A week with Wayne Gretzky
“Goal scored by Number 8, Michael Cummings. Assisted by Number 99, Waaaayne Gretzky!”
That PA announcement in a suburban Las Vegas hockey rink was the stuff hockey dreams are made of for Red Deer’s Cummings, an ATB Financial underwriter manager when he’s not The Great One’s trigger man.
Cummings was one of about 100 fans from all walks of life who plunked down $11,999 to spend a few days up close and personal with Gretzky at his annual Fantasy Camp, held Jan. 27-31.
Taking that pass off a Gretzky faceoff and firing home a goal couldn’t have been more perfect for the dedicated beer league hockey player.
“I dug the puck out of the net right away,” said Cummings, 35, who was not going to let that souvenir get away.
Cummings has been a Gretzky fan since he was a five or six-year-old sitting in his Youngstown home watching the superstar and his linemates pile up the points in a typical Oilers romp in their 1980s heyday.
Over the years he has met his idol and stacked up an impressive collection of autographed memorabilia from hockey’s greatest scoring machine.
He even painted the interior of his Vanier Woods home’s garage in the Oilers blue and gold.
But two or three years ago, he began seriously thinking of taking it to a whole ’nother level and started salting away the cash to attend Fantasy Camp.
Wife Charissa came through with a big assist when she won $5,000 in a dream vacation contest and on Valentine’s Day surprised her husband by giving him the cash towards his hockey dream.
Less than a year later, he was at the Bellagio hotel and casino in Vegas picking out his equipment and getting his first taste of the first-class treatment campers enjoyed every minute of the five-day experience, which serves as a fundraiser for the Wayne Gretzky Foundation.
There was swag aplenty. The first thing he got was a pair of 11-by 14-inch autographed photos of Gretzky’s last game as a pro.
Cummings isn’t afraid to admit, it almost brought him to tears when he pulled out the personalized pics.
“The camp could’ve been over at that point and I would have been pretty satisfied.”
They also got practice and game jerseys, hockey pants, gloves and personalized Easton sticks with his name and number embossed on it.
“We were told it’s a model that’s not even on the market yet.”
Next day, legendary coach “Iron” Mike Keenan and other coaches put the campers through a series of drills to gauge their ability and create five evenly matched teams.
Cummings and the others also got the first look at Gretzky in action.
“He was just effortlessly skating around the ice,” he said, of the 52-year-old, who retired in 1999. “He could shoot so easy, and so hard.”
In a two-on-one passing drill, Gretz (as they were all encouraged to call him — he’s a teammate now, they were told) joined in. Waiting his turn Cummings counted players down the line, and realized he was going to get to skate with Gretzky.
“I was nervous because I was on my backhand,” he said, adding images of flubbing a feed from the game’s greatest passer ran through his head.
“He started the drill, a hard, crisp pass, right on the tape.” Cummings and Gretz traded passes down the ice with Cummings getting the shot, which the goalie saved.
Each player was guaranteed four games with the top two teams competing for The Gretzky Cup. Campers ranged from their early 20s to seniors, with most in their 40s and 50s. Skill levels ranged from weak skaters to former Junior A-calibre players.
Players never touched the hockey bags after the first day. Trainers and equipment staff washed and hung the equipment in each player’s stall for the morning. He got his skates sharpened every day “just because I could.”
“The whole experience is they want to make you feel like an NHLer for a week.”
About a dozen of Gretzky’s former teammates and opponents lent their star power to the event, including Chris Chelios, Grant Fuhr, Brian Leetch, Marty McSorley, Rick Tocchet and Denis Savard.
Listening in as the pros told their war stories was one of the best parts of the camp, he said.
“You could tell they loved hockey and they loved talking about hockey.”
Cummings got another taste of life in first class when he scratched his eye off ice and could barely see. Within minutes of calling a camp staffer first thing in the morning, he had a doctor’s appointment set up, and soon after was sent to an ophthalmologist.
One quick treatment later, he was back on the ice later that morning without missing a game. His determination would land him “Player With The Most Heart” honours in the last night’s gala dinner, where Gretzky presented him with an autographed Oilers jersey.
While his hockey dream didn’t come cheap, Cummings doesn’t regret a second of it.
“From the moment you get there, they made it so incredible you didn’t think about it,” he said.
Charissa, who came to cheer on her husband and act as official photographer, said she was happy she could help make the camp happen a year or two ahead of schedule.
“I was probably so excited to go because Michael was. It was an amazing experience.”
Cummings is already thinking about how to find a way back to camp before Gretzky hangs up his skates for good.