By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Teemu Selanne skated onto Winnipeg ice for the first time in 15 years to a hero's welcome from Jets fans Saturday, as the Finnish Flash returned to the city where he started his National Hockey League career.
The Helsinki native played his first four NHL seasons in Winnipeg, setting rookie goal and point-scoring records that still stand. The Jets traded the right winger to the Anaheim Ducks in a lopsided deal during the team's final 1995-96 season in Winnipeg before the money-losing club moved to Phoenix.
The Ducks did not play in Winnipeg for the rest of that season so the fans and Selanne never got to say goodbye.
The Western Canadian city of 695,000 got an NHL team back this season in the shape of the relocated Atlanta Thrashers and Selanne eagerly anticipated the lone trip to Winnipeg in what could be his last season.
"Sometimes I'm just shaking my head thinking about how much passion people have for hockey here, and all over in Canada," Selanne, 41, said. "It's almost like the people live their lives through the hockey."
The Jets won 5-3 over the Ducks, who have struggled this season. Five different players - Alexander Burmistrov, Kyle Wellwood, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Zach Bogosian - scored for Winnipeg.
Corey Perry led Anaheim with two goals, and Niklas Hagman added one. Selanne notched two assists, including a slick alley-oop pass, to the fans' delight.
Jeff Thompson, 37, was one of about 30 fans who waited outside the Ducks' hotel for their team bus to arrive just before 3 a.m. Saturday.
"There's only one Teemu," Thompson said. "Back in the day, being a younger hockey fan, that was your idol."
Selanne's wife and children travelled separately to the game from California and his sons reveled in their father's Canadian connection, playing hockey for hours on an outdoor rink the day before the game.
The game was also a big event in northern Europe, and media from Finland and Sweden travelled to Winnipeg to cover it.
Newly acquired Jet Antti Miettinen followed Selanne's sensational rookie NHL year while growing up in Finland.
"It was just an amazing year he had here and he grabbed everyone's attention, including mine."
In Winnipeg's first season back in the NHL, their fans have gained a reputation as being among the league's loudest, and toughest on opposing players.
But the fans gave Selanne several standing ovations and cheered whenever he touched the puck, often switching abruptly to boos when the puck moved to another Duck.
At the end of the game, Selanne tossed two sticks into the crowd and pumped his fist to his heart as the fans stood and cheered.
"I tried to stay focused, but I was very emotional," Selanne said after the game. "It's a dream come true to come back and play here one more time."
Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said the fans' passion was "chilling."
"I was getting emotional, so I can only imagine what Teemu was feeling in the first 10 minutes of the game. It would have been hard to play."
Selanne is playing in his 19th NHL season and leads Anaheim in scoring with 33 points in 32 games. He is the Ducks' career leader in games, goals, assists and points.
(Reporting By Rod Nickel in Winnipeg. Editing by Patrick Johnston)