James Mccarten, Canadian Press
Published: Thursday, May 03, 2007
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - Armed with a gleaming symbol of hockey glory, Canada's top soldier led a brigade of former National Hockey League players on a mission Wednesday to boost the morale and lift the spirits of war-weary, sports-starved Canadians in Afghanistan.
Surrounded by hockey heroes that included enforcers like Bob Probert and Dave (Tiger) Williams, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier looked like a kid in a candy store as the Stanley Cup was wheeled out and placed on display on the tarmac at Kandahar Airfield.
"This is the cup that's coming back to Canada," Hillier said, a reference to the two Canadian teams left in the playoffs, the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks.
Soldiers posed for photos and chatted with some of the players, including goaltender Ron Tugnutt, two-time Cup winner Mark Napier and Montreal Canadiens legends Rejean Houle and Yvon Lambert.
"I got the chance to be close to the Cup, take a picture with it - it was a great moment for me," said Cpl. Lisa-Marie Guernon, 29, from Montreal, a Canadiens cap on her head.
"Especially here in Afghanistan - those types of things are pretty special for us."
Hillier and the players arrived aboard a C-130 Hercules that performed a low, tight banking turn before coming in for a landing - an experience Tugnutt said he won't soon forget.
"It's a good thing I went to Disney last week with the family; it prepared me for the ride in," he said. "I went on all the big roller coasters, and that experience - plus a few Gravol - prepared me for that flight. It was very intense, actually, and (the soldiers) said, 'That was nothing'."
Tugnutt said he was thrilled to be asked to visit with the Canadians.
"When we were offered to come and do this, it was a great honour," he said. "To be able to come and experience this and meet the soldiers, it's been incredible - talking to them, hearing their stories."
Later in the day, the group travelled to Camp Nathan Smith, just outside Kandahar city, to visit with members of Canada's provincial reconstruction team, where they signed autographs and mugged for more photos.
"Tens of thousands of Canadians want to pass on their best wishes to you - their prayers, their thoughts, all of which are with you, and their immense appreciation for what you're doing here in Afghanistan," Hillier told the assembled soldiers.
"Everywhere you go in the country right now ... you'll see it, that Canadians, as never before in my life or my history or my time in uniform, support you."
Napier, who won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in his rookie season in 1979 and again with the Edmonton Oilers in 1985, said their trip was turning out to be no less a thrill for the players than it was for the troops.
"When we got word they were sending Team Canada over here, we put the word out to a few of the members of our alumni association, and we got about 15 or 20 calls right away from guys wanting to come over here," Napier said.
The next troop, we're going to have to fight them off with a stick, the guys who are going to want to come over here."
The players are set to face off Thursday morning in a ball-hockey game against a team of soldiers that Tiger Williams, for one, knows won't be easy to beat.
"These guys play for real, so it's going to be entertaining," chuckled Williams, a custom-made "Tiger" name tag on his military uniform.
"We've got Bob Probert on our side, though, so look out, you know?"
Hillier said he plans to suit up and play a shift on a line with both Williams and Probert.
Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant, the commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, said the visit would prove invaluable to the mood and morale of the soldiers, who braved 50 C temperatures Wednesday and are facing a long, hot summer ahead.
"From a morale standpoint, there is no equivalent to this," Grant said. "You can't put a price on it."
Lord Stanley is a good man.