KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – It was clear from the moment goaltender Mark Laforest lumbered out on to the iceless rink, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, that this was to be no ordinary NHL hockey game.
“I love this place,” TSN play-by-play commentator Jennifer Hedger quoted Laforest as saying as she introduced the latest motley group of former NHLers to visit Kandahar Airfield.
“You can smoke everywhere.”
With that, the former pros forgot momentarily about the goodwill mission that brought them to Afghanistan and got down to ball-hockey business, waxing the floor with overmatched Canadian soldiers brave enough to swap their rifles for hockey sticks.
The Stanley Cup gleamed in the afternoon Afghan sun to inspire a team of troops that included Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada’s chief of defence staff and an unabashed hockey fan, and Brig.-Gen. Guy Laroche, the diminutive commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
“They’re all warriors,” Hillier said beforehand of the dozen or so “tough-as-nails” NHLers who made the trip, some of them for the second time in less than a year, to lift spirits and see first hand the work Canadians are doing in Kandahar province.
“They have the heart of a warrior, and as a result they resonate very, very closely and very comfortably with our soldiers and our sailors and our airmen and airwomen who are here.”
When the dust had settled, the NHL players may have triumphed 9-2, but the sweaty, satisfied ear-to-ear grins on the soldier side made it clear no one was feeling the loss.
“It’s certainly exciting to play against players of this calibre,” said Cpl. Joanne Lyster, 26, a member of the military police who hails originally from Edmonton and is on her first tour in war-torn Kandahar province.
“This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting in Afghanistan.”
The troops changed up their teams for each period, and Lyster spent the game’s final 20 minutes in goal, facing shots from players like former Toronto Maple Leaf Mike Gartner, two-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Napier, tough guy Bob Probert and the fearsome Stu Grimson, known in his NHL fighting heyday as the “Grim Reaper.”
Also joining the NHL squad known as Team Canada were Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, the guitar-and-vocals duo comprising the backbone of country-rock sensations Blue Rodeo, who performed for soldiers once the sun had gone down.
Others who made the trip included Montreal rocker Jonas Tomalty and Newfoundland songstress Lori Anna Reid and singer-songwriter Gregg Lawless, who sang the national anthem.
“It’s really amazing that these guys take the time, both the NHL players and Blue Rodeo, to come out here,” Lyster said. “I know it’s a really nice break for everyone, a distraction from what’s going on outside the wire.”
Indeed, it’s been a trying week for Canada in Afghanistan.
Just days after Bombardier Jeremie Ouellet, 22, was found dead in his sleeping quarters at the Canadian base of operations, 32-year-old Sgt. Jason Boyes was killed by an improvised explosive device during a foot patrol in the treacherous Panjwaii district west of Kandahar city.
“The last few weeks have been really hard, especially this week,” said Capt. James Armstrong, 35, of Trenton, Ont., a spectator who enjoyed a playful headlock after the game with Grimson.
“It lets us forget where we are for a couple of hours.”
Armstrong said he was particularly impressed with the play of Hillier and Laroche.
“It just sort of shows their character through and through; they’re lead-from-the-front kind of generals, and they’re very popular within the ranks of the troops.”
It was no accident that this year’s team was stacked with muscle, said Napier, the head of the NHL Alumni Association and the principal force behind the team’s visit.
“The soldiers love the tough guys,” he grinned.
One of them, American-born Canadiens winger Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, said he’s always appreciated Canada’s affinity for hockey, something he rarely notices south of the Canada-U.S. border.
“Hockey is Canada; Canada is hockey,” said Nilan, who was grateful for the chance to see first hand what coalition forces are doing in Afghanistan.
“They’re preserving our way of life back home, and a lot of people don’t realize what it entails to do that; they don’t have a clue,” he said.
“To come here and see that, it’s a great opportunity. It’s an eye-opener.”