Seeing as this is America and we’re talking about hockey here, I’m going to guess that if you know the name Teemu Selänne, it’s probably because of NHL ‘94. Selänne, now 43 and taking part in his record-tying sixth Olympic hockey tournament, was a one-man wrecking crew in the 16-bit universe that EA Sports created, an insanely fast avatar worthy of his Finnish Flash nickname. Teemu was not Bo Jackson-in-Tecmo Bowl good, mind you, but the Winnipeg Jet came with a rating higher than Wayne Gretzky. He was one of the best players the Sega Genesis has ever seen.
He’s also probably the best hockey player in Olympic history. Selänne, now slogging through his 21st NHL season, lost his video-game-ready speed long ago, but he looks primed to hold on to his title as the most prolific scorer in the history of the Olympic Games. Selänne broke a four-way logjam atop the record book four years ago in Vancouver with his second assist in his team’s second game, giving him a total of 37 points (20 goals, 17 assists) in 31 career contests. While he was held scoreless for the remainder of the 2010 Games, he’ll have at least three more games to put his record further out of reach before he calls it an international career at tournament’s end. His best chances will likely come in his team’s first two games, on Thursday against Austria and Friday against Norway, who together have only a smattering of NHL-ers on their rosters. After that looms all-powerful Canada and then, the hockey gods willing, the elimination rounds.
Selänne owes his scoring record at least in part to his remarkable longevity: He’ll be the oldest of five fortysomethings on the ice when the hockey action begins later this week in Sochi. There are a tiny handful of NHL players who have played in all five Olympic tournaments since the league began sending its players in 1998, a group that includes the Czech Republic’s Jaromír Jágr and Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson. Selänne, though, stands alone as the only one of these men to have been an Olympic veteran pre-Nagano. He was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1988, but held off coming to North America until after making his Olympic debut in 1992 in Albertville, where he tallied 11 points, the first of three times he’s recorded double-digit points in a tournament. But it would be unfair to attribute his prolific scoring solely to the number of times he’s taken the Olympic ice. He’s recorded multiple points in more than a third of his games, a machinelike performance that explains how he’s bested the point totals of players from the blowout-filled prewar era and those who played with the letters CCCP embroidered on their sweaters.
If there’s a hole in the Finnish hero’s Olympic resume, it’s one he shares with the rest of his countrymen. The Lions, or “Leijonat” for those of you who speak Finnish, are the only one of the six traditional hockey powerhouses—Canada, Russia, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Sweden are the others—never to earn an Olympic gold medal. That’s unlikely to change this year. Vegas has Finland as 10–to–1 underdogs, and that was before they lost their best player to an injury earlier this month.
Still, the Finns, like their captain, always seem to overperform when the Olympic rings are overhead. Their most lackluster NHL-era showing, if you can even call it that, was in 2002, when they finished second in pool play only to be knocked out in the quarterfinals by a Canadian team that would go on to win the gold. Since the NHL era began, they’ve taken home one silver and two bronzes—the largest medal haul of any nation over that four-tournament span. Any squad that fails to take Selänne and co. seriously this time around risks finding themselves listed in the footnotes of the Olympic record books.