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Posted On Friday, 02.11.2011 / 12:27 AM

By John Dellapina - Staff Writer / - Gretzky in Vegas

All good things must come to an end

Sitting in the largely deserted Continental Presidents Club at McCarran Airport across from Dan Rosen, whose brain and fingers should be far more fatigued than my legs and back considering how much he wrote for over the last few days.

Awaiting the red eye back to Newark, our time at the Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp is up. Which is too bad on one hand -- it's a blast being around The Great One and many nearly-as-great ones such as Leetch, Chelios, Hull, Fuhr, et al. -- and a relief on the other -- chasing those renowned folks and the many talented campers around the Las Vegas Ice Center rink the past few days has been exhausting.

Today, for the last round-robin tilt for our Team Keenan, I was moved up to forward. Never having played anything but defense going all the way back to my days of playing roller hockey at the Cheese Box in Astoria, I find myself completely disoriented on the rare occasions when I have to take a shift up front. And today was no different.

Know how the puck always seemed to come to Gretzky without him having to chase it? It always seemed to be going to the place I had just vacated today. Except for the two times I was set up for point-blank one-timers only to instinctively do what comes naturally when playing defense: redirect the puck AWAY from the net. Then there was the one time I figured I'd try to create some traffic in front, only to look up to the terrifying sight of a John MacLean rocket coming right at me.

"You almost hit me with that one," I reported to MacLean when we repaired to the lockerroom.

"I was trying to," he replied in a matter of fact tone that either was vintage MacLean deadpan or simply him telling a chilling truth.

Still, I maintain that anybody can play forward but it takes a true talent and student of the game to play defense.

Which is meant as no disrespect to the three new friends from New York that I came all the way to Las Vegas to meet. Then again, maybe I should be questioning the intelligence of Brooklyn boys Charles Sued, Fred Harari and David Beyda, who formed a high-energy line for Team Keenan today. Not only did they give me high fives and say "Nice shift" after many of my clueless turns, they took a picture with E.J. Hradek and me in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel. Hopefully, they'll just use it as a prop to tell all their friends back home how slow and cement-handed we both were.

Anyway, I finally found a way to get some of the too-generous campers to take back some of the ice time I was eating up: I bailed after the second period. We were down, 7-4,  at the time. And when Team Keenan fell into a 10-4 hole early in the third, I was beginning to believe that maybe the Brooklyn boys were right and my shifts hadn't been that bad.

But then the mates I left behind mounted a furious comeback only to fall, 10-9. As MacLean came off the ice he offered this assessment of my decision not to play the third period: "Best move you made the entire camp."

Sad but true.
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Posted On Thursday, 02.10.2011 / 9:30 PM

By John Dellapina - Staff Writer / - Gretzky in Vegas

Achy breaky body

Our team "Team Keenan" has 20 skaters -- that's four full lines and four defense pairs. So I'm only playing every fourth shift.

And still, my entire body aches. This is sad.

The day began enjoyably enough. I set up shop near the NHL Live! shooting location and got on-camera interviews with Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and Bernie Nicholls that should show up on NHL Network and over the next couple of weeks and months. I'm reminded at times like these that most of hockey's all-timers aren't just phenomenal athletes, they're good people who revere the game and never tire of talking about it and helping to promote it.

Things continued to go swimmingly when I dressed between Grant Fuhr and John MacLean in the "pros' room" where the Gretzky Fantasy Camp has stationed the participating NHL alumni and interlopers like me, E.J. Hradek, Alan Thicke and Chad Kroeger of Nickelback. It's always great to spend time with the classy MacLean -- we talked New Jersey youth hockey, which has nurtured both of our sons. And it was great to listen to the stories and jabs going around the room.

One repeatable highlight: the not-quite-in-playing-shape Hull standing in the middle of the room in his black L.A. Kings sweater and black hockey pants and proclaiming. "I thought black was slimming!"

Then the games began.

I tried to simply take a shift or two and leave the ice time to the fine folks who have actually paid good money to play, but hockey folk are too welcoming for that. So Keenan and his assistant coach, Rangers Director of U.S. Amateur Scouting and former Phoenix GM player agent Mike Barnett, insisted I play a regular shift. I did -- as MacLean's defense partner. Suffice to say that I might have set a record for most D-to-D passes per shift -- my theory at times like this is simple: Get the puck off your stick as quickly as possible and back to the best player near you.

We dropped a tight game in the early afternoon. And while I wasn't to blame, can't really say the same for Marty McSorley. Nobody here is more engaging with the campers than Marty, but his decision to rag a puck for 30 seconds in our zone late in a tied game rather than make any number of easy passes up ice resulted in a turnover that cost us the game.

When we trudged back to the locker room and Gretzky, who had played in another game, asked how we did, he cracked: "Wow, that's something new: Guys coming back to a locker room complaining that Marty cost them a game."
Of course, what really cost us was the fact that Chris Chelios was on the other team. And somehow, even though that Cap Raeder-coached team also had a cast of thousands on its bench, Chelios played just about every minute. Seriously, Chelios is way too close to NHL shape for this. Any time you want to leave the ice would be fine with us, Chris.

The second half of our doubleheader was a rollicking affair made all the more fun because Gretzky joined our team. At one point, the opposing goaltender caught a rut and crumpled to the ice -- just as we were nudging home a rebound -- with an injury that required him to be helped off by two trainers.

Said Keenan: "I hope he's not hurt too badly. Marty, make sure that goal counts."

It did. But it wasn't enough. We got buried by a flurry of late goals against and we're out of championship contention. Can't say I'm broken up about that. Dragging my aching body back out for a title game after our final round-robin game Friday doesn't feel like something I could manage.

Couldn't have logged more than 10 minutes of ice time in either game and now, I can't tie my shoes. Sad.

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Posted On Wednesday, 02.09.2011 / 8:45 PM

By John Dellapina - Staff Writer / - Gretzky in Vegas

Blame the pants

First of all, shut up, Rosen. Until you lace 'em up and get out there with us, get off Hradek's and my backs -- heaven knows we don't need anything else weighing us down.

As for Walter Gretzky, thank you. Clearly, the Father of the Great One practices what he preached to his ever-polite son: If you don't have anything nice to say about somebody, don't say anything at all.

I blame the pants.

E.J. and I were among the last "campers" to visit the hockey player's dream world that is the equipment truck parked outside the Las Vegas Ice Center yesterday. So we had to take what we could get -- which was a whole lot of amazing, spanking new gear. Unfortunately, all they had left were Byfuglien-sized pants. Since I'm more of Zuccarello-sized player, I felt like I was wearing a barrel around my waist when we ventured out for the one-hour practice/evaluation that will set the teams for the games that begin tomorrow at Wayne Gretzky's Fantasy Camp.

Yeah, that's it. It was the pants that caused me to be among the last to finish the skating drills and to be heading North whenever the puck was heading South during the 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 games that coach Cap Raeder drew up on the board for us to play.

I am proud to report that I didn't bust any drills by making the wrong pass or going left when I should have gone right. But that was only because I was smart enough to get far back in the drill lines to watch others perform the elementary tasks first. I owe all the Mites, Squirts, Pee Wees, Bantams and Midgets I've coached over the years an apology because making sense of those basic instructions diagrammed on a coach's board is much harder than I ever thought.

So, apparently, is getting back to your skates after wiping out during a breakaway relay drill -- which is what I did upon failing to score on my one chance in that practice-closing contest. As I floundered around in the corner, my "teammates" on the grey squad (named after our jerseys, not our hair color), watched in helpless horror -- the next shooter couldn't take off until I got back to the blue line.

I never thought it was possible to be humbled on a hockey rink because I've never been under the illusion that I was any good at this game. But as Glen Sather once very impolitely said about classy veteran John MacLean, my "giddy-up doesn't giddy-up anymore."

I blame the pants.
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Quote of the Day

Obviously there's a lot of expectations around me but it's something I try not to focus on. I'm just trying to go out there, be myself on the ice every day, try to get better, be myself around the guys in the locker room. I think that's what's made me successful and the person that I am.

— Sabres forward Jack Eichel on transitioning from college hockey to the NHL