By Mary Milliken
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A snowboarder soared through the Olympic rings and skiers schussed down mountains in the unlikely confines of a stadium as Canada whipped up a wintry wilderness for Friday's opening of the 2010 Winter Games.
Vancouver staged the first indoor opening ceremony in the 86-year history of the Winter Games, an ironic choice for a nation with more outdoors than almost any other place as the world's second largest country.
On the big white canvas of BC Place, Canada painted starry skies, polar bears, blue ice and indigenous icons, with the participation of 60,000 "pixels" (spectators and athletes) to welcome the world to its cold yet coveted paradise.
In what appeared to be the sole glitch of the night, only three of the four giant icicles supporting an Olympic cauldron emerged from the floor.
Famous Canadian athletes lit the incomplete indoor cauldron before ice hockey's "Great One" Wayne Gretzky took the torch outside to ignite the external flame near Vancouver's water front by the Games broadcasting center.
Casting a pall over the start of the February 12-28 Games, however, was the death of a Georgian luge competitor in a horrific training crash on Friday.
In their grief, 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili's team mates marched into the stadium wearing black scarves and armbands to a standing ovation from the crowd. Olympic and Canadian flags were later lowered to half mast.
"May you carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your hearts," said John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, flanked by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
After their somber speeches, the Haiti-born Governor General of Canada Michaelle Jean declared the Vancouver Games open.
Hosting the first Olympic opening ceremony after Beijing's game-changing spectacle for the 2008 Summer Games was no easy task, especially in an economy struggling to recover from an epic downturn.
Canada, however, tapped its reserves of world-famous talent, like film actor Donald Sutherland to narrate with his signature deep voice and singers k.d. lang, who sang fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Bryan Adams and Nelly Furtado.
The ceremony floated between Canada's two worlds -- one of deep respect for tradition, native peoples and nature and another of cutting-edge cool and culture in one of the most prosperous nations.
In the home country of the famous flying troupe Cirque de Soleil, aerial acrobats were brought in as the indoor substitutes for the racing and soaring winter athletes.
The ceremony kicked off with a countdown of Winter Olympics past as the snowboarder embarked on his journey on a mountaintop displayed on video screen, dropped off a cliff and into a red-lit Canadian maple leaf.
From the heights of the arena, the daredevil shot through one of the five Olympic rings in a big puff of snow-like smoke and flew through the air on to a cushioned ramp.
The entrance of the Canadian team brought the stadium to its feet as the nation's 34 million people look to their athletes to win their first gold medal in a home Olympics.
In the lead-up to the Games, Canadians apologized for the uncharacteristic confidence in their medals drive, more akin to their neighbors to the south, the United States.
As the ceremony's young "slam" poet told the world: "We are the True North, strong and free. What's more, we didn't just say it, we made it be."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)