VANCOUVER – Wayne Gretzky was one of three superstar Canadian athletes who lit the giant cauldron at BC Place Stadium in a surprising climax to the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies on Friday night.Click here for the photo gallery.
The NHL's all-time leading scorer, generally considered the greatest player in hockey history, was assisted in his task by a basketball hero, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash of Victoria, and a skiing heroine, 1968 Olympic champion Nancy Greene.
The other final torchbearers, who stood by during the actual lighting, were wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen, nicknamed the “Man in Motion” during his two-year journey around the world, and speed skating star Catriona Le May Doan, who twice won Olympic gold.
It marked the end of the longest torch relay in Olympic history, spanning 106 days and more than 45,000 kilometres across Canada.
Gretzky also lit a permanent cauldron that will stand at Canada Place.
That wasn't the only highlight for hockey fans at the three-hour extravaganza, which ingeniously transformed the enclosed stadium's interior into a white winter wonderland – at room temperature. Rainy skies outside couldn't dampen the spirits of the 60,000-odd spectators.
In many cases, nations chose hockey stars to carry their flags as the athletes marched into the stadium. Oleg Antonenko (Belarus), Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic), Ville Peltonen (Finland), Tommy Jakobsen (Norway), Alexei Morozov (Russia), Zigmund Palffy (Slovakia), and Peter Forsberg (Sweden) all got that honour.
Legendary Canadian defenceman Bobby Orr got the biggest ovation among those charged with carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium. Hayley Wickenheiser, longtime captain of Canada's national women's team, took the athletes' oath on behalf of all.
The evening got off to a spectacular start when a snowboarder zoomed down a ramp in the upper deck and flew through the illuminated Olympic rings. Later, a giant rainbow quilt of native dancers transformed the stadium floor into a celebration of First Nations culture, welcoming athletes and international visitors alike.
Music fans were treated to a smorgasbord of Canadian talent. If it wasn't Bryan Adams and Nelly Furtado duetting on a driving pop anthem called “Bang the Drum,” it was Sarah McLachlan singing her heart out at a white grand piano with “Ordinary Miracle.” A white-suited k.d. lang offered an emotional, soulful “Song of Peace.”
Throughout, the gigantic visuals were fresh, and uncluttered: from a giant light-encrusted polar bear to aerial acrobats miming skiing and snowboarding, fresh takes on classic Canadian iconography abounded.
Some notable dignitaries on hand included US vice-president Joe Biden and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, a noted hockey buff who also spoke at the IIHF's centennial celebrations in Quebec City in 2008. Canadian Governor-General Michelle Jean officially pronounced the 21st Winter Olympics open.
The opening ceremonies were dedicated to the memory of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died earlier Friday in a tragic training accident at the Whistler Sliding Centre. VANOC head John Furlong encouraged athletes to “compete with his spirit in [their] hearts,” and a moment of silence was observed. IIHF president René Fasel and the entire IIHF family join other winter sports federations in extending condolences and sympathy to Kumaritashvili's family and friends.
2010 marked the first time the opening ceremonies have ever been held at an indoor venue. The event was watched by an estimated global TV audience of more than two billion. It was choreographed by Jean-Grand Maitre, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet.