LAS VEGAS -- Eleven years into the project, Wayne Gretzky still feels the same amount of excitement and has the same enthusiastic drive to run his annual fantasy camp as he did when he started it back in 2002.
"It really is a pure love," Gretzky told NHL.com Tuesday from the Bellagio, the host hotel for his annual event.
"My brother-in-law [Mike Brown], who unfortunately passed away because of cancer [in July 2010], he was really the guy who sat me down and said, 'Listen, you should look into this and maybe we should do a fantasy camp,'" he continued. "Between him and I we kicked it off 11 years ago. Unfortunately, he passed away but part of what continues this one is his memory, how excited he was about this camp and how good of a person he was."
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Gretzky's camp has been held here in Las Vegas for the last four years. It previously took place in Phoenix during his days coaching the Coyotes after getting its start in Los Angeles more than a decade ago.
He expanded the field this year to include another full team, making it five after running the camp in previous years with four teams. He routinely gets former pros like Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Grant Fuhr, Denis Savard and Marty McSorley among others to join him in creating the best five days a beer league hockey player could ever dream of.
There are 14 former pros here who have won the Stanley Cup a total of 18 times. Mike Keenan, one of the coaches here, brings the Cup-ring total up to 19.
For the campers it is not a cheap week. The people here this week paid $11,999, but that includes everything from their stay in Vegas to special functions at night to their skates, pads, gloves, jerseys and helmets.
Part of the proceeds benefits the Wayne Gretzky Foundation.
Gretzky's goal every year is to run the camp like it's a real NHL training camp, so he also invites former NHL trainers and equipment staffers to attend to all of the paying campers.
"We don't really advertise the camp that much. It's more word of mouth," Gretzky said. "We're very proud of the fact that we have a big number of repeat people, but in saying that we got a number of new people this year and had the lockout not ended it would have been even bigger. I had three or four guys that are part of the National Hockey League in management or coaching who would have come and been a part of this camp. It would have been even bigger, so thank goodness those guys went back to work.
"The timing couldn't be any better. They started paying again and the camp kicked off. Everybody is happy and hockey is back."
For Gretzky, who says he has up to four people that he employs working year-round on putting together the camp, this week is all about having fun and meeting people from all walks of life.
Yes, he's aware that they're paying a lot of money to get the chance to play with him and to live out their own fantasy, but Gretzky said he gets as much out of getting to know the campers as they get out of the entire experience.
"Part of being me is that I never ever consider myself any better or any different than any other person or any other player," Gretzky said. "When I'm around people, you can't fake that. You are who you are. So, when people come to this event I'm as excited about them being here as they are to be here.
"I did get a lot of goals in this game so I know they're pretty excited to play with me, but you know what, it's really a fun event and I love the game."
The camp also forces Gretzky to get back on the ice, something he doesn't do with regularity anymore.
"For me, that's the best time I have," said Gretzky, who rotates between teams so he gets to play with everybody in the camp. "When I get on the ice, that's when I'm in my comfort zone, that's when I feel at ease, when I feel safest. I'm not as good as I used to be, but I really, truly still enjoy being on the ice."