Even in retirement, it's still hard keeping up with Teemu Selanne, the Finnish Flash

ByScott Burnside ESPN logo
Thursday, February 9, 2017

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- The six-time Olympian, former rookie of the year, Stanley Cup champion and sure-fire lock to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November is embroiled in an earnest discussion with a bartender at the restaurant that bears his name.

Are they debating the fortunes of Teemu Selanne's former team, the Anaheim Ducks?

Are they debating whether the NHL should return to the Olympics?

Nope. Old Fashioneds.

As in, who makes the best Old Fashioned at the Selanne Steak Tavern?

"Let's see if Justin can make as good an Old Fashioned as you," Selanne says to bartender Neil.

"No," Neil says flatly. "Not a chance."

Selanne then asks Neil to name the best bartender in the building.

"You. I'm No. 2," Neil says, as if this is a well-rehearsed skit.

"Tell him why," Selanne insists, motioning to a guest who has joined Selanne at the corner of the rectangular bar.

"The reason why is (A) He doesn't charge anybody for drinks," Neil says. "And (B) he drinks on the job the entire time. And (C) every time I've bartended with him, I've had to fire him."

Selanne cackles.

"He might have fired me, but I was still the best bartender," he says.

Selanne has developed a deep connection to his restaurant in this bustling artsy community on the Pacific Ocean. He speaks Finnish to the tourists sitting at the other end of the bar who have come hoping for a glimpse of one of Finland's most beloved athletes. There's more good-natured give-and-take with the staff in the busy restaurant and bar.

In effect, Selanne has traded one locker room for another, exchanged a smelly dressing room for an exquisitely renovated historic house. Everything has changed and almost nothing has changed.

Not the happy voices that often crescendo into peals of laughter. Not the ribbing and the relationships forged from a common goal.

Turns out running a restaurant isn't all that much different from running a hockey team.

"Exactly," he says with a big smile. "It works exactly like that and that's why it's so important that we try to create a feeling that everybody loves to come to work. When it's teamwork and a family feeling and everybody cares about each other, you know how it happens."

The Selanne Steak Tavern -- of which he is a primary partner and is involved with key decisions, such as hiring the chef and management staff -- wasn't the product of a post-retirement bid to stay busy. Rather, Selanne had been looking with golfing and business buddy Kevin Pratt for the right location for a restaurant for a decade.

"Playing for 20-plus years in the NHL, we always went to the best restaurants, and I always looked at it and said, 'What I want to do when I'm done is have my own restaurant,'" Selanne said. "And it's not like I'm here every day, but it's like a little baby."

Selanne is normally a filet guy but on this night he goes with the skirt steak because it's the favorite of his son, Eemil, 21, who is attending a local college and is loitering nearby. After the food comes, Teemu cuts off a generous piece to share as if it's the most natural thing in the world.

The steakhouse interior is finished with great attention to detail: wooden floorboards, an extensive wine library off the main bar. Upstairs is an area for parties.

But what you won't see are Selanne jerseys or sticks or the trappings of every sports bars in the world. Instead, there is a small case in which Selanne, the all-time leading point-producer in Olympic men's hockey history, has displayed his four Olympic medals, the latest of which was won in 2014 in Russia when the Finns beat the U.S. in the bronze-medal game.There's also a miniature replica of the Stanley Cup won by Selanne and the Ducks, inscribed with their names.

Sometimes visitors get to put the Olympic medals around their necks. Which makes sense. If you can share a bite of Selanne's steak, why not put on his Olympic medals?

Some retired players have a sense of melancholy about them. No one plays forever (except Jaromir Jagr, apparently), although Selanne got close, skating until he was almost 44. The moments after that final whistle can be long and filled with longing, if not regret.

Selanne? Ha-ha. Not quite.

After Selanne won his only Stanley Cup, in 2007, he found the hockey equivalent of the fountain of youth. Every year after that he thought about retiring, but every year he kept playing because he loved it so much, couldn't imagine life without the game.

These days, however, he is having so much damn fun in retirement that he admits that if he had to do it all over again, he might have retired earlier than after the 2013-14 season.

"There's a lot of things that I was not able to do before, and now I can. Just open [my] arms and take everything in," said Selanne, now 46. "And you know what? I'm still super busy, but it's on my own terms."

Life previously dominated by team schedules and commitments is now dominated by nothing of the sort. He is at the restaurant two or three days a week, although some weeks he might only come by just once.

"I think the biggest thing that people don't realize [is] how disciplined [a] life hockey players and athletes overall are living," Selanne said. "Everything was in the back of your mind: 'What is good for you? What is the right thing to do?'"

Especially in the final seasons for Selanne, so much had to be perfect for him to continue to compete. And if there is regret, or guilt, it is about the time taken away from his family. When his sons wanted to spend time being active with him, for instance, he would suggest a movie instead of inline skating or biking because he had to rest up for a game the next night.

"So the family obviously had to sacrifice," Selanne explained. "But that's the only way to do it. Athletes ... are in many ways very, very selfish about when they're playing or their careers."

Selanne's middle son, Eetu, 19, is playing in the USHL in Madison, Wisconsin, and has committed to Northeastern University. Minnesota Wild All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter and his family own part of the team and Suter's brother coaches the team.

"And it's funny. Gary Suter, who I played with in San Jose, his son is an assistant coach," Selanne said.

Selanne's youngest son, Leevi, 16, is playing at the triple-A level in the Ducks' youth program and might be the most skilled of the three boys.

His daughter, Veera, 9, is active in sports as well and is usually taken to school by Selanne, who then fills his days playing golf or tennis or just hanging out with his wife, Sirpa.

Selanne has tried to teach his boys the love of the game, sure, but also how the game can be humbling. And he has tried to prepare them for the burden of showing up at a rink with the name "Selanne" on the back.

He recalled one night an opponent trash-talking Eetu, suggesting his dad wasn't really such a manly man -- but in more base terms. Eetu told the player to wait after the game so he could tell Selanne himself.

"And I was waiting and I saw this guy was coming and he saw me, and he turned around and went the other way," Selanne said, smiling.

Selanne had always instructed the boys on how to pack their bags, so they wouldn't forget any of their gear. Leevi, then 7 or 8, had his own system.

The ensuing conversation, according to Teemu, through Leevi:

"Excuse me, Coach, is that the right way? Because my dad told me almost opposite," Leevi says.

"This is the right way to do it," the coach says.

"OK. Did you play in the NHL too?" Leevi replies.

Selanne is laughing because his son simply assumed that all coaches must have had the same background as his dad -- which meant having played in the NHL.

The coach, realizing who he's dealing with, suggested that the youngster could pack the bag any way he saw fit.

At the Selanne Steak Tavern, more drinks are poured by Justin and Neil, the din in the restaurant rising subtly, the way it does in all places where good times are being had.

"Do you know how I began [as a] right-handed [shot]?" asked Selanne, who scored 76 goals as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets, en route to a career of 684 goals and 1,457 points.

He recalled going to a sporting goods store in Helsinki, with his older brother and his twin. There was a sale, but his brothers got the last two left-handed sticks.

"Two green Finn Star sticks," Selanne recalled. "So my brothers, they picked the green ones, left-handed, and [the] only stick left was ugly, yellow, right-handed. So I cried to my mother and I said, 'I'm not going to take that stick' and then my mom said, 'Well, then you don't play hockey.' So then I had to take it and learn to play with the right-handed one."

He laughs.

Selanne was part of the advisory group for Team Finland in the World Cup of Hockey; he says he wants to remain involved in some capacity with the Olympic team. In the summer, he runs a scoring clinic in Finland for some of the country's top teenage players; and he gets his live-hockey fix through his boys. Plus, he regularly attends home games as an important yet unofficial ambassador for the Ducks.

But there is no longing to feel the stick in his hand or to join his teammates early in the morning at local rinks or late at night.

"Not a chance," he said.

It's getting late.

The dishes have been cleared and Selanne is supposed to be at the Ducks game in Anaheim. But a Finnish couple is chatting away with him and there always seems to be one more couple to greet at the bar or one more server or bus boy to stop and exchange pleasantries with.

And you get the feeling that wherever Selanne happens to be, that's where he's happiest. It was so when he played the game. And it is so now.