Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky lights Olympic flame in Vancouver
HOCKEY legend Wayne Gretzky has ignited the Olympic flame at the conclusion of a colourful opening ceremony in Vancouver.
POPULAR CHOICE: Wayne Gretzky's storied career - which included a coaching role for the gold medal winning Canada team at the 2002 Winter Olympics - was honoured as he was selected to light the Olympic flame in Vancouver (Getty Images)
Gretzky, known as the Great One, will be a popular choice in a country where hockey is a religion followed with fervent zeal.
He is regarded as the greatest player of all-time and was also on the coaching staff that guided Canada's men's team to hockey gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
And after a journey of more than 45,000km, during which the torch has passed through thousands of red-mitten clad hands, Gretzky was selected to carry out the final and all-important act of lighting the cauldron.
And he was joined by Olympic double gold medallist speed skater Catriona LeMay Doan, basketball star Steve Nash and 1968 Olympic ski gold medallist Nancy Greene, after the flame was brought into the BC Place Stadium by former Paralympic champion Rick Hansen.
However, there were some anxious moments as the lighting mechanism clearly failed to work on cue and one of the supporting structures didn't rise out of the ground, leaving Le May Doan stranded.
Gretzky then took the flame from the indoor arena and ignited an external cauldron that will burn above Vancouver's skyline for the next 16 days.
Meanwhile, a cast of eight carried the Olympic flag into the stadium.
Betty Fox, mother of cancer research fundraiser Terry, was joined by actor Donald Sutherland, former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, former Olympic figure skating champion Barbara Ann Scott, singer Anne Murray, author and humanitarian Romeo Dallaire, hockey legend Bobby Orr and astronaut Julie Payette.
However, the death of Georgian luge slider Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died during training for Saturday's men's luge at the Whistler Sliding Centre, cast a long shadow over a spectacular show, which cost a reported $40 million (£24m).
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who was in tears during an earlier news conference, looked sombre as he watched alongside world leaders and dignitaries.
And before Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean opened the Games, he dedicated the ceremony to the memory of the 21-year old, who was due to make his Olympic debut in Vancouver.
"It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the tragic loss of Nodar Kumaritashvili," said Rogge.
"We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends, team-mates and countrymen."
Vancouver 2010 chief executive John Furlong - like Rogge wearing a black tie - also added his tribute to Kumaritashvili while the Canadian and Olympic flags were lowered to half mast and a minute's silence was observed.
"You compete in the memory of your fallen comrade Nodar," he told over 3,000 athletes from 82 countries.
"You carry his olympic dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your hearts."
Great Britain's Shelley Rudman led the largest British delegation in 18 years into the athletes parade at BC Place, the first time an Olympics opening ceremony had been staged indoors.
She followed Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, dubbed the snow leopard and expected to be the Eddie ‘The Eagle' Edwards of these Games.
Moments earlier the Georgian delegation, led by alpine skier Iason Abramahvili entered to a standing ovation, although the mood of celebration did little to even temporarily lift their very obvious grief.