Hockey Unlimited: Episode Three shoots and scores again!

Edmontonians who lived through it will never forget it, and neither will those born decades after that fateful day in August, 1988. Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

The hockey world would never be the same, quite a few would predict then. If the greatest player of all time can be traded, so can everyone else.

Hockey’s lost its innocence, moaned many, including some Canadian parliamentarians who even would go so far as to urge the government of the day to stop what they described as blatant sellout to the highest bidder (and, potentially, ban such trades from Canada to the U.S. altogether once and for all). As if professional hockey has ever been about innocence and gentlemanly behaviour.

The irony of it all: the Tories under Brian Mulroney were running the show then. They were engaged in a heated battle about their newly negotiated free trade agreement with the U.S. For the record: the Tories would win the federal election later that year, and it was the free trade agreement that was the top topic of the contest. So, how could (or would) they be able to stand in the way of a perfectly legal deal between two willing business entities, such as the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings?

Those who were saying that the world of hockey has changed forever were right. It did in many more ways than one. And one of those ways would come as a pleasant surprise bordering on outright shock a couple of decades later.

How? How about seeing Matthew Nieto of Long Beach, California, selected by the San Jose Sharks 47th overall in the 2011 NHL draft, now a regular in his club’s lineup? What’s so special about him? The kid’s come up all the way through California’s newly burgeoning minor hockey system, something that wouldn’t have happened without Gretzky’s arrival in the La-La Land.

And that’s what the first segment of the third episode of Aquila Productions’ Hockey Unlimited is all about. Broadcast by Sportsnet Tuesday, with a number of repeat airings coming during the next few weeks, this brilliant piece of documentary television shows the numbers of enthusiastic kids playing hockey in all kinds of youth competitions, where they used to engage in baseball, basketball or football. Many other sports would cross their minds at the time, but definitely not hockey. The seeds that Gretzky planted have developed into an Anaheim Ducks’ Stanley Cup, and a couple of Stanley Cup wins by the Los Angeles Kings. Hockey has become an integral part of the vibrant local sports scene.

And, the document shows, if a sport (or any other activity, for that matter) is to grow, it has to rely upon strong grassroots.

Hockey Unlimited takes it one step further: in a brief segment that follows the opener, hockey instructor Steve Serdachny shows one of Gretzky’s patented moves, describes it in detail and shows all and sundry that they can learn it too.

What a catch!

When Manon Rheaume appeared in goal for NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993 exhibition games, there were voices that described it as a marketing gimmick for the fledgling franchise, basically telling the young goalie that she must be off her rocker. Well, it seems none of her critics thought of asking her. Hockey Unlimited did. And Manon Rheaume tells her story her own way.

Now 42, and a hockey mom in her own right, living in Detroit, Manon Rheaume’s sons Dylan and Dakoda have both become hockey goalies. The elder, Dylan, has his heart set firmly on blue paint. His younger brother, Dakoda, is still undecided: the left-wing position attracts serious thoughts, too.

Manon Rheaume bristles at the suggestion her Tampa Bay stint was only a gimmick. Not so, she says. It helped her extend her professional career in a number of minor leagues, both in North America and in Europe. It also helped her start her own foundation that now provides scholarships for young female hockey players.

But times have changed, she smiles. When she played professionally with and against men, she would do anything to stop a shot. There used to be guys who genuinely hated being beaten to the punch by a female goaltender. Being stopped by another guy, well, they didn’t like that much, either, but a girl?

Now, when Manon Rheaume sees her own sons going after each shot, no matter how hard, she cringes and her heart beats faster. Moms will be moms. Even moms with one Olympic silver and two world championships gold medals in their cupboards.

And what about those suggestions it was all marketing? Well, as she put it, you still have to go out there and perform.

Who can retire at age 80?

Simon Bennett’s fitness exercise is a proper introduction to the final segment of this episode of Hockey Unlimited. Can you imagine an 80-year-old hockey player calling his 70-year-old teammate a young punk, and the entire club of people their age having some pretty incredible times playing the game they love?

These guys have their own sets of rules. No slap shots, for example, No hitting, either. When one of them happens to fall on the ice, the play stops and teammates and foes help him up again.

And one overwhelming rule: unadulterated fun for everybody concerned.

These guys will remain young for ever. Some of them played when they were kids, then stopped, and now they’re back, some never played organized hockey, some have continued throughout their lives. But they all have one thing in common: while the fastest team game on earth might have slowed down a tad when they are on the ice, it’s the friendships that make it all worth their while. And, their improved health, too.

It’s the wonderful scope that makes the new series, Hockey Unlimited, so special.

Looking at Canada’s pastime from all possible angles, the documentary series speaks of hockey that touches everybody, not only sports teams’ fans. It makes its viewers wish they become active participants. And it’s quite possible it might convince quite a few that now, right now, is the time to grab our pair of skates, find those old hockey sticks, buy a puck or two, and ho for the open spaces!

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