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'Pond of Dreams' warmed hockey hearts

by John McGourty

Pond of Dreams paid tribute to hockey greats: Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
It was seven years ago that "Pond of Dreams," the Emmy-nominated short hockey film, was shown before the 2000 NHL All-Star Game in Toronto. Viewers of the national television broadcast and fans in the Air Canada Centre watched as young NHL stars Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya paid tribute to three retired greats – Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux – while playing pick-up hockey on a small Ontario pond.

"I'm Wayne Gretzky," said one, unaware that Gretzky, Howe and Lemieux were walking toward them in the video.

"I'm Gordie Howe," said the second.

"You're always Gordie Howe," chided a third.

"No, I'm always Paul Kariya," the second retorted.

"Anybody miss it?" Gretzky asked Howe and Lemieux, referencing the game they now were watching.

"How could you not?" Lemieux replied.

The three older men talked briefly with the younger players.

"Come on, join us," Lindros urged.

"No thanks, boys. It's your turn now," Gretzky said, stating the theme of the video.

Then Howe, Gretzky and Lemieux, the three greatest scorers in NHL history at that time, began walking away, up the bank of the pond.

Three of the four younger players returned to their activities, but a motionless Jagr called his peers back.

Hey, guys," Jagr called out, and then began tapping his stick on the ice in the traditional hockey salute, quickly joined by the other three.

Seven years have passed, and all seven players look back with great satisfaction and pride that they were asked to participate in that moment.

“It was just a fun day for us," Gretzky said recently of himself, Lemieux and Howe. "The other guys, they were playing; so it was a little more of a hassle for them in some ways, but I think they enjoyed themselves at the end of the day.

"Gordie, Mario and I just had a fun day. We went up there, took pictures and walked around. We had no commitments other than that, so for us it was really, truly enjoyable. I think, looking back, those young guys were probably thrilled that they did it and were part of it.”

"Growing up Vancouver, I didn't do a lot of outdoor skating," Kariya said. "So I had that sense that this is how hockey started, people playing on frozen ponds, in this case, in the wilderness. We were honoring hockey's roots.

"I was also very aware and honored by the fact that I was chosen to be there with three of the greatest players of all time in Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and three of the greatest players of my era in Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and Jaromir Jagr. It was a beautiful place and a beautiful day and we all realized we were taking part in something that was very special."

Ken Rosen, Group Vice President, Executive Producer/NHL Productions, wrote the script and produced "Pond of Dreams" with Director Jon Hock and Director of Photography Rob Newman.

"We did it at a small, nameless pond on private property in Uxbridge, about an hour north of Toronto," Rosen said. "The owner had a small lodge with a fireplace and we used that to stage the production. We might have asked a few more current players to participate but there was a logistical problem because some of them had played in games Thursday night and were en route to Toronto while we were shooting.

"I wrote the script on the plane coming back from a site survey. It's rare that it works this way, that you have a vision and get to the location and it's perfect in every way. We even brought a snow-making machine. There was a little bit of snow on the ground, but we were going to make a little more in the morning. But when we woke up, we saw that it had snowed about a half-inch, just the right amount. We never used the machine.

"I left my hotel at 4:30 a.m. to start setting up and when I got to the pond at 5 a.m., the owner had already shoveled clear the rink area. The ice was four feet thick and he had cut out a block to make a hole for ice-fishing. Someone took a picture of Eric Lindros sitting on the block, dangling his stick into the hole like he was fishing. Eric loves ice fishing."

Eric Lindros and Jaromir Jagr suit up before playing little pick-up hockey.

"I had a great time," Howe said. "It was really well done. The thing I remember was that I dressed warm and wore boots but Mario and Wayne were in light shoes and they were freezing."

But that mistake helped make the video so realistic: Gretzky and Lemieux shiver lightly, shoulders hunched, throughout.

"It was cold, probably mid-teens Fahrenheit," Rosen recalled. "I told them to wear layers and don't come in dress shoes. Wayne and Mario showed up in designer patent leather shoes – not the wardrobe for a January walk around a lake."

Rosen said the video was shot Friday and shown that Sunday, so he had only a brief window – between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. – when the lighting would be right and consistent throughout the shoot.

"I estimated I needed two full hours to produce it, within a three-hour limit. That doesn't leave a lot of time for extra takes," he said. "We explained what we wanted to do and the shoot went smoothly except for when Jagr turns around to call the others back for the stick salute. He wasn't quite getting it right. So Newman stood in for him and did it perfectly. Jagr watched him and then he nailed it.”

"We knew when we finished that we had something special," Rosen continued. "The players knew they had taken part in something special. Then we went inside and showed it to the players, some executives and Commissioner Gary Bettman. When we finished, everyone's eyes were misted. That confirmed it and then Gary gave us the 'thumbs up' sign."

Even still, Rosen wasn't prepared for the impact it had on the Air Canada Centre crowd prior to the All-Star Game.

"You could see people were having an emotional reaction to it, see people wiping away tears," Rosen said. "Even my own people were spellbound. I had to jump on my radio and tell them to start shooting crowd reactions. I promised them I would show them the video later but get to work right now."

"It was a real cool idea, and maybe in a lot of ways that is where Edmonton came up with playing the outdoor game," Gretzky said, referring to the 2003 Heritage Classic. "You look back at things that you do and things you have memories of and pictures of, and that was one of the better days I had in the NHL."

"I was just glad to be asked to be part of it; honored, really," Howe said. "I've always admired Wayne and Mario. They have done great things since their retirements. Wayne managed the Canadian Olympic team to a gold medal and now he's coaching the Phoenix Coyotes.

“Imagine having Wayne Gretzky teaching you hockey? And, Mario did something really, really great in saving that Pittsburgh franchise. I love to see a hockey rink full of people enjoying themselves and Mario made that happen, kept the NHL in Pittsburgh."

Rosen sent the participants still photos from that day that they each treasure.

“One of the questions I always get asked is, ‘Where can we get those pictures? Do you have any of those hanging around?’" Gretzky said.

"I'm looking at mine while I talk to you," Howe said. "Mario, Wayne and me, walking beside the lake. It's beautiful, and a wonderful memory."

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