The Canadian hockey rink in Kandahar holds so many memories for those who once played games of shinny under the Afghan sun.
With hockey boards painted with maple leaf flags, the rink has been a distinctive symbol of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan.
It was the home of a 24-team league and now the boards are headed home. A final game was played just before the new year, then soldiers took apart the boards piece by piece to preserve the stories of those whose sacrifices helped the people of Kandahar and Canada.
The rink might have been 10,000 kilometres away from Canada but it has a lot of Canadian connections since it hosted several visits from NHL greats which helped maintain morale throughout a difficult and dangerous military mission.
NHL star Jarome Iginla, who currently plays for the Colorado Avalanche, was one of the players who visited.
For him, it was a once in a lifetime experience to visit the country and spend time with the troops.
“I remember it was hot playing though, it was hot playing on that rink,” Iginla laughed. “To meet some of the soldiers and just ask them stories and to see the equipment and the vehicles and the day-to-day stuff. It was neat to see the way they get their minds off of it – the hockey and how they have fun over there. ”
Former Calgary Flame Perry Berezan, who made three trips to the war zone to play countless games with other NHL greats, finding out the rink has been packed up brings back a lot of fun memories.
“When there were, any missiles going out, guys would write on it. The big joke we continued to do was write ‘Tell ’em Lanny (McDonald) sent ya.’ When the Taliban are looking and asking what happened after they just got decimated, it was pretty good. That was our line the whole trip,” Berezan said.
Lanny McDonald is of course Berezan’s old teammate and another NHL legend that visited the rink on several occasions.
WATCH: Embassy stickhandles delivery of hockey rink memorabilia to Canada. Mike Drolet reports.
Flames president Brian Burke also joined him, stick and water bottle in hand.
“I remember the one day I kept track of how many bottles of water I drank, it was 51 C, I drank 14 bottles of water and never went to the bathroom once. And these soldiers march with packs on and rifles in that heat, it’s unbelievable the respect I have for them,” Burke said.
It’s definitely not your everyday arena. The rink has seen dust storms in the middle of a period and tanks parked right next to the players’ bench. But the intensity of the ball hockey games were no different than what you find at a cold outdoor rink in Alberta or anywhere else across Canada.
Capt. Travis Smyth, who served seven months for Canada in the Kandahar mission in 2010, said the Canadian teams would be based on particular units and detachments or frankly – whoever could play.
“We welcomed all… to essentially join our KHL, which was a joke in itself – that we all said we got to play in the KHL,” Smyth said. “The rink was an important Canadian landmark in Kandahar because in many ways, it brought that coalition together in sport. But particularly for Canadian soldiers, because it allowed them to bring a little bit of Canada with them to such a foreign land.”
Smyth said he would have loved to have seen Canada put together an all-star Kandahar squad.
“During my tour, we had the chief of defence staff and the chief of defence minister at the time… they both took a shift with us,” he said.
Smyth said it meant a lot to the troops to see big names take the time out of their busy schedules to visit them abroad.
Burke said each trip he made was very humbling.
“We think we have important jobs and we don’t. I make a bad decision, I might get fired for it but I’m not going to get shot. The risks that these soldiers ran on behalf of our country in Afghanistan are staggering,” Burke said.
“Standing on the blueline for O Canada, we found out we had lost three Canadian soldiers as we were standing waiting for a game, and that was really tough,” Berezan said.
Rockets would land on a tarmac just 300 metres away from the rink – but just like an NHLer playing in front of thousands of fans, soldiers would block out the sound and just look forward to a game of pickup hockey after a long day of work.
“It’s fitting because a lot of soldiers that gave their all for Canada actually probably played on that rink,” Burke said.
“Our hope is that these boards will help to tell stories that may have been forgotten – of hardship and courage, of triumph and tragedy, of Canadian lives lived here. For their sacrifices did not just help the people of Kandahar to improve security, governance and economic development, their sacrifices helped to tell the story of Canada,” Neufeld said.
Once returned to Canada, the iconic hockey boards will go in the Canadian War Museum and the Hockey Hall of Fame to celebrate the dedication and sacrifice of Canadians who served in Afghanistan.
“Hockey holds a special place in the hearts of many Canadians, including those who serve far from home. There has long been a strong relationship between hockey and the military — from the hockey players who enlisted during the First World War to the Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers who won the 1948 Olympic gold medal,” Stephen Quick, director general of the Canadian War Museum, said. “The men and women who played hockey in Afghanistan represent the continuation of this tradition and the boards from the rink at the Kandahar Airfield will help tell that story.”