-- There is no way that Friday's Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver Games wouldn't have a hockey flavor. Hockey, after all, is part of the host country's national identity.
After a snowboarder opened the Ceremonies, hockey became one of the major themes of the night -- right up to the moment when legend Wayne Gretzky
brought the B.C. Place house down by lighting the Olympic cauldron to officially start the XXI Winter Olympics.
Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cups as the leader of the Edmonton Oilers
three decades ago and rewrote the NHL's record books, is the most famous NHL player of all time. More important, he was a member of the Canadian national team in the 1998 Olympic hockey tournament, the first to feature NHL players, as well as the GM of the 2002 team that won the gold medal in Salt Lake City -- a victory that ended Canada's 50-year gold-medal drought in Olympic hockey competition and set off riotous celebrations throughout the country.
Gretzky lit his torch from the one Nancy Greene, the iconic downhill skier, carried to him and then slowly jogged to the middle of the B.C. Place floor, where he stood for several minutes with the torch held over his head. Finally, the cauldron rose up out of the floor before the Great One and he was joined by the other four torchbearers -- basketball star Steve Nash, Greene, Olympian Catriona LeMay Doan and Man in Motion Rick Hansen -- who lit the three arms of the Olympic Cauldron to send flame into the base. Nash did not light a base, as part of the machinery appeared to get stuck.
Gretzky then ended the show by carrying the flame out of the building and lighting the external cauldron, which will be on view throughout the Games.
But Gretzky was not the only hockey talking point in a three-hour ceremony long on emotion and symbolism, a spectacle that was watched by 3 billion people worldwide.
Canadian legend Bobby Orr
-- arguably the greatest defenseman ever to play the game -- was part of the six-person contingent that carried in the Olympic flag just before the cauldron ceremony.
In all, seven hockey players -- including five former NHLers -- carried their countries' flags in the procession of athletes that opened the Games. Countless other hockey players -- although only one current NHLer -- Team USA's Jack Johnson
of the Los Angeles Kings
-- took part in the march.
of the Czech Republic and Peter Forsberg
of Sweden were by far the most-recognizable of those seven players.
Jagr, the former NHL All-Star, now playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, proudly led a huge contingent of his peers into B.C. Place early in the procession of athletes.
"It's a big honor for me, for any sportsman who can be leader and hold flag and have the other sportsman behind you," Jagr said earlier Friday. "It's a big honor, especially in Canada, where hockey is so big."
Forsberg didn't find out he would be carrying Sweden's flag until he arrived in Vancouver on Thursday night. For him, it was one of the proudest moments in a hockey career that is full of indelible moments -- including gold in the Olympics and a Stanley Cup title.
"It is a huge honor to be a flag carrier," Forsberg said. "It's something you couldn't even dream about when you were a kid.
This will be Forsberg's last Olympics and he said he was extra happy they were in Canada.
"It's a hockey country," he said.
Finland's Ville Peltonen
, Slovakia's Ziggy Palffy
and Russia's Alexei Morozov were the other NHL alumni to carry flags. Norway's Tommy Jacobsen, who played for Norway in the Lillehammer Games, and Oleg Antonenko of Belarus were the other two hockey players to lead countries onto the floor of B.C. Place, which had been transformed into a winter wonderland by Olympic set designers.
The death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training accident earlier in the day at the Whistler Sliding Center somewhat overshadowed the Opening Ceremonies and was on the minds of many of the hockey players.
The small Georgian contingent wore black armbands as they marched, and the Georgian flag was raised with a black patch after the procession of athletes was complete.
"It's never good when anything like that happens," Forsberg said. "I think all of the athletes are going to think about that."
The absence of Brian Burke
, Team USA's general manager, was another somber note. Burke was scheduled to march Friday night, but pulled out earlier this week after the tragic death of his son Brendan, who died in a car accident a week ago today.
"It's a big honor for me, for any sportsman who can be leader and hold flag and have the other sportsman behind you. It's a big honor, especially in Canada, where hockey is so big."
-- Jaromir Jagr, who carried the Czech Republic's flag in the Opening Ceremonies
"It's an extremely sad situation -- a tragedy," Johnson said Friday afternoon. "I know all the U.S. players' thoughts and prayers are with the Burke family."
But, in the end, Friday night was about celebrating what will be two weeks of unforgettable action -- especially when it comes to the hockey tournament
Johnson knew there was no way he was going to miss a once-in-a-lifetime experience like Friday's, crafting one of the game's coolest early stories with his efforts to get here.
Using an off-day for the Los Angeles Kings
, the Team USA defenseman chartered a six-seat jet and flew to Bellingham, Wash., with dad, Jack Sr., mom, Kristina, and 11-year-old brother Kenny in tow. He then had a hired car drive him across the border and he arrived in Vancouver before his 1 p.m. meeting with the media.
"I had to take some extreme measures to get here, but it was worth every penny," he said. "To have the opportunity to walk alongside the other athletes from my country and walk in the opening ceremonies is something I'll never forget.
"There was no way I was going to let this opportunity slip by."