If there is one single item that unifies Canadians of every description, it's hockey. And even the most passive of sports fans recognizes the Stanley Cup as the shining icon of hockey excellence. So, in searching for something that would boost the morale of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, with tensions at an all time high and temperatures soaring in tandem, it was decided to take the Stanley Cup to Kandahar.
|The Stanley Cup arrives via "Hercules", the nicknamed Canadian Forces transport plane which, just for the fun of it, made a "combat landing" upon it's arrival to the
The idea had spawned during Tampa Bay's reign with the Stanley Cup, but through the efforts of the NHL, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the NHL Alumni and the Department of National Defence, it was resuscitated and came to fruition this spring.
At dusk on Sunday, April 29, the Stanley Cup was loaded into the hold of Air Force 1 at a private airport adjacent to Ottawa International Airport. Joining Lord Stanley's Cup on this trip were Canada's Chief of Defence, General Rick Hillier, Louise Des Roches from the Department of National Defense as well as singer/songwriter Terry Kelly and nineteen members of the NHL Alumni, including Tony Currie, Dan Daoust, Lou Franceschetti, Stew Gavin, Rejean Houle, Dave Hutchison, Yvon Lambert, Kevin Maguire, Rob Murphy, Mark Napier, Mike Pelyk, Bob Probert, Rick Smith, Ron Tugnutt and Tiger Williams. Former Whaler Ed Staniowski, now a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Military, also joined his colleagues for the trip, as did Vancouver Canucks owner Paolo Aquilini and Tom Anselmi from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The plane flew first to Croatia, where the Stanley Cup was taken from its case and displayed briefly. Then, it was on to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where the Cup stayed until Wednesday, May 2.
|A group of the approximately 2,500 soliders from the JTF AFG (Joint Task Force Afghanistan) await their moment with the Stanley Cup.
The temperatures were verging on 50 degrees when the C-130 Hercules carrying the Stanley Cup prepared to land at the International Security Assistance Force's military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. But it wasn't the pillow soft landings we're used to. The plane made a tactical landing involving a rolling circle that caused a few of the boys to reach for their stomachs and prompted Ron Tugnutt to quip, "It's a good thing I went to Disneyland with my family last week. It prepared me for the ride in!" The soldiers laughed and said, "That? That was nothing!"
Reality hit home when each participant on the flight was handed a helmet and a flak jacket. "Here, everybody needs to put these on!" It was the first time the Stanley Cup had ever been taken to a combat zone.
As the players descended from the plane, sporting an unusual shade of green (and not for camouflage clothing from the landing!), there was a large group waiting to greet them. Media members joined the troops in welcoming the Canadian hockey contingent. General Rick Hillier addressed those on the tarmac, stating, "We're grateful to have them here with us." But Mark Napier, president of the NHL Alumni, spoke for everyone on the plane when he said, "They were all thrilled to see their hockey heroes, but in reality, they are our heroes for protecting our country."
|Former NHLers Dave "Tiger" Williams and
Bob Probert (in white) pounce on a rebound
in front of the net in one of two ball hockey games in which the NHL Alumni competed against the teams made up of
The well-travelled blue case that cradles the Stanley Cup was gingerly opened, and the on-lookers gasped in delight as the Stanley Cup was removed. General Hillier kissed his fingertips and gently touched the bowl of the Stanley Cup, and the crowd erupted into applause. Then, hundreds of military personnel took turns viewing the Cup up close, some hugging it, others asking colleagues to take a picture of them with hockey's big prize. It was clearly an enormous thrill. "I got the chance to be close to the Cup and take a picture with it," beamed Corporal Lisa-Marie Guernon. "It was a great moment for me!" Brigadier-General Tim Grant, the commander of the Canadian troops in Afghanistan, added, "From a morale standpoint, there is no equivalent to this."
Dave Hutchison mentioned how emotional the trip to Afghanistan was for him. "We really appreciate what they are doing here for our fight for freedom. You don't really get a grasp until you arrive here and see what the world is really like over here."
|Canadian Forces soldiers get an up-close and personal look at the 2,008 engraved individuals listed on the Stanley Cup.
General Hillier, along with Mark Napier and Rejean Houle, took the Stanley Cup by helicopter to another part of the massive base where they visited some of the equally grateful American troops.
That Wednesday night, May 3, there was a missile attack on the base. Everyone was ordered to their bunks. Mike Bolt, the Keeper of the Cup, was as white as his gloves, concerned more for the historic trophy than he was his own safety. Fortunately, the attacked landed short of the base and no one was injured in the attack, and the Stanley Cup emerged unscathed.
The next day, the NHL Alumni took part in three ball hockey games; two against Canadian troops and one against an American team. According to the NHL Alumni, they kicked their opponents' butts. According to the troops, they were exciting, tight games that saw the experience of the Alumni help them eke out a marginal victory. But the games appeared no different than any hockey game in Canada huge numbers of fans looking on drinking Tim Hortons coffee!
That evening, there was a gigantic barbecue. As a special bonus in light of the Stanley Cup's visit, each of the troops was allowed two bottles of beer, a rare treat as Kandahar is a dry base. Terry Kelly, an inspiring performer originally from St. John's, Newfoundland, entertained the troops. Although blind, Kelly has seen more than most of us ever will. An entertainer, an athlete and a motivational speaker, Terry earlier had performed the national anthems prior to the ball hockey games. But now, he was the featured performer, invited to participate, in part, because of a song he wrote, inspired by peacekeepers the world over.
A Pittance of Time
"They fought and some died for their homeland.
They fought and some died. Now it's our land.
Look at his little child, there's no fear in her eyes.
Could he not show respect for other Dads who have died?
'Take two minutes, would you mind?'
It's a pittance of time.
For the boys and the girls who went over
In peace, may they rest, may we never forget why they died.
It's a pittance of time."
There is a note posted by the door in the canteen that states that all personnel must carry a weapon at all times. It was unusual to see soldiers in white t-shirts and shorts with an automatic weapon slung around their shoulders. The fact is, you never know what's around the corner. Nonetheless, none of the NHL Alumni was ever nervous about being in Kandahar. There were gunners watching at all times, and they were always made to feel safe and secure.
Contrary to pre-conceived notions, the food was excellent…and plentiful. The chefs take great care of the troops, whether there is a special guest like the Stanley Cup in the house or not.
During the four days in Kandahar, with the mercury rising above 50 exhausting degrees at times, it was incredible to uncover the extraordinary passion for hockey and the Stanley Cup. Many military members brought jerseys from their favourite teams to Afghanistan with them. Everyone had a story about their love of the game. To exhibit their passion, a huge number of the troops stay awake until 3AM to watch 'Hockey Night in Canada' at Canada House. With the Stanley Cup in tow, this week was no different, except Don Cherry and Ron McLean had the troops on camera chanting, 'GO SENS GO!' seated atop an armoured vehicle.
Although the Stanley Cup was delivered primarily for the Canadian troops, and spent time with American military personnel, it was enlightening to have troops from Sweden, England, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere all excited about the historic trophy's visit, and the knowledge that these soldiers had about the Stanley Cup.
|A pair of Canadian Forces soldiers show their support for the Montreal Canadiens while posing with Canada's most iconic sports trophy.
On Sunday, May 6, the NHL Alumni bid farewell to the troops, and with the Stanley Cup in tow, left Afghanistan first for Dubai, then back to Canada. Ron Tugnutt had everyone laughing when he said, "Seventeen years in the NHL and I have to go to Afghanistan to get close to the Stanley Cup."
All agreed that the visit had altered their lives. Tom Anselmi told the story of visiting a Canadian military hospital. "There was a little girl about seven years old," he told the Toronto Sun. "She had stepped on a landmine while playing in the fields, and her father carried her 25 kilometres on his back to make it to the Canadian hospital, where about 150 Canadian doctors, nurses and other medical personnel are stationed. The little girl was badly injured. One of her legs was so damaged that it had to be amputated. Her arms, chest and face were a mess and she may never be able to see. Those are the realities in the country of these unfortunate people. It must be the most dangerous and destitute of countries in the world".
Be thankful you have the life you do.
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Editor of Publications and On-Line Features.
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