The Olympic flame is lit during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo by The Canadian Press
The Great One has set alight what Canada hopes will be its greatest Games.
The dreams of a nation finally took flight Friday at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which began with a snowboarder's leap through a giant set of Olympic rings - and ended in heart-stopping panic when the Olympic cauldron briefly refused to rise from the floor.
But as he has so many times in the past, Wayne Gretzky kept the spirits of Canadians high, carrying the flame to its final home at an outdoor cauldron in downtown Vancouver.
He had been told in October that the honour would be his.
"The five of us really, truly enjoyed every minute of it," he said, referencing the four other torchbearers who joined him in the final moments: wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen, ski icon Nancy Greene, basketball star Steve Nash and speedskater Catriona Le May Doan.
It was, unavoidably, an evening tinged in tragedy, a fact brought home during a moment of silence to remember the Georgian luger who died Friday in a horrific crash during training - the first death at a Games in 18 years.
Nonetheless, the bold moments of the opening ceremonies were as bold as the goals Vancouver organizers have set for these Games: changing not just the way the world thinks about Canada but how Canada thinks of itself.
"I declare open the Games of Vancouver, celebrating the 21st Olympic Winter Games," said Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean - a phrase that Canadians have been both fearing and anticipating for more than a decade.
In the moments before the lights went down and the show began, organizers dedicated Friday's show to the memory of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed earlier in the day when he hurtled off the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre in Whistler, B.C.
When his crestfallen teammates entered B.C. Place stadium, they were clad in black scarves and hats, some managing weak waves to the crowd of 60,600 people, every one of them on their feet in tribute.
After they were formally raised, the Olympic and Canadian flag were promptly lowered to half-mast. The loud and boisterous crowd fell silent for a moment in Kumaritashvili's honour, electric candles that were once celebratory raised instead in memoriam.
Canadian women's hockey captain Hayley Wickenheiser said the death of the luger was on all the athletes' minds.
"It's a terrible tragedy and I think that that's (the) humanity of the Games," she said. "Why did it have to happen to him? Why at the Olympics? We all kind of wonder that."
But Friday night was, in the end, for celebration.
Jean waved and danced along with the crowd as the Canadian team made their grand entrance, lead by beaming speedskater Clara Hughes.
"I feel like the most beautiful maple leaf has fallen into my hands and that's the Canadian flag. It's wonderful," she said before heading onto the floor.
The show ran about 15 minutes behind schedule, but despite the best efforts of the staff, the Canadian team refused to be rushed.
They've trained harder for these Games than any other in their entire lives, thanks to an ambitious $117-million program designed to see them win more medals than any other team.
As athletes prepare for their own starting lines in the next 16 days, Canada's First Nations see the Games as the start of a story that places them not behind Canadians, but beside them.
"Canada is changing and is changing for the better and we're focusing on celebrating and respecting our differences and the important thing is that we're standing together to welcome the world," said Tewanee Joseph, executive director of the Four Host First Nations society.
The spectators, dignitaries and athletes under the white-domed roof of the stadium were helping tell that story, clad in ponchos and grasping flashlights and electric candles to help simulate lighting strikes, ocean waves and starry skies as part the show's theme: the landscape of a dream.
It was just hours before that dream came to life that another was so cruelly extinguished.
Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled on the final turn, went over the track wall and rocketed into a support pole near the finish line. He subsequently died in hospital.
As they entered the stadium during the athletes parade, pain visible on their faces, black bands on their uniforms, the Georgian team received a standing ovation from the crowd and from dignitaries.
In their remarks before the Games were declared open, both IOC President Jacques Rogge and Vancouver Olympic organizing committee CEO John Furlong acknowledged the loss.
"You compete with such bravery, conviction and pride at these Games," Furlong said to the athletes from 82 nations taking part in the Olympics.
"You now have the added burden to shine and be united around your fallen colleague Nodar. May you carry his Olympics dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your hearts."
Though it had been a hard day for athletes, walking into the ceremonies was a pure moment of delight.
"I feel like I want to explode," said David Morris, an Australian freestyle skier.
"I want to run around and hug everyone."
It wasn't just a night for Canada's athletes and politicians. Sarah McLachlan, Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams all performed at the multi-million dollar event, which featured more than 2,050 volunteers.
While the vast majority of the tickets for the opening ceremonies were sold to sponsors and other Olympic dignitaries, Canadians from across the country were also there in spirit.
Many of them weren't even born yet when Canada last staged its version of the winter sports extravaganza - in 1988 in Calgary.
The Olympic spirit remained strong in the Albertan city on Friday among a handful of groups who raptly watched the ceremony begin.
Aaron Holoway, 19, said he was proud to finally experience an Olympics on home soil in his lifetime.
The Yukon native, who now calls Calgary home, said he was hoping to see his heritage reflected.
"I'm part First Nations, so I'm hoping for a little bit of native background," he said in a sports bar. "As long as we impress the world, I guess."
The world already had a little taste of the Games earlier in the day, with a typical Vancouver welcome: the final leg of the Olympic torch relay's slow march to the opening ceremonies on Friday saw the flame jogged along the picturesque waterfront of English Bay, brush with superstardom and meet the city's entrenched protest culture.
The cross-country relay's final day played out in a collection of interconnected scenes, woven together by the dozens of torchbearers carrying the flame home, thousands of spectators lining the streets, and the protesters whose anti-Olympic chants mixed with the sounds of cowbells, noisemakers and bagpipes.
"I think that the torch needs to be run right off the road," said one of the protesters, Lauren Gill, after the torch disappeared around a corner.
"We're basically standing up and saying, 'No, we're not going to accept this, we're not going to accept that torch coming through here and the Games being held in our city."
In the hours before the opening ceremonies, the flame burned at the aboriginal pavilion staged by the Four Host First Nations, a collection of native bands who have endorsed the Games in exchange for millions of dollars in government cash and land.
The band leaders are all being treated as heads of state during the ceremonies, getting VIP seats and access.
Four welcome poles - representing the Squamish, Tseil-Waututh, Lil'wat and Musqueam - inflated from the floor of the stadium and reached their arms out to the crowd as representatives of each band circled a massive drum.
With minutes, the entire floor of the stadium was covered in whirling, singing aboriginal groups, representing all of Canada's First Nations people.
Having death cast a cloud over their proudest moments is something Vancouver organizers have seen before.
On the day before the Olympic flame was lit for the 2010 Winter Games in ancient Olympia, the chairman of the Olympic board of directors, Jack Poole, died of cancer.