by Todd Anderson
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk made a surprise visit with Canadian Forces troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, today to spread a little hockey cheer.
Melnyk, who was on a business trip in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, decided to stop at Kandahar Airfield and visit the local hockey rink built by Canadian soldiers, tour the base and spent time with troops.
During a conference call held from Kandahar this afternoon, Melnyk spoke about his experiences since arriving at the base early this morning.
"I literally didn't know if this (visit) was going to happen for sure until I arrived in Dubai a few days ago. It was just something I really wanted to do," Melnyk said.
"I spent the day basically getting to know what happens at an air force base with the Canadian troops. I had a full debriefing by senior military personnel, I had a tour of the site, and after that, we had a lot of fun. I learned a lot about what goes on here. It's a lot more than combat. The Canadians here are very, very active. They are rebuilding a society - building schools, setting up infrastructures, working with the local people here and trying to put this country back together again. It's a phenomenal thing to see first-hand. I'm honoured to be here; it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think it will be (two) of the most memorable days in my life."
As part of the visit, Melnyk delivered more than $50,000 worth of hockey jerseys, hockey sticks, gloves, goalie equipment, in-line skates and Tim Hortons gift certificates to the soldiers.
"The soldiers here are very avid hockey fans. Hockey rules over here." Melnyk said. "They wake up at (4 a.m.) every day to watch the games and they have a very well organized house league here. They have as many as 24 teams and I think each one plays about 30 games. Sunday night is Hockey Night in Kandahar, and we have six games being played tonight."
A special Canada vs. United States game was played today and Melnyk dropped the ball for the faceoff during the opening ceremonies. Melnyk was proud to see Team Canada wear Senators jerseys, that he delivered, in the game.
"There's a ton of Senators fans here, which I didn't know coming in. It's a huge thrill. It's just fortunate that a lot of the Canadians here are from Ontario and the Ottawa region."
Melnyk even got a Toronto Maple Leafs fan to wear a Sens jersey.
"Do you believe it? Only in Kandahar, Afghanistan," Melnyk said. "I should have (taken) a picture."
With the NHL's regular season winding down and the playoffs approaching, terms like ‘going to war' and ‘ready for battle' will be used when discussing the matchups between teams. Melnyk was asked what he thinks of those terms now that he has visited the war zone in Afghanistan.
"When you're in a war zone and you see what these people are doing, it's all relative. At the end of the day it is a sport," Melnyk said. "We've got to keep that in mind. No one wants to win more than our organization but you've got to put the whole world in perspective. When you come here, it does put it in perspective."
Click here for video from Melnyk''s trip.