TORONTO -- Nearly 7,000 miles away, an almost regulation size hockey rink served as a place of refuge for Canadian soldiers during their military mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, helping to recreate a feeling of home.
The boards used for the rink, which are faded by the intense sun and heat faced from 2006 to 2016, when the rink was dismantled, are back in Canada and will be featured at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Tim Hortons Theatre from June 30 to Sept. 4, 2017.
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"The Hockey Hall of Fame is all about the world," Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald said. "Why shouldn't a piece of history like these boards be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? I think it's the perfect spot for them. The men and women who represent our country are our heroes."
Calgary Flames president Brian Burke has made three trips to Afghanistan, two to Kandahar and one to Kabul, as part of delegations to visit military personnel on the front lines. If asked to go again, he said he would do so immediately. During his visits, he saw firsthand what the rink meant.
"It played an important role for Canadian soldiers getting some downtime," Burke said. "It was a place they could relax, play some ball hockey and maybe get out of the line of fire for a couple of days. We had a great time when we went over there; we respect the mission the Canadian soldiers fulfilled. This is appropriate that these boards are right here in the Hockey Hall of Fame."
In 2011 while serving as president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Burke was accompanied by former Maple Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn (now with the Arizona Coyotes) and together, the two delivered equipment provided by all seven NHL teams from Canada. To Burke, it was a small gesture to show the immense gratitude for the service of the military personnel.
"There's been a link between the military and the NHL almost going back to Day 1," Burke said. "This is not something I created or invented but I think it's important to continue [to] educate our young players about how important Canadian Forces are [to] preserving the freedoms that we enjoy. It sounds like a cliché but freedom isn't free, someone's got to fight to preserve it and the Canadian soldiers have done that."
The rink in Kandahar, at the peak of the mission, was home to a highly competitive ball hockey league that featured 24 teams (two from Slovakia, one from the United States and 21 from Canada.) After long days of work in grueling conditions that often touched 123 degrees Fahrenheit, the rink was exactly the outlet that soldiers needed to unwind.
"It did represent a tangible piece of home," Brigadier-General Kevin Cotton said. "It's something people were familiar with and I really think it gave us that sense of feeling that while we're in Afghanistan, we're still Canadian and we're still maintaining our Canadian traditions. It was a great stress reliever for people working very long hours but even when people were tired, they rather would go play ball hockey than sleep because it normalizes their life. In Afghanistan, it was a completely different environment."
Not surprisingly, the games on the rink got competitive, especially when contingents of current and former NHL players arrived to visit. McDonald pointed to a dent on the boards he said was the result of an elbow from Dave "Tiger" Williams. He added that in Williams' defense, he was heard yelling, "If you touch the puck, I'm going to run you over" toward his opponent before delivering a light-hearted hit.
In essence, it was like you would see on any Canadian street in the winter, only it was half a world away. Just like in Canada though because of blizzards, the games in Afghanistan had to be paused from time to time for a slightly different reason.
"You'd get in the middle of a sandstorm and all of a sudden everybody would run to hide beside these boards until the sandstorm blew by and then it was game back on," McDonald, who also visited the base in Kandahar on three different occasions, said. "It was just like in Canada, playing in the streets all over again."