They're all happy campers

Wayne Gretzky (centre) shares a laugh at his hockey camp. (SUN MEDIA)

Wayne Gretzky (centre) shares a laugh at his hockey camp. (SUN MEDIA)

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:39 PM ET

PHOENIX -- It's an open house to Wayne's World, a one-stop study of today's No. 99, nine years removed from playing and three years into coaching a team making a push for a playoff position.

It's the Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp, and participants have paid $9,999 each for the pleasure of watching Gretzky coach three games with the Phoenix Coyotes and playing six games themselves on the same ice surface. During a span of six days, the Great One also is host of opening and closing banquets, golfs with them, signs their stuff and hangs out with them like a regular guy in the lobby bar.

Gretzky involves all the people from his company, his foundation and his associations with Ford, Samsung, Pepsi, his new wine label, etc., getting business stuff done at the same time. He had also planned to shoot a commercial for Ford here this year, but the new car didn't arrive in time.

The best part, says his dad Walter, who coaches one of the teams, is on the ice at the camp itself, seeing the boy come out in his body again.

"Watch him out there. He enjoys it so much. He has been like this since the first time when he was five years old," Walter said.

"I don't know how he does it. Not just this week. It's like this continuously," Walter said of the juggling act of everything involved, including having some of his kids underfoot and 15-year-old Trevor (Gretzky) playing goal for one of the teams.

"It's the most amazing thing," business manager Darren Blake said of watching Wayne bring all of his worlds together.

"This week is maybe the most fascinating because it illustrates Wayne's uncanny appreciation of who he is and what it means to be Wayne Gretzky, the impact he has."

Mike Brown, who runs the camp, said he's flabbergasted there still is a camp.

"The hardest part of the whole camp since Wayne started coaching is finding a time to hold it. It gets tougher and tougher.

"I thought last year was going to be our last year, but at the final banquet Wayne tossed in three spots to next year's camp. We all looked at each other and said 'I guess we were having another one.' "

Bruce Saville, a member of the Edmonton Oilers outgoing ownership group which saved the franchise, has come to six camps as a goaltender. That's $59,994. He stopped Brick Warehouse founder and Mike Comrie's dad, Bill, on a shootout to win the first one. Priceless.

"It has been more important to me than the owner meetings. Right from the first year, it was so obvious that Wayne was having as much fun as we were. That's what makes it perfect."

Gretzky has his campers play in different uniforms every year.

"The first year it was the Oilers. Then the Rangers, Kings and Coyotes. Last year, it was Campbell and Wales Conference all-star uniforms," he said.

"This year I decided to go with '72 Team Canada uniforms. I thought it would be an opportunity for the American players to see what it's all about ... I have five American kids, so I can say that. We have so many guys who keep coming back. I think it's to collect all the uniforms."

The winners even get their names engraved on the Wayne Gretzky Cup.

"I put it in my restaurant in Toronto. If they go there to see it, they get a free lunch. It's pretty cool."

This year they had 66 players, pros, sponsors and guests of Gretzky.

With an auction raising $68,000 included, the event probably came close to collecting $500,000 for his foundation.

Every player received two Team Canada '72 sweaters, red and white practice jerseys, pants, socks, gloves with their names on them, sticks and a hockey bag loaded with jackets, golf shirts, sweatsuits and all sorts of other stuff.

At the opening banquet, they all got Walter Gretzky bobbleheads. Wayne had his dad sign them all.

"See dad, what it's like?" he said with a smile.

At the closing banquet, they all received a special etched bottle of Gretzky wine, numbered 1-to-99.

Bruce Bennett, the noted hockey photographer, took several action shots of each player and an individual portrait with the player and Gretzky in uniform. Don Metz of Edmonton's Aquila Productions, put together a DVD with a full production crew.

"The thing I marvel at every year is that, to a man, these guys can't believe the amount of access and personal contact they get with Wayne," Metz said.

No. 99 said they keep trying to improve it.

"The thing I loved this year was that the entire camp was shown on Gretzky.com, so families at home could watch dad play.

"Bruce Saville is the first guy every year to sign up. I think Bruce has more fun than anybody in the history of my event. He loves it."

Gretzky said Saville, at age 63, is the oldest player.

"I keep coming back mainly because it's Gretzky, because it's so much fun and because it's for a great cause. His foundation does great work," Saville said.

Don Ducasse, a Toronto dentist, said it has meant more than that to him.

"Wayne Gretzky and this camp changed my life," he said. "I was just coming out of receivership. I had blown a million dollars. My wife said 'What's another $9,999? It has always been your dream.' I told her no one dreams of having a cup of coffee with God.

"It changed my dentist practice entirely. Because of the experience with Wayne, I went home and let myself be excellent. It was like he gave me permission to be excellent. It's hard to articulate. It was something like shock therapy for a Catholic upbringing and an inferiority complex mixed in with hockey, not building character but revealing character.

"It really did change my life."

Gretzky brings in a host of huge hockey names from the past. But this year he offered something new.

With the Buffalo Sabres in town for two days during the camp, coach Lindy Ruff agreed to play one day. He enjoyed it so much he came back and played the second day, on the morning of the afternoon game in which Gretzky's Coyotes scored a 6-2 win over the Sabres.

"I came because Wayne asked. I came back because I saw how many of the campers came from Alberta, from Fort McMurray and all those places. That's my home province. And I had fun," said the native of Warburg, Alta.

"It's three hours before game time and Wayne and Lindy are sitting on the bench together with these great big grins on their faces. Three hours later, they're going to go head-to-head as coaches," Metz said.

Brown said when the camp started it was 50-50 between Canadians and Americans.

"Now it's about 75-25 Canadians and half of those are from Alberta. This year we had nine guys from Fort McMurray alone," Brown said of all the Oilers fans who want to reconnect with the player they grew up watching.

Dale Unruh, who was born and raised in Fort McMurray, first came last year.

"Wayne made it such an unbelievable experience. I started telling friends when I got home and all of a sudden there were nine of us coming this year. I brought my dad as a way of thanks for taking me to Edmonton when I was a kid to watch Wayne play."

Terry O'Flynn of Edmonton paid $7,000 to be here after Gretzky donated the trip to the silent auction at the Jackie Parker Memorial Golf Tournament.

"Being around Wayne is everything, but it's not the only thing. I sat beside Bobby Hull watching the entire first half of an NFL playoff game at the bar, just the two of us," O'Flynn said.

This year, one of the players came from England. Jonathan Wilson spent two years living in Canada as a kid where he became a massive Gretzky fan and got hooked on hockey.

"My aunt sent me over here as a Christmas present. I took a puck on the kneecap, but it's all good. It has been pretty amazing to be around Wayne like this."

Last year with Wayne's son Ty playing, one camper was able to go away saying he scored a goal assisted by Gretzky and Gretzky.

Every camper has a story.

Jamie Shand of Calgary said Gretzky, with assists from Shand's wife, Amber, and Kirk Muller, made it unbelievably special one year.

"My wife phoned the hotel and got through to Muller. She found out she was pregnant while I was at the camp and asked if he could get to Wayne and find a special way to let me know at the banquet.

"That was the year Wayne brought the Stanley Cup, complete with the Cup guy with the white gloves. Wayne called my name out, told me about my wife being pregnant and presented me with champagne. I celebrated my wife being pregnant by drinking Dom out of the Stanley Cup poured by Wayne Gretzky."

The first year Gretzky stood up at the opening banquet and told everybody that it wouldn't be a Fantasy Camp without Mr. Hockey. One camper confessed to briefly thinking that was a bit egotistical sounding. Then Gretzky pointed to the back of the room and there was Gordie Howe. Everybody received a framed picture of themselves with Gretzky and Howe.

"The first year, we had one guy who had four Wayne Gretzky tattoos on his arms, one in the uniform of each NHL team he played," Saville said. "The guy could barely skate. Wayne wanted to get him a goal. I don't know how many times he skated around five guys getting him in position to make the pass to deflect one in."

They're all happy campers.

"The first year I came because I wanted to live the dream for a few days. Wayne set me up for a couple of breakaways," said Derek Mori of Oakville, Ont. "The next year I showed up and he remembered me. He said 'You're the breakaway guy!' "

Another is Guelph, Ont., car dealer Gord Dennis.

"The first year I came it was a chance to play with the Babe Ruth of hockey. I enjoyed it so much I keep coming back," he said.

Kevin Mack of Regina said he couldn't believe how he turned back into a kid.

"I was so nervous before the first game I had trouble sleeping.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, I never got to see him play in person.

Mostly I just wanted to meet him. But being around him like this has been a thousand times better than whatever I expected."

This year's camp was more intense than the ones in the past and resulted in a scattering of injuries including a serious one to Gretzky's wine business partner, Peter Jensen.

"I blew out my knee and his reaction was 'Thank goodness it wasn't his hands. He'll still be able to pick the grapes!' "


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