Devante Smith-Pelly (right) has been one of several young Ducks players who has had the opportunity to learn under legend Teemu Selanne. (Photo courtesy of Ray Carlin/Icon SMI)
When Teemu Selanne was first shooting pucks out of the air in celebration and lighting it up in his own record-smashing rookie season, rookie Devante Smith-Pelly was still macking mashed peas and rocking Huggies.
But this season, the 19-year-old neophyte Smith-Pelly and the ageless Finnish Flash Selanne shared a bond on the Ducks bench.
"It's amazing, obviously. It's not every day that you get to play with a guy like that," said Smith-Pelly. "He's 41 years old, he's been playing since I was born but he still loves to come to the rink every day."
While there is little doubt that Smith-Pelly will return to the Ducks next season, Selanne's perennial retirement rumination will take place over the next couple of months. The chants of "One more year!" reigned down at the Ducks' final home game for the fifth year in a row.
Selanne now mentors Anaheim's rookies but he also plays the game with such gusto and maintains his body so effectively that some may need to see his birth certificate.
"He has the enthusiasm of a guy just breaking into the league. It's amazing just to see how much he loves the game and how much he loves to be around," Smith-Pelly said. "He's at the rink when he doesn't have to be, he's on the ice when he doesn't have to be, he's a machine."
In addition to his youthful enthusiasm, fitness, performance and appearance, Selanne provides levity to a Ducks team anchored by players at relative extremes of the age spectrum.
At once, Selanne looks the part of politician and prankster, shaking hands and kissing babies one moment and chirping a teammate or cracking a joke the next. One of the most personable players in the league, Selanne maintains his exuberance by keeping his routine constant but lighthearted.
"He doesn't act his age at all. He loves to joke around, he loves to have fun and I think that has a lot to do with him being able to still play at 41," Smith-Pelly said. "He doesn't take it too seriously. He just enjoys it because it's something that he loves to do."
Selanne has led by both example and instruction, eager to take young players aside and help mold them into reliable NHL pros.
"I like to teach them to do things right and they have been like my kids sometimes," Selanne said. "They have done a great job and I am very proud of them. It's always great to see when young guys come here and you see the progress that they go through and they learn their ways to do their job."
"He treats us amazingly," Smith-Pelly said, "As soon as I came, he made me feel pretty comfortable, he always asked me how I was."
"He gives the younger guys little tips here and there just to help us along the way. Obviously, he's a little bit more experienced so he knows the little things we'll need later in our career."
Smith-Pelly went more or less wire-to-wire with the Ducks, losing games to a loan to Team Canada for the World Juniors and his recovery from an injury he sustained in the tournament. He made the team out of camp and developed into an important player who saw ice time in all situations by year's end.
He finished with 13 points in 49 games, with six of those points coming in his final 10 games. His role expanded throughout the season and the burly Smith-Pelly dished out 104 hits, foreboding the imposing presence he could become with a full season of consistent ice time.
"Devo I think has really grown as a player. From the first day I saw him, now that he's playing so many regular minutes, you see a solid NHL guy," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said.
"You look and you go, 'geez, he's only 19 years old.' Those are great things, you want to give those guys more important roles."
L.A. Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, who coached Selanne with the San Jose Sharks, has hardly been surprised by the successful mentorship of Selanne in this his second stint with Anaheim. He has had success with players like Smith-Pelly and Kyle Palmieri this season, as well as previously with Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf and reigning Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry.
"In the locker room, it's about being a role model," Sutter said. "Every team wishes that they had a Selanne in the locker room so young players could just watch him and the way he handles himself with everybody. Teammates, traveling, the media, fans, you know what? It's special."
Like the rest of his teammates, Smith-Pelly would love to see Selanne return next season. If Selanne's enthusiasm for the game says anything, there may be little doubt that he will be back for 'one more year.'
"There was a couple times were our schedule was pretty heavy and Bruce told him to take the day off. Guys had to hide his skates and stick, he eventually found them and jumped on the ice," Smith-Pelly said.
"That pretty much defines the way he is. If he didn't find his gear, he might have gone out there in his socks."