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Sydney’s Wayne Gretzky ice hockey classic was a great showcase

It's prime hockey season in Australia and across North America. (Photo: Andrew Kitchener)
Roar Guru
26th June, 2016
1
1029 Reads

Wayne Gretzky once quipped that you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. On Saturday evening at Qudos Bank Arena inside the Sydney Olympic Park Precinct, hockey – of the ice variety – received a shot.

A massive shot in the arm, and it came in the form of Gretzky himself, nicknamed The Great One, and generally considered to be one of the greatest athletes in the world.

Certainly, his feats in the National Hockey League will never be matched. His name is recognised around the world, even down here in Australia, whether you’re a hockey fan or not.

Hosting the fourth of five games in the aptly-named Wayne Gretzky Ice Hockey Classic, featuring teams from USA and Canada, made up of a smattering of NHL stars and plenty of AHL talent as well, Gretzky, by his very presence, turned the crowded arena into hockey paradise.

Anyone who was there knows exactly what I mean. With the temperature down in the mid-teens, it felt more like a hockey night than these events previously have.

The flood of different jerseys on the walk from the train station down Olympic Boulevard to the arena, as close to an NHL-spec barn as Australia has to offer, showed that there was plenty of support for Canada and the Americans – and for the Oilers, Rangers, Penguins, Blackhawks and even the Whalers and Nordiques.

Nothing cooler than a throwback jersey! Except maybe a #99 Gretzky one on this night.

Say what you will about the exhibition nature of the series.

There are people out there who line up to take shots at the line-up and the intensity of games that are played in the off-season for professional hockey, by guys – NHL goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Scott Darling, reigning All Star Game MVP John Scott and Stanley Cup champion Brandon Bolling among them – who’ve come halfway around the world to put on a show and to promote concussion awareness, an incredibly important and worthwhile cause.

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If you expect them to go full-pace like it’s Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, you’re mad. Even so, the final period, plus a frantic five minutes of three-on-three overtime and the following shootout, won by Canada 4-3, thanks to a Chad Nehring winner in the sixth round, was sensationally paced, and not without a little physicality, too.

It was by far the best of these games I’ve seen. Two NHL goaltenders helped, as did the nice smattering of other NHL talent. The roster depth has gone from strength to strength each year.

That the tour happens at all is pretty amazing, and every single one of the players on this trip have taken time out of their short off-season vacation or family time to spread the hockey gospel far beyond it’s regular borders, should be lauded by one and all. Not derided.

Ticket prices? Yeah, they’re expensive, but when you consider how much the insurance payments for some of the NHL guys would be, and the cost of building rinks in all the arenas, quite aside from feeding, housing and transporting athletes around, it’s little wonder. But the value for money is great, if you go in expecting an All Star-type contest, which I always do.

The way the entire night is packed up is unbeatable. For once a year attendees like my dad (who thoroughly enjoyed himself) the whole spectacle is undeniably exciting, right down to the anthems and the WWE-style introductions of the players. Oh, and the Kiss Cam, Bongo Cam and a double chance at karaoke – The Horses by Daryl Braithwaite and John Farnham’s You’re The Voice by – were great fun, too.

For those of us who live and breathe the game, a fun night was made so much more memorable because Wayne Gretzky was in the house, and plenty of folks turned up more than two hours before puck drop in the main game to see #99 on the ice in a four-on-four charity contest.

It took a few moments for it to sink in. Wayne Gretzky. On the ice. In front of my eyes. In Sydney of all places! It was a pretty trippy moment for me, and, I’m sure, for many others. I never got to see Gretzky play live, but have seen many highlights on YouTube and DVD over the years. I never expected to see him in an Australian rink, almost close enough for me to reach out and touch him. I bet #99 didn’t figure such a thing was possible as recently as a handful of years ago, either.

As Gretzky said recently, the Los Angeles Kings were playing to crowds of less than 6,000 before he arrived there, and now the south-west of the United States features three good teams – Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose – who regularly play to capacity crowds. Scottsdale, Arizona’s own Auston Matthews was selected first overall at the NHL Entry Draft the morning of Sydney’s slice of hockey suggest that things are changing.

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Scottsdale certainly isn’t a hockey hotbed, yet Matthews, who grew up playing on synthetic rinks, is poised for NHL greatness.

Sold-out crowds in Los Angeles? An American from Arizona as taken first in the Draft? Twenty or thirty years ago all of this would’ve seemed impossible to most hockey fans and pundits. Now, it’s happening before our eyes – and it’s proof positive that hockey’s frontiers are shifting.

We already have one Australian, Nathan Walker, plying his trade in the AHL, the feeder league to the NHL, and who knows how many other kids might’ve been inspired by Gretzky, John Scott, Ben Scrivens, Scott Darling or some other player on the ice on Saturday night. Who knows where that may lead in the future? Somewhere good, hopefully.

Kudos to Mike Baird, Destination NSW, Stop Concussions and TLA Worldwide for combining to bring Gretzky over. The amount of media he’s done over the last few days, most of it in front of iconic Sydney landmarks, will be beamed around the world, and I’m betting Saturday night’s spectacle has converted at least a few more hockey fans.

Welcome to the club!

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