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Keenan ready to help Gretzky campers enjoy dreams

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com
LAS VEGAS -- Mike Keenan had breakfast Wednesday with a guy he believes may one day own a National Hockey League franchise. This businessman, Keenan said, is a natural gas and oil tycoon out of Alberta who already has built his own arena in his hometown.

"The new incoming owner in Buffalo, Terry Pegula, that's exactly his background," Keenan, who has coached in eight different NHL organizations spanning three decades, told NHL.com while sitting in the bleachers at the Las Vegas Ice Center. "This fella here is well on his way to being in that kind of situation."

Not this week.
 
This week he's just a camper living out the dream; one of more than 60 house leaguers who paid good money to get the royal treatment from the Great One himself.

Wayne Gretzky is hosting his ninth annual Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas this week. He's brought with him a Who's Who of hockey legends that over the next couple of days will suit up and play with and against several dozen dreamers, a group that includes Chad Kroeger from the band Nickelback and actor Alan Thicke -- not to mention renowned dentists, chemists, doctors and businessmen.

"These are enthusiastic guys that want to live the dream for a week," Keenan said. "It's fun to watch them. They act like big kids."

Keenan will man the bench of one of the squads during the round-robin tournament set to get under way Thursday. Hall of Famers Brian Leetch, Brett Hull, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Denis Savard are here. So, too, are Chris Chelios, John MacLean, Bernie Nicholls, Rick Tocchet, Marty McSorley, Eddie Mio, Cap Raeder, Russ and Geoff Courtnall.

Mike Barnett, the former GM in Phoenix who was Gretzky's agent during his playing days and is now Director of U.S. Amateur Scouting for the New York Rangers, is here to help out.

"Hockey is the common denominator, regardless of the skill level, and there are friendships made here to last for years," Barnett told NHL.com. "It's great to see just the sheer excitement and joy that the campers have playing with some of the legends of the game. They take a pass from Wayne and bury it, that story will be told a thousand times. It's great."

Walter Gretzky, Wayne's father, was sitting in the bleachers during Wednesday's practice session analyzing the campers and trying to grade them in order to make equal teams for the round robin tournament. His job isn't too easy because there are some pretty good players here.

Walter said he had a lot of Bs, a few Cs and a couple of Ds written into his clipboard. We imagine when your son is the greatest of all time you're pretty cautious with your As.

"They are trying their hardest, every one of them," Walter told NHL.com. "They're not dogging it. Boy, they're just going as hard as they can. It's incredible to see. All of these people are here for one reason, and that's a dream that they have. They actually become NHL players for a week."

"Most of these guys play hockey two or three times a week, and the only reason they're playing is they love to play hockey," added Keenan. "They're not doing it for money; they're doing it for the love of the game. It's refreshing. It's nice to be around them."

Keenan also gets a kick being around some of his old players.

"I've coached most of the guys that are here to play, which makes it fun for me and interesting," Keenan said. "It's fun for me to be around them reminiscing, telling stories and interacting with them."

He said it's not weird because he's not Iron Mike to them anymore -- though some may still quiver when they hear his voice.

"I think sometimes they're a little bit surprised or gain a different perspective because some of them haven't interacted with me other than the relationship of coach and player," Keenan said.

It won't be anything like that here this week. Like everybody else, Keenan is here to have fun, meet new and interesting people and reminisce with guys he used to bag skate while helping a natural gas and oil tycoon from Alberta, a renowned dentist from Ottawa, a successful rocker and an ex-TV sitcom dad live out their own fantasy.

"It's a thrill," Keenan said. "It's a thrill for this businessman to play with Glenn Anderson, but on the other hand Glenn will be sitting on the bench with this guy and ask what he does, and the guy will say he owns a gas and oil company. That is impressive. These are the types of people here."

NHL Live! will be broadcasting from Wayne Gretzky's Fantasy Camp on Thursday and Friday from noon-2 p.m. ET. Follow on NHL.com, NHL Network and Sirius/XM radio.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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