When I was 8 years old, my aunt and uncle bought me my first NHL jersey for Christmas. Since December 25, 1994, that collection has grown from one to fourteen and now covers almost every hockey league in the world. Jersey's from the WHL, AHL, NHL and even IIHF are each represented and are worn frequently whether around the house, to the arena or just to play a pick-up game of shinny.
Vast as the collection may be, there is one item that will always hold a special place in my heart as it was the first I ever received: A white Teemu Selanne Winnnipeg Jets jersey.
For years, I begged and pleaded in my letters to Santa Claus for one of two things: A Sega Genesis with the latest NHL hockey video game or a Winnipeg Jets jersey.
Instead of a Sega I was given a Nintendo and a copy of Blades of Steel, a compromise that I deemed just with the jolly cookie-eater from the North Pole.
The Jets jersey however would elude me for years.
At first, my request was simple: A blank Jets jersey. Surely Santa had many of those at his disposal and I wasn't even asking for it's customization.
Then in 1992, the request was altered to a blue Evgeny Davydov jersey. Though he would only play parts of two seasons with the Jets, I would use Davydov in video game format at my cousins house where I would proceed to light him up on his recently released copy of NHLPA Hockey '93 for Sega Genesis.
My love affair with Davydov would soon subside with the emergence of a "New Boss" in Winnipeg; a player who tugged at the collective heart-strings of Manitobans, becoming one of the most well revered Winnipeg Jets of all time.
Though I wasn't old enough to grasp the significance of Teemu Selanne's impact on the game of hockey as a young child, I am awed every time I revisit the statistics from his rookie season in 1992-93.
76 goals. 56 assists. 132 points over an eighty-four game season.
To put that into perspective, throughout the history of the NHL, seventeen players have scored more single season points than Selanne. Only seven of those seventeen players eclipsed 132 points in the 1990's. Selanne also set an untouchable record en route to winning the Calder Trophy, scoring 76 goals in his rookie season, smashing the previous mark set by New York Islander great, Mike Bossy (53).
Christmas of 1994 will always be one of the most vivid memories of my life-time. The feeling of opening a Christmas-wrapped box which I assumed contained a new sweater I wouldn't like, only to find - to my astonishment - my very first Winnipeg Jets jersey.
Santa had come through, and though he couldn't meet the time constraints of my request, he saw to it that another family member did. For that, I will be forever grateful.
1994-95 was a tumultuous time to be a hockey fan. The NHL was entangled in a lockout which thankfully only lasted sixteen days past Christmas. On January 11, 1995, the NHL announced it would return to business, suddenly giving my most valued Christmas gift meaning again.
Every night I would turn on the T.V. and flip through the channels, hoping the Jets game would be aired.
On game nights, I would sit cross-legged on the floor, Selanne jersey donned, completely entranced by the Finnish Flash as he danced his way up and down the ice. Though I had been watching hockey with my father for a few years, Teemu Selanne was the first player that I called "my favorite".
Posters, hockey cards and other memorabilia were displayed in my room as a shrine to the much adored Selanne. When he switched his number from 13 to 8, I had to have new Selanne collectibles noting the change in number. I can say with complete certainty that my personal "Selanne-mania" helped mold me into the hockey fanatic I am today.
February 7, 1996 will forever be a black spot on the legacy of the now defunct version of the Winnipeg Jets. While the team was playing it's final stretch of games before being moved to Phoenix, management traded Teemu Selanne, Marc Chouinard and a 1996 4th round pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Chad Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and a 1996 3rd round pick.
In an instant, Selanne was gone, departing for sunny California never to return to Winnipeg. Never to be given the standing ovation and thanks that he deserved from a fan base who watched him flourish into one of the NHL's best.
That was, until last night. For the first time in fifteen years, Teemu Selanne stepped on the ice in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The city's prodigal son had returned. All was right in the world.
As he skated laps during warm-ups, the buzz from the crowd grew with each partisan taking to their previously vacant seat. The energy in the MTS Centre continued to swell until moments before the national anthems when the raucous crowd erupted with years of unbridled love on their former superstar.
Selanne, obviously emotional, took it all in stride. Every time he touched the puck, the crowd unleashed in unison, cheering as though the Jets had just scored.
When his name was announced by the public address announcer, the fans would cheer.
And when TNSE played a tribute video of Selanne skating in Jets attire the fans roared.... and roared.... and roared.
From a fans perspective, things couldn't have gone much better last night as Selanne was finally given the send-off he deserved back in 1996. He assisted on two of Anaheim's three goals, a performance good enough for the games third star.
He was even kind enough to give fans in the building one final victory lap; one which they have clamored for since the spring of 1996.
As a fan of the game and of Selanne himself, I found myself getting swept up in the emotions transpiring at the MTS Centre.
Childhood memories flooded back each time Selanne took to the ice, touched the puck or wired a snap shot towards Winnipeg's goal. At 41 years of age, I saw Selanne not as the player he is today, but the player he was back in the early nineties. His presence last night took me back to March 1993, December 1994, February 1996 and April 1996 all over again.
A slide-show of images and memories, stored away in the recess of my mind coming back to life just as vividly as the 8 year old me lived them.
Although the Teemu Selanne jersey no longer fits, it will always have it's place in my collection, where someday it will be passed on to the next generation along with the stories that accompany the importance of it's history. Given all the fanfare surrounding Selanne's return, I'd like to think that I'm not the only Winnipegger who feels that way.
If yesterday's spectacle proves anything, it's that even Teemu Selanne, long removed from his days in Winnipeg can always call the heart of the prairies home. It's the old adage that "you can take a player out of a city, but you can't take the city out of the player".
And if this was in fact Teemu's final visit to Winnipeg, I feel that it's apt to borrow a historic line from the late Don Wittman. On behalf of all Jets fans, "So long Teemu Selanne. You'll be missed. Thanks for the memories".