(AFGHANISTAN) -- On Monday, April 30, a delegation of former NHL players touched down in Southwest Asia to start of a seven-day adventure intended to boost morale and spread the gospel of hockey to Canada's troops serving in Afghanistan.
Representing Leafs Nation are Alumni Dave "Tiger" Williams, Mike Pelyk, Dan Daoust, Dave Hutchison, Stew Gavin, Lou Franceschetti and Kevin Maguire.
Other NHLers include two-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Napier, former player and Montreal Canadiens GM Rejean Houle and Yvon Lambert, former Ottawa Senators Ron Tugnutt and Rob Murphy, Ron Smith (New York Islanders), Bob Probert (Detroit) and Ed Staniowski (Winnipeg Jets). Representing Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment are COO Tom Anselmi, Leafs TV producer Sharon Kum and Jennifer Millard of the Leafs Fund.
Also along for the ride is TSN's Brian Williams, one of Canada's best-known sports broadcasters. The trip is a joint effort primarily organized by Canada's department of defense and supported by the Leafs, Senators, Canadiens and Canucks, as well as by the NHL who agreed to send the Stanley Cup (and one of its keepers, Mike Bolt) along for the ride. What follows is a first-person account of the trip so far.
Having flown more than 13 hours, plus a brief stop in Zagreb, Croatia, this tired and jet-lagged group walked off the plane in south west Asia and was welcomed by the first of hundreds of Canadian troops we would meet over the course of the week. The first thing we noticed was the heat. And we were quickly told that these 47 degree temperatures were nothing compared to the 60 degree highs that were expected in July and August. The second thing we noticed? The dust. It's everywhere. And it wasn't long before our clothes, teeth and hair were coated with a thin layer of it.
After spending close to two days and two nights meeting the troops, taking photos with the Stanley Cup and checking out some of the local tourist attractions (including a camel farm), we struggled through a 4:30 a.m. wake up and roll call (welcome to the military!), donned our flak jackets and helmets and joined dozens of soldiers aboard a Hercules aircraft headed for KAF (Kandahar Air Field) where Canada's effort in Afghanistan is based. The Herc is a story in itself but before we get to that, a little on Canada's mission.
It's a common misconception that Canada is here on a peacekeeping mission.
In fact, it's one of nation building. Canada is here at the request of a democratically elected government and its main purpose is to help build a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society. There are approximately 2500 people currently serving as part of JTF AFG (Joint Task Force Afghanistan), and they are helping to build and rebuild institutions such as independent courts, police and the army. Ultimately, according to the Government of Canada's website, Canada is "laying the foundation for Afghans to govern themselves and for a secure and better future."
One of the things that has become most evident during our short stay is that every single serviceman and woman wants to be here. They believe in the mission and are proud of Canada's role. To make the NHL and have a successful career, it takes strength and determination, so this group knows all about the importance of sacrifices. Yet, the level of commitment and dedication of these men and women is unlike anything most of us has ever seen.
So back to the Herc. It's loud and uncomfortable but if being issued flak jackets and helmets didn't make us feel like soldiers, this sure did. After spending several hours literally strapped into the body of the plane, and wearing ear plugs so as not to incur any permanent hearing damage, we (rather, the pilot) executed what is known as a tactical landing. This maneuver, known for its sharp turns and steep descents, is supposed to help the plane avoid enemy fire. You know those little white bags they give you on Air Canada? Let's just say they came in handy for one poor soldier.
So a little queasy, a little hearing impaired and very tired we arrived at KAF. Thanks in part to the presence of a little silver trophy known as the Stanley Cup, many soldiers and nearly all the embedded media came out to greet us. After collecting our luggage and receiving a personal welcome from Canada's top military man - General Rick Hillier - we boarded a hot, dusty and un-airconditioned (!) bus and went straight to, where else, Tim Horton's.
Ice-cappuccinos in hand, we quickly dropped off our bags at the sleeping quarters and received a short briefing on Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
Then, in what we were coming to know as typical military practice, it was back on the bus. This time, for a tour of the base. We quickly discovered that KAF is actually more like a city. 10,000 people from more than six nations currently call KAF home. Most of them are here on a six-month tour and can tell you exactly how many days they have left before their tour ends.
We saw many of the medical facilities as well as a former Taliban training facility where Osama bin Laden was once thought to have been hiding.
After a quick stop at the Kandahar International Airport for what might prove to be one of the most bizarre photo ops of the trip, it was off to check out some of the high-tech equipment, including an unmanned surveillance drone worth roughly $2.5 million .
Just after getting settled into the command centre, we were informed that there was a rocket attack and were quickly ushered into a nearby bunker. These attacks, though rare (there hadn't been one in over two weeks) are launched, according to one serviceman, as a reminder from the Taliban that they're out there. Of course, it's also an attempt to damage facilities and injure or kill members of the coalition forces, but our minds were put somewhat at ease by the fact that these were not sophisticated missiles or missile deployment systems.
Fortunately for us, and for the men and women who will be here long after we leave, the Taliban's aim is frequently off. For that reason, these rocket attacks rarely increase the heart rate of the average KAF veteran. And while we were all no doubt thinking of the great stories we could tell about the experience, it was a sobering reminder that no matter how safe we felt, we were still in a war zone.