Derek Mori has been attending Wayne Gretzky's Fantasy Camp since 2006, when his wife sprung the trip on him as a 40th birthday gift. He is here for a seventh straight year and has agreed to blog his experiences for NHL.com.
Derek, who lives in Oakville, Ont. with his wife, Anita, and twin boys, says he's certainly not an ex-pro, but he's not a beginner either. He's been on the team that has won the Gretzky Fantasy Camp Cup four out of the six years he's been here, and he intends to do it again.
Read on to learn more about Derek's experience and what No. 99's camp is all about:
LAS VEGAS -- This is my seventh year coming to Wayne Gretzky's Fantasy Camp, and it never gets old.
What started as a surprise 40th birthday gift from my wife, Anita, to me has turned into an annual experience that has given me a new fraternity of hockey buddies. That is why I keep coming back -- the camaraderie, the friendships, and the fun time we all have together.
The hockey, if you can believe it, has become the bonus. Although, when you come here, it's like you're a kid again playing hockey on a road trip, only we're adults now and we can pretty much do whatever the heck we want. No curfews for us.
I was born and raised in Scarborough, Ont. and currently live in Oakville. I am a nuclear engineer, which sounds a lot grander than it is, and I have been playing hockey since I was five years old. I'm a huge fan, to the point where my wife jokes with me that I know too many useless things.
What sprung her interest in getting me to this camp back in 2006 was my admiration for Wayne Gretzky. I followed his career closely, so she gave me this great gift to go to Phoenix for his camp. Now, I will say that I am a die-hard Toronto Maple Leafs fan and always have been. I bleed blue, even though we as fans have been bleeding for far too long now.
I love this game, and I love this camp because of the great friends I made. It's only once a year, but it's easy to reacquaint yourself with everyone. That's what we've been doing, letting our hair down and getting to know one another again. We swap our own hockey stories all the time.
For the first couple of camps it really felt as though I was living out my fantasy. You go through the dressing room, see all the pros that you used to watch and admire on Hockey Night in Canada, and it becomes like you've won your own Stanley Cup and this is the reward.
That's an irreplaceable feeling and certainly it hasn't worn off, but now I also enjoy talking to the guys, the campers, who are here for the first time and telling them my experiences. They always want to know what to expect and I'm able to tell them. I enjoy it, socializing with them and making more hockey friends. That's why I come back. It's a great time, bottom line.
Most of us got here Tuesday afternoon and our week started by getting ourselves registered. That's when we get all of our new gear, all the outer equipment -- helmets, gloves, sticks, jerseys, pants, socks, bags. It's pretty much everything you can think of except your under garments and under equipment. You also get fitted with all kinds of hats, gloves, sweat suits, sweatshirts, etc.
Everything has Wayne's logo on it. You name it, he's got it. I have six years' worth of stuff that I share now with my twin brother, Darren. I'm not complaining about it, and neither is he.
Tuesday night we had a light reception so we could all get reacquainted and get to know the new guys as well as meet Wayne again. One of the more memorable things for me every year is he always remembers me. He must meet thousands of people, but he remembers me.
I remember my first year at the camp, we were in Phoenix at the time, and you know you're going to get to play with Wayne. Well, there he goes setting me up on two breakaways. I scored on one of them, and it's all on video. What a fantastic feeling, Wayne Gretzky set me up for a breakaway goal.
Well, I come the next year and Wayne says to me, 'Hey, you're the breakaway guy.' That's what I became known as for a while, but later on he remembered my name.
Everyone went out for a late night Tuesday. It's a great time because you get to know a lot more about the other players in such a relaxed, social setting. Then, today, Wednesday, was our first day on the ice in sort of a training camp where the coaches evaluate you so they can rate us and make even teams.
All the guys you were out with the night before, you can't remember all of their names because there are so many different guys, but you get to know them well and then you get to play with them.
But, really, the on the ice portion of this is the bonus. You play hockey and party, have a great time. It's really almost the perfect day.
SAN JOSE - As a team fighting for its playoff life, the Calgary Flames will have plenty of motivation Wednesday night against the San Jose Sharks. But the Flames should have an extra boost with goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff going for his 300th career victory -- against his former team.
The Sharks took Kiprusoff with the 116th pick in the 1995 NHL Draft. But with an overload of talent in goal, they traded him to Calgary in November 2003 for a 2005 second-rounder they used to draft defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
"It would be huge," said Calgary defenseman Scott Hannan, a former Shark. "He's a great goalie. Everybody knows what he's done for the franchise and how special a player this year he's been for us. He's been huge in every game that we've needed him to be in. He gives us a chance every night, which is more than you can ask of a goalie. To get him a win here would be great."
Kiprusoff has a career record of 299-194-62 with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. This year he's 23-17-4 with a 2.29 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
"He's a hell of a goaltender," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after his team's optional skate Wednesday morning at HP Pavilion. "Fans, not only in San Jose early in his career, but obviously in Calgary for most of it, appreciate his talent and what he brings to the rink every night. I think it's probably fair to say when their players walk into the locker room in Calgary and see his number or name circled, they get a pretty good feeling. And that's a true sign of a goaltender that can carry a team, and he's been that for many years there."
Kiprusoff is 13-12-3 against the Sharks overall, but he's 0-1-1 this season despite playing well both games. The Sharks beat Kiprusoff and the Flames 2-1 in a shootout at HP Pavilion then 1-0 at Calgary.
San Jose's Antti Niemi, a fellow Finn, got both wins, improving to 8-1-0 lifetime against Calgary. Niemi said facing a countryman always gives him an extra dose of motivation.
"Playing Finnish guys, just the veteran goalies who have been in the League for a long time who you remember from a long, long time ago," Niemi said. "So of course you get a little extra energy playing against those guys.''
Based on the past two games, goals should be at a premium Wednesday night. What's more, the Flames have allowed a total of 12 goals over their past seven games as they've turned up the defensive pressure.
"We're certainly playing better defensively that we were earlier," coach Brent Sutter said. "I think it's just more consistent now. It's a commitment that you have to have from every individual inside your dressing room. I understand that guys in the room, or any dressing room, are goal scorers, but when you get into the final third of the season everybody's got to be committed to doing it the right way, back checking like they can and making sure they're doing it the right way in their own zone. You want to have the puck. You've got to be able to play with the puck to win games, and you've got to be able to get it back from your opposition. The only way that happens is by playing a good team game."
Flames forward Blair Jones said the improved defense is "just kind of in direct relation to where we are in the standings and the time" in the season. "It's time to tighten up and start playing good hockey every game. There's no excuses for the next 28, 29 games we have left. It's got to be the same way every night. Just try to pay attention to details and bring a good defensive effort every game."
Sharks forward Ryane Clowe expects another hard-fought, low-scoring game.
"I think if we can get three goals, we've got a good chance. I think we can hold them under three goals," Clowe said. "Lately all their games have been pretty low scoring -- 2-1, 2-0, that sort of game. So if we can put three on the board, I like our chances."
With 55 points, the Flames are in 12th place in the Western Conference standings, but they're just three points behind Minnesota and Phoenix, who are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. Just as a reminder of how tight the race is and how important each game is, the conference standings were posted in Flames' dressing room at HP on a grease board.
"It's a learning curve from the start of the season until now," Hannan said. "At times in games when we've lost it's been that little mental break. That's just something to reaffirm in our minds how important every shift is, how important every play is in the game. You never know what's going to break the other team or in essence break you in that game. I think that's just a reminder of how important that is."
The Flames won't have defenseman Derek Smith against San Jose - he's still recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered Dec. 29 against the Islanders - but Calgary locked him up for the next two seasons Wednesday with a new deal worth $1.5 million.
Smith initially signed this season with the Flames as a free agent after playing nine games with Ottawa and 71 games with Binghamton of the AHL last season.
"He's a 27-year-old player that came to training camp wanting an opportunity, and he earned that throughout camp," Sutter said. "He came in and did everything we wanted from him. He just has grown. You look at it, when he got hurt he was arguably our best defenseman at that point in time. We've missed him, but it's good both from an organizational standpoint and his standpoint that they can get something worked out. It's a commitment made by both sides and it's great to see that Smitty can be a Calgary Flame for the next two years and not worry about losing him because he is an important part of our defense."
Smith, who did not travel with the team on its road trip, has two goals and eight assists in 32 games this season.
"Derek came to training camp this year on a two-way contract and played his way into our starting lineup," GM Jay Feaster said in a statement. "When Mark Giordano went down with his hamstring injury, Smitty stepped up and shouldered an increased workload and did so in excellent fashion."
T.J. Brodie - Cory Sarich
Joe Pavelski will play his 400th NHL game Wednesday night, all as a Shark. McLellan hinted that he was going to shuffle his lines. Andrew Desjardins will likely move from first-line winger to fourth-line center, where he's spent most of the season. Benn Ferriero will likely return to the top line. One day after announcing his retirement, Owen Nolan will drop the puck during a pre-game ceremony. Nolan played for both San Jose and Calgary during his 18 NHL seasons.
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For our team, as a group, we've never been this far before, and so it's just more lessons learned, and sometimes you have to go to the school of hard knocks to find out what works and what doesn't. We've got a young group. They've played some unreal hockey here to get us this far, and we showed if we're not going to play the proper way, a really, really good hockey team is going to beat you, and that's what they did. It's a lesson learned.