Before he took the NHL by storm with his historic 76-goal rookie campaign, before earning his Finnish Flash nickname in Winnipeg and helping cultivate California’s hockey scene in Anaheim and before becoming the four-time Olympic medallist and Hall of Famer we know him as today, Teemu Selanne was a kindergarten teacher.
“You know, my mom was working in that industry and when I was done with my school I went to our mandatory Army service. And then I was just playing hockey,” Selanne told Sportsnet, reflecting on his pre-NHL days back in Finland.
“I didn’t want to study anymore and I found that our practices were at 5 at night, I felt like I was so bored, you know? I had nothing else to do, and I think it started affecting my hockey, too. I was waiting the whole day for the practice and I was tired all the time. So my mom said, ‘how about you go to the kindergarten? Work there, help first and then if you like it you can start teaching some stuff. Let’s do that.’”
And so began just one of many fascinating chapters of Selanne’s life on and off the ice.
We spoke with Selanne about the rise of Finnish hockey, his post-career passions, whether he sees himself getting back into the NHL and, yes, how a bunch of six-year-olds helped him thrive on the ice.
SPORTSNET: Today’s NHL has so many talented young Finns finding success around the league. How much do you watch today’s young Finnish players in the NHL?
Teemu Selanne: I watch a lot. I’m very happy and proud of how they’re playing. We have a good program in Finland, so it’s fun to watch those kids.
SN: What is it that you think the program is doing so well right now?
TS: Well, I think we have always been good team players and a lot of good role players but I think, probably like 2006 or 2007 we start this new program that start focusing more on individual skills and try to make individual players so good before we think about the team effort. Because I always believe that when you have great individuals and you put them together on the same team … you have to learn certain things before you can start building a good team, you know?
SN: So, building the foundation.
TS: Yes. I think we were behind Sweden and Russia before that and then we start pay attention more to individual development and now I think all these new players, young players right now, it’s from that process.
World champions Finland beats Canada 3-1 unbelievable performance I’m so proud of these guys our country will celebrate this for long long time congrats Incredible
— Teemu Selanne (@TeemuSel8nne) May 26, 2019
SN: We’re seeing so much skill and so much speed in the NHL – those traits that have become the Finnish identity on the ice.
TS: Absolutely. They have done a good job. One big thing is also that the ex-players are staying in the game and running the programs and helping those younger players. It’s important. The people who have been going through those same things, it’s so much easier to teach those things to other people – they have the experience, they know the mistakes, and benefits with different stuff.
Kaapo ,welcome to the big boys league https://t.co/eOtX1XtJM3
— Teemu Selanne (@TeemuSel8nne) October 12, 2019
SN: Part of that Finnish hockey success has meant elite players are joining the NHL at younger ages, and we’ve seen some struggle at times with making such a big transition. Patrik Laine has been vocal about struggling with confidence at times, and Kaapo Kakko is off to a slow start with the Rangers. What is some advice that you’d have for those younger players entering this new hockey setting?
TS: I think, first of all, it’s amazing to see 18-year-old kids so ready right away. Like, if I look back when I was 18, I don’t think I would be ready to do the same stuff that they are doing right now. But I think all the help that they get earlier these days, it’s going to make this happen.
But I think the Finnish guys, when they come over, you have to create the bubble – that you’re going to get all the help with different areas, that you don’t have to worry about anything else but just play hockey. That’s why Patrik’s parents are here, (Aleksander) Barkov’s parents have been here. If your parents can’t come, you at least have to have a lot of supporting cast around the team or team staff or somebody who’s going to help you because it’s a different world. And especially when things go a little bit south and you lose the confidence, then you need the support. It’s very important to have people around that you can get a little help and get the positive.
SN: I’m curious about any language barriers that might play a role in Finnish (or other international) players adjusting to the NHL. Do you think that’s a factor?
TS: Not anymore. It used to be. Some players, like (Jesse) Puljujarvi, when he came, his English was not at the level that he could understand everything, and it makes things more difficult. So I always tell the young players – even not hockey players, just normal people – that even if you don’t like school, languages is so important. You’re going to get so much benefit if you look after those things. And same thing with hockey, if you come over and you understand everything and you understand hockey language and you understand language … life is so much easier.
SN: Do you have any desire to get back with an NHL team, as a coach or member of a front office?
TS: Not so far. I’ve been waiting, if I get itchy to start doing more, but it’s just it’s another career, you know? It’s another commitment, it’s time consuming and I don’t have that time right now. So right now, no. I think I start to do a little more, maybe a couple times a week with the Ducks.
I can’t believe those guys – the coaching, it takes more time than as a player.
SN: And now more than ever, right?
TS: Yeah. I don’t know how those guys do it, they have families and wives, and they’re never home. I don’t want to … I was enough away from my family, and I don’t want to start that all over.
You have to be disciplined in that job, too, and it’s a big commitment and you’ve got to be ready to do those things and I don’t feel I’m ready – at least, now.
SN: Away from the game, you’ve kind of got this “Most interesting man in the world” vibe…
SN: We see you at golf tournaments, you’re into race cars, you own a few restaurants. But going back to your pre-NHL days, one thing I was interested to learn was that you were a kindergarten teacher?
SN: How did this come about?
TS: You know, my mom was working in that industry and when I was done with my school I went to our mandatory Army service. And then I was just playing hockey. I didn’t want to study anymore and I found that our practices were at 5 at night, I felt like I was so bored, you know? I had nothing else to do, and I think it started affecting my hockey, too. I was waiting the whole day for the practice and I was tired all the time. So my mom said, ‘how about you go to the kindergarten? Work there, help first, and then if you like it you can start teaching some stuff. Let’s do that.’ So four hours a day, I’d get up at 8:30, went to work at 9, 9-1 I was working. It was super much fun. Playing and teaching those six-year-olds, it was so much fun. I really, really enjoyed that. It ended up being two and a half years. It was a fun time.
SN: I imagine that was a lot of energy. Did you get them playing hockey?
TS: Oh, absolutely. We played all the sports. It was two hours a day in the classroom and two hours playing sports. Even all the girls played hockey outside, or soccer, whatever. I got everybody on board, we were very active. It was fun.
SN: You’ve got a couple of restaurants now. If you were to go for dinner at your steakhouse, what are you ordering?
TS: I’m going to start with a dirty martini, and then of course some good steak.
I would have a beet ravioli salad, I would have scallops and then good steak – rib eye or New York.
If I go filet mignon, I go medium-rare, and on the rib eyes and New Yorks, I go medium.
SN: What was it that got you interested in getting into the restaurant business?
TS: It’s funny, I always wanted to have a restaurant. Obviously traveling 20-plus years in North America and eating at the best restaurants … it’s something that I enjoy.
SN: You’re also passionate about golf and race cars. If you could be a professional golfer or a professional race car driver, what would you choose?
TS: That’s a hard one. I like golf more than racing these days, so I would probably go with golf.
SN: Where’s your next round?
TS: Pebble Beach … that’s my next adventure.
SN: With the English-language re-launch of your book (Teemu Selanne: My Life), I want to ask: What are you reading right now?
TS: I haven’t even read the English version, so … (laughs). But I pretty much know what’s in there, so… I don’t have to (laughs).
But I like life stories. The last book I read was Roger Federer’s and Agassi’s. Andre Agassi’s book was unbelievable.
Somehow, I don’t have patience to read.
SN: You should get audiobooks or something.
TS: Yeah, or maybe when I grow up one day, I start reading.
SN: When you’re not on the golf course.
This interview has been edited and condensed.