Saving best for last

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

KATOWICE, Poland -- It was held in the same rink as one of the greatest upsets in hockey history. It was billed as the biggest hockey event here since then.

It was here in 1976 at the IHHF World Hockey Championships that Poland beat the big red machine of the USSR to give Czechoslovakia the world title.

Yesterday, the Polish national team was leading the Worldstars 3-2 until Sergei Fedorov tied it in regulation with four seconds to play and Martin Brodeur scored a shutout win in the shootout. It may not compare to Poland's greatest hour in the game. Then again ...

"This was probably the biggest thing ever," said former Edmonton Oiler Mariusz Czerkawski, who organized the game.

"We had that Poland win over the USSR in 1976 but that was different circumstances. It's been a dream of mine to have a team of NHLers play here. When IMG called me I said, 'Give me half an hour.' "

It turned out to be the best game of the entire 10-game, 14-day tour of seven nations. And it was Czerkawski who made it happen.

ONLY CONTACT

"The only guy we knew in Poland was Mariusz," said Claes Elefalk of IMG-Stockholm.

"We phoned him and asked if he knew anyone in Poland who could do a game. He said he'd get back to us. Half an hour later he called back and said, 'I have a team, I have a city, I have a rink and I have television.' "

In the end the Worldstars went out like they came in. Media mob at the airport. Police escort to the best hotel in this city of 500,000, 130 km from the Slovakian border.

Huge press conference. Big day in the sports history of Poland and a sold-out crowd of 7,700 excited and delighted to have this less-than star-studded final lineup show up.

It was the way it all began for the Worldstars in Riga, Latvia. Maybe it's like the old rodeo joke - a point here, a point there and a lot of bull in-between - but this book ended the biggest barnstorming tour in hockey history with a plethora of positives.

REAL GAME

It closed it with an exclamation mark as the Worldstars, a team of Rudolph the Red Noses throughout much of this trip, ended up playing Santa Claus to Polish hockey by donating almost all the non-personal equipment they took on this trip. They also gave them a real game, with skating in both directions, back-checking and even the odd accidental hit.

For most who took this trip, the majority of memories will be the torture-test travel, hangover hockey, a lot of laughs and, in the end, a worthwhile experience for all.

One thing the Worldstars proved is that hockey has a serious shortage of world stars. There really is no one with a big-enough name to sell a game like Wayne Gretzky did 10 years ago.

Martin Brodeur's band of barnstormers didn't get paid a penny, but they did get paid off in experiences.

As the Worldstars return, there are members of this team who had more than a hoot and a toot on this trip. They found a place to play if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't signed soon.

If money is the priority, hockey is second and lifestyle irrelevant, go to Russia. If the hockey is the priority, with lifestyle second, go to Sweden. If lifestyle is what you're looking for, then head to Switzerland.

But the biggest thing a trip like this teaches you is that there really is only one place to play - and that's the NHL.

Maybe next year.


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