CALGARY – Teemu Selanne is drinking up the last sweet drops of his NHL career.
At 42 years, six months and 16 days, Selanne is the oldest active player in the league this lockout-shortened season.
The Anaheim Ducks winger has the air of a man enjoying an extended youth that he knows is rare and limited in professional sports.
“When you’re older, you know there’s not going to be much left,” Selanne said Monday in Calgary prior to the Ducks taking on the Flames.
“You know it’s the end of the road and it’s right to enjoy every day. The older you get, you start to enjoy the little things and different stuff than when you’re 22.”
But Selanne isn’t looking or acting his age. He scored two goals and had two assists in Anaheim’s 7-3 win over Vancouver to open the season. That made him the oldest player to produce a four-point game since Gordie Howe in 1971.
Selanne was also the oldest player to appear in all 82 games last season, with 26 goals and 40 assists in his 20th NHL campaign.
“The Finnish Flash”, as he is nicknamed, is a fit and muscular six feet and 196 pounds. There are laugh lines around his eyes, but no grey hairs on his head.
Flames coach Bob Hartley compares him to Brad Pitt’s character in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, living a life from death to birth instead of the reverse.
“Selanne is going the wrong way,” Hartley says. “It seems he’s getting younger year by year.”
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau defies any sport to produce a 42-year-old athlete performing as well as Selanne.
“If you see it in baseball, he’s a pitcher, might be a relief pitcher or the knuckleball pitcher that the Jays got. But he’s not 42. He’s 39,” Boudreau says, referring to R.A. Dickey who is actually 38.
“In football, he’d be a kicker. In tennis, they can’t play that long. In soccer, I don’t know of anybody over in Europe that’s that age.
“I’m not trying to brag for my player, but that’s an amazing, amazing feat what he’s doing at his age, playing at the level that he’s playing that. I think he’s the greatest athlete in the world for his age.”
Selanne revealed the secret to his longevity in the NHL.
“I enjoy playing, I’m pretty healthy still and playing with great players. Those are the combinations that usually work,” the Helsinki native says. “There’s a lot of things you’ve got to do well and I’m very proud I’m still able to play against these young guys at this age.”
When Selanne made his NHL debut with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93, he expected to spend only three or four seasons in the league before returning to Europe.
He’s played for the Jets, Ducks, San Jose Sharks and spent a year with the Colorado Avalanche before returning to the Ducks, with whom he’s begun a 13th season. Selanne has 665 goals and 745 assists in 1,342 games and won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2008.
He felt his body grinding to a halt about a decade ago, and that also contributes to his appreciation of playing the game now.
“The Colorado year was very tough for me and a couple years earlier when my knee was not that good, I almost lost the passion for hockey” he says. “When you can’t do normal things and you can’t enjoy the level that it used to be, that really opened my eyes.
“When I came back and I felt healthy again, it was just an unbelievable feeling. At that point I said ‘Every day I can come and be healthy and can play this game we love, I’m going to be thankful for that.'”
Selanne admits his recovery from a game is slower now. Boudreau says he’ll often tell the Finn to take a day off from practice only to turn around and see Selanne on the ice.
“That’s the hardest part because I like to skate every day,” Selanne says. “My body feels better when I do every day a little skating. But especially with this schedule, you have to force yourself to take more days off and rest.
“The toughest part, like Bruce said, recovering from those games is the hardest part at this age. The recovery time is so much longer. It was hard when you were young, but as you get older, it’s even more difficult. You have to do all the things right and be very disciplined about the right stuff off the ice.”
Selanne is one of a few still playing who were also around during the last lockout-abbreviated season of 1994-95.
Others include Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney of the Dallas Stars, Roman Hamrlik of the Washington Capitals, Jason Arnott of the St. Louis Blues, Sergei Gonchar of the Ottawa Senators, Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils.
“It was a little bit different. I felt it was quite easy last time,” Selanne recalls. “I went to play in Finland and was in top shape when the league started. Not so many guys did that and I don’t think that time so many players were so prepared. Now, everybody is ready to go right away.
“But I remember the schedule was very tough then too. It makes every game more special. Every point is so critical right now. You always try to remind yourself and your teammates, that one point or two points we lose somewhere because we’re stupid or something early might be those points that are going to make the difference. There’s no nights off.”
Selanne says the 48-game schedule didn’t factor into his decision to return to the NHL this season because when he made that decision in early July, there was still the prospect of a full season.
“Hopefully this short one is going to be good for an old body,” he quipped.