Ayotte, a lifelong hockey fan who grew up during the glory days of the Edmonton Oilers, won a ticket to this year's Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp — a six-day training camp, tournament and meet-and-greet that gives regular Joes a chance to rub shoulders with former NHL pros.
In total, about 120 “campers” took part in this year’s Las Vegas camp, and were joined by about 20 former NHL players, Ayotte said.
On the first day, campers were run through drills and skills testing, then were sorted into six teams, each of with came with two or three professional players. In Ayotte’s case, Ken Linseman and GeoffCourtnall.
“They played defence,” Ayotte said of the pros. “You know, they're not allowed to score unless you’re down in the game.”
The teams then played in a round-robin tournament, where Ayotte’s team made it all the way to the finals.
“We came up a little bit short — I still think we had the best team there — but in hockey, as you know, sometimes you just don’t get the bounces.”
Gretzky himself also played a game with each team in the course of the championship.
“That was pretty special,” said Ayotte. “Growing up in Edmonton and watching those great teams as a kid, to meet him … sitting on the bench with him, right beside him and talking to him — that was surreal.”
While he missed out on the chance to inscribe his name on the Gretzky Cup, Ayotte has no regrets.
“For me, I was just blown away,” he said. “Going down to it, I thought the biggest thing was going to be to meet all the different pros, and I was a little nervous about that — Gretzky and all the glory day Oilers that were there — but I think the biggest thing was, I was surprised by meeting all the campers that were there.”
“You're on a team with these guys and you’ve only been with them for about a week but it feels like you’ve known them all your life.”
The experience has inspired Ayotte to sign up for men’s league hockey next winter; the last time he played on an organized team was as a kid.
While Ayotte won his chance to play in a contest, others pay $14,000 for the opportunity, and come home with a full new kit of NHL-quality equipment and a good story.
“It’s a lot of money, but there’s definitely some value to it," Ayotte said.