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Why’s That Duck Racing Cars in Finland?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a splendid summer day in Finland and Teemu Selanne, wearing olive green shorts and a polo shirt with a Mighty Ducks logo, is talking about his cars. And so, it seems, is everyone else.

Selanne opens a Finnish tabloid-style newspaper and shows a picture of a Toyota Corolla with a smashed front end.

It is Selanne’s car, the one he crashed four days earlier while practicing his second favorite sport, rally car racing.

Selanne, a native of Finland and star forward for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, is one of the best hockey players in the world.

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The crash is huge news here in Finland, a country of 5 million people and 70,000 lakes but very few superstars.

Selanne is superstar No. 1 right now, having recently received the inaugural Maurice “The Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s leading goal scorer.

Selanne’s drive for speed off the ice as well as on, and the inherent danger in that pursuit, is underscored by the crash--one in which he was not injured, but the driver of the other car was. That Selanne is a daredevil both on and off the ice is a fact Ducks management has learned to live with.

“I’m just happy he didn’t get hurt,” said Ducks General Manager Pierre Gauthier by telephone. “People do all kinds of things. . . . You just hope everyone comes back OK at training camp.”

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‘He Loves Speed. He Loves to Drive’

Hockey is the sporting passion of Finns, more popular than soccer or cross-country skiing or even auto racing.

But racers do come in a close second, Selanne says, and indeed there do seem to be a lot of pictures of Formula 1 racing’s leading driver, Mika Haakinen, around town.

So when Selanne was taking his brand new race car off for a test, to get a feel for its speed and turning radius and general quirks, word filtered out.

“There is a news organization that pays people $200 any time they call up with a tip,” Selanne says. “This sometimes causes some problems. People are looking for things.” Some of those people also brought cameras along when they came to watch Teemu drive. Some good money was made.

“It was a silly accident, my fault, I just wasn’t concentrating,” Selanne says as his 3-year-old, Eemil, spills a Pepsi on himself and 20-month-old Eegu sleeps soundly. Teemu is eating a salad and laughing at Eemil. His wife, Sirpa, produces a change of clothes for Eemil and also a slice of pizza, ham and pineapple.

Rally driving consists of traveling over plotted courses, through forests and fields, mostly on gravel paths. There is the driver and a navigator, who has a precise map and whose job is to tell the driver exactly where each twist, turn and bump will come.

On a test run about 130 miles north of Helsinki, Selanne was on the course and forgot there was another car behind him. “I was talking, I forgot, I turned around to go back and, boom,” Selanne says.

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At a speed estimated by police as 80 to 90 miles an hour, Selanne smashed into another rally car driven by Kalervo Kummola, president of the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation and a member of parliament.

Kummola was briefly hospitalized and Selanne will probably be ticketed for unsafe driving.

“It was stupid,” Selanne says. “It shouldn’t have happened. And it shouldn’t have become such a big story here.”

But Selanne is always a big story here. He is a hero--proof that Finns can leave this beautiful but isolated country and thrive. Selanne’s reputation is that of a good guy. He signs every autograph. He also is the target for a seemingly endless stream of advice from his countrymen.

“You tell him to give up that racing now,” Petri Siimes says. Siimes has just sold some note cards. His advice is free. “Teemu needs to grow up and think about his future. This accident, it is a warning. Taking such chances, it cannot end up well.”

Timo Markkanen, a taxi driver, shakes his head, blows out a puff of cigarette smoke and says, “The wife should put a stop to this driving. They’ve gotten a warning. Teemu should stop and think about this. Everything he does, it is not just for himself. It is for all of us.”

The wife would laugh at this. Sirpa, whose family and the Selannes are lifelong friends, knows she cannot keep Teemu from his cars. “It is part of him,” she says. “He loves speed. He loves to drive. It makes him better in his hockey, I think.”

Summer of Soccer, Tennis--and Hockey

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In the summers, Selanne, who turned 29 on July 3, comes home and drives in one or two large rally races and maybe a couple of smaller ones. For the big races, more than 200,000 Finns line the courses. Top drivers can earn more than $200,000 a year, Selanne says.

But Selanne doesn’t race his cars for the money. He plays hockey. So during the off-season he also finds the time to drive the 15 miles to Helsinki to work out and give a clinic at a hockey rink.

Teemu, Sirpa and family spend their summers in a simple white house made of stone and wood situated on a glorious piece of property at the top of a small hill that runs down to a little beach and then to the Baltic Sea.

Adjacent to them, there is a wooden summer cottage where Teemu’s father, Ilmari, and his wife, Kirsi, live. Teemu’s parents divorced when he was 16 and his mother, Liisa, lives in the old family home in Espoo, another Helsinki suburb.

Ilmari and Kirsi move into the bigger home when Teemu and the family leave for California in August.

There is a wooden sauna house--"all Finns have one,” Selanne says--and a small dock where Teemu has a speedboat and where Ilmari keeps the sailboat on which he and Kirsi lived for two years in the Mediterranean. At the back of the main house there is a magnificent wooden deck that was built by Teemu’s older brother, Panu, a contractor. There is also a six-car garage built by Panu.

Teemu has a twin brother, Paavo, who teaches kindergarten and plays soccer most nights with a group of men who have been friends forever. On the long summer nights, when darkness doesn’t come until nearly midnight, Teemu will join his brother and his friends for soccer.

He also plays a lot of tennis. There is a tennis court on Teemu’s land and when he hears that Newport Beach’s Lindsay Davenport has won Wimbledon, Selanne stops, yells and says to tell her that “I challenge her. I could beat her.” Then he laughs and says, “You know I’m kidding, don’t you? She’s come to some Ducks games, you know.”

His New Toy Is a Harley

With his very first paycheck as a professional hockey player, earned more than a decade ago from a Finnish club team, Selanne bought a 1961 Lincoln Continental. “Same car as President John F. Kennedy was riding when he was assassinated,” Selanne says.

With the next check, Selanne bought a souped-up Pontiac GTO. “Great car, big engine,” Selanne says.

He has arrived home from Helsinki with a new toy, a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. As gravel flies in every direction, two Rottweilers prove no threat as the noise and exhaust send them running away in fear. While they high-tail it from the scene, two blond boys, toddlers with summer tans and looks of total ecstasy, come running.

In this little family, all gathered now to see the new motorcycle. Speed equals smiles.

Ilmari, a car mechanic, rushes to the cycle and hops on. “When I was 15,” he says, “I and my two brothers bought a Harley-Davidson. We, the three of us, would ride it to work.”

To understand Teemu, you start with Ilmari, straight-backed and sinewy at 62, an adventurer who lived in Africa for four years in the 1980s helping developing African nations build railroads, a car lover and a man who enjoys going fast himself.

“Teemu was always a little small,” Ilmari says, “but he was always very fast. From the beginning Teemu loved hockey, but he also played soccer and ice bandy.”

Ice bandy, Teemu explains, is a game played with sticks like field hockey sticks and a cloth-type object to aim at a net. By the time Teemu was a teenager he was good enough to be chosen for both the Finnish junior national hockey and soccer teams. He had to make a choice.

“Hockey, no question,” Teemu says. Like most Finnish boys, Ilmari says, Teemu had read a book written by Jari Kurri, the first Finn to make it in the NHL. “He read that book,” Ilmari says, “and told me that he would do the same thing.”

L.A. Freeways More Risky, He Says

Is he not afraid that the Mighty Ducks will be unhappy about this crash, that they might want to protect their investment by demanding he give up the cars? “No,” Selanne says. “That would make no sense. It’s more dangerous to drive on the L.A. freeways.

“Besides, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t stop.”

At peace and at home, Selanne is immensely more bright-eyed and frisky than the exhausted man who seemed dispirited when the Ducks were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs in May.

He says he was “thrilled” when he heard that teammate Paul Kariya signed a new contract.

“Both sides learned a lesson from last time maybe,” Selanne says.

Two years ago, a contract dispute between the Ducks and Kariya lasted six months and he missed 32 games before he signed. His new contract, signed last week, is for three years and $30 million.

Last year, Selanne signed a two-year contract extension for $19.5 million. That will keep him in a Mighty Ducks uniform at least through the 2001-02 season.

Selanne says he would like to see the Ducks sign a couple more defensemen. He says that last year’s run to the playoffs was a great learning experience. Now it’s time for more.

Then Teemu excuses himself. It is the off-season. His sons are begging to be put on the new Harley.

Teemu, Sirpa, Eemil and Eetu hop on. The motorcycle makes a gigantic roar. The dogs again scurry away. The boys clap.

Off the Selannes go, dust and gravel flying, the children in heaven, the father grinning.

*

Diane Pucin, a Times sports columnist, can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com


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