As early as the age of 11, the world’s best hockey player had the cash registers jingling at arena box offices.
The largest crowd in Burlington’s hockey history – 2,300 – filled every corner of Central Arena to marvel at Wayne Gretzky’s skills playing for Brantford at the 1972 Golden Horseshoe Tournament. The building seats only 1,700.
The Mercanti family is counting on another sellout when the Great One makes an appearance at Carmen’s annual gala Oct. 16.
It has been 30 years since Gretzky led Canada to victory over the Soviet Union in the 1987 Canada Cup at what was then called Copps Coliseum. He set up the winning goal by Mario Lemieux with less than two minutes to play.
“We wanted to do something authentically Canadian and undeniably Hamilton for our country’s 150th anniversary year,” said P.J. Mercanti, co-CEO of Carmen’s. “The way they celebrated at Copps that night will be forever etched in my memory.”
The final game had another Bay Area angle. Don Koharski, who was selected to referee the deciding game, was living in Burlington at the time. The Soviets were furious when Koharski declined to call an interference penalty on Canada’s Dale Hawerchuk just before Gretzky and Lemieux broke out of their own zone on their way to the winning goal.
Nevertheless, Koharski showed up in the office of The Burlington Post the next day with a Soviet team-autographed stick presented to him after the game by assistant coach Igor Dmitriev.
Many fans who couldn’t get a ticket for the game tuned in on the radio while watching the Toronto Blue Jays crush the Baltimore Orioles 18-3 at old Exhibition Stadium before a crowd of 27,500. Ernie Whitt hit three home runs as the Jays maintained a share of first place with the Detroit Tigers, a team they would eventually lose the East Division pennant to by only two games.
Family Patriarch Peter Mercanti recalls being in Box 107 at Copps for the Canada-Soviet showdown. Four years later P.J., then just 7, remembers climbing over all kinds of people to get to the box where Gretzky was sitting to get him to autograph a cap. Gretzky did not play in the 1991 Canada Cup, which Team Canada also won at Copps Coliseum.
Besides being the 30th anniversary of the 1987 Canada Cup, this year also is the 45th anniversary of the historic 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. Therefore, members of that championship team, including Paul Henderson who scored the series-winning goal with 34 seconds left on the clock. Henderson had previously won a Memorial Cup with the Hamilton Red Wings in 1962.
Tickets for the four-course dinner are selling for $200. Sponsorships and VIP tickets, entitling the purchaser to have their picture taken with the ‘Great One’ or have dinner beside him also are available.
P.J. Mercanti said some people have suggested that Carmen’s include on oldtimers hockey game in the afternoon in the celebration.
Proceeds from the evening will be split between minor hockey in Hamilton through the Canadian Tire Jumpstart program and Food4Kids, which currently provides more than 1,500 children with food in the Weekends Without Hunger program and hand-delivers food to 600 children through the summer months.
Lena Bassford, executive director of Food4Kids, said just five years ago in Burlington, one of the highest income cities in Canada, a young boy who said he had been given nothing to eat all weekend was found waiting outside locked doors at a school to ask for some food.
“It was the middle of winter, it was cold, it was dark,” she said. “He just said ‘I haven’t eaten all weekend, I’m so hungry, can I please have something to eat?’”
Angelo Paletta, president of Princess Gates Entertainment which also is involved in the gala, was 10 years old and in Grade 7 at St. Raphael’s school in Burlington, the day Henderson scored his big goal in Moscow on Sept. 28, 1972.
“It was simply amazing,” he said. “All the kids were jumping up and down.”
Canada Post recently released a new stamp commemorating the
Summit Series. It is one of 10 that celebrates the most unforgettable moments in the country since 1967.
When a dozen Team Canada veterans, all of them well into their 70s, gathered for the announcement Yvan Cournoyer, who scored the tying goal in Game 8, poked fun at Phil Esposito, who set up the winning goal by Henderson.
“I’m sorry, Phil,” he said in his delightful broken English. “You think we had it easy in Montreal. But I got two operations on my shoulders when I retired.
“It was not from playing hockey. It was because I had to lift the Stanley Cup too many times!”
The former Canadiens captain was a member of 10 Stanley Cup championship teams and is tied with the late Jean Beliveau on the all-time list of Cup winners, just one behind Henri Richard, who has 11.
In previous years Carmen’s has featured international stars like Sophia Loren, Sylvester Stallone and Al Pacino at its gala, raising between $50,000 and $250,000 at each event. The Good Shepherd, Canadian Diabetes Association, Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation and City Kids are among the organizations that received aid.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.carmensgroup.com or from the Carmen’s box office at 905-387-0007