I've got a stupid smile on my face because, you know, it's Teemu. Teemu Selanne! And I can't help it. Inside, what I'm really thinking is, Hoo, god! My prayers have been answered!"
It did sound preposterous. Selanne—then just 25 and one of the most skilled players in the league—available? For two peach-fuzzed kids? As the news raced through the Ducks' dressing room, the reaction was the same: We got Teemu Selanne?
It would be enough even if all Selanne did for Anaheim was score goals—which he has, 41 in his first 60 games with the Ducks. But he's more than a gunner; he's an antidote to the workaday blues, a comic foil who can temper Kariya's smoldering intensity or Wilson's tough-talking style with a well-timed joke, a gently needling remark. Selanne is one of those rare sweet souls who make people smile—even laugh out loud—at the mere mention of their names.
For a team that's seeking its first postseason berth and that suffers by comparison with the Florida Panthers, its expansion cousins, who went to the Stanley Cup finals last season, Selanne's sunny disposition has been crucial. "I think the epitaph on Teemu's tombstone is going to read, 'I had a million friends and not one enemy,' " Wilson says. "He's a guy you just love being around."
If Selanne's wit doesn't charm someone first, his unebbing enthusiasm, his slack-jawed smile or wide-eyed look of wonder probably will. His game has all the bells and whistles. At times he's pure magic. He has blazing speed and the power to shrug off defenders; he's a natural scorer and he can shrewdly read a game; his passes are creative, sly, even prescient. Off the ice Selanne's worldview is so unabashedly straightforward and buoyant—he says things like, "If you're good to people, it'll be good for you"—that he sometimes sounds almost corn pone.
Selanne will make $2.75 million this year—easily the highest salary on the Ducks. Yet there is no practiced aloofness, no feigned boredom or ugly glances when a swarm of fans approach. Shortly after he was traded to the Ducks, Selanne watched the notoriously reticent Kariya bolt past autograph hounds, then asked another new teammate, "Why does he run?"
Selanne has never met an autograph seeker he won't oblige. If anything, he seems delighted by attention and kind words, turning toward people the way a flower turns to face the warming sun.