Hockey Hall of Fame - Stanley Cup Journals: 01
The Stanley Cup Journal

A group of Canadian military soldiers take a
moment to humbly pose with the Stanley Cup.
(Craig Campbell/HHOF)
Sometimes, out of the darkness comes light.

The darkness of war was briefly interrupted for Canadians deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan with a few days of brightness beyond their wildest dreams.

Canadian soldiers are no different than Canadians pursuing any occupation — they enjoy life's simple pleasures: coffee, music and hockey. Two years ago, military engineers constructed an outdoor ball hockey rink, complete with a Tim Hortons right beside it, on the base in this southern part of war-torn Afghanistan. Although the rink gets regular use, it's not often that the military personnel get to challenge former NHL stars, and with the Stanley Cup brilliantly gleaming within view.

On Wednesday, March 19, the Hercules transport aircraft carrying the Stanley Cup arrived in Kandahar. It was the second trip to Kandahar in a year for the Stanley Cup, which visited the base in May 2007. With hockey's greatest prize was a collective calling itself Team Canada, a spirited group of patriotic hockey players and musicians, there to meet Canada's armed forces amidst the heat and dust (and prevailing danger) that make a trip to Afghanistan so different to any experience back home in the safe confines of Canada.

Canadian singer-songwriter Jim Cuddy was
one of "Team Canada's" brave musicians who visited and entertained Canada's armed forces.
(Craig Campbell/HHOF)
General Rick Hillier, the Chief of Defence Staff (that's his title, not his hockey position) greeted Mark Napier, the president of the NHL Alumni Association, who assembled a team that included Troy Crowder, Brad Dalgarno, Mike Gartner, Stu Grimson, Dave Hutchison, Mark LaForest, Chris Nilan, Colin Paterson, Mike Pelyk and Bob Probert. Also making the trip were hockey-loving musicians Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, Montreal rock band Jonas, Gregg Lawless and Lori Anna Reid, a St. John's singer-songwriter whose poignant performance at the 90th anniversary tribute to Vimy Ridge so moved General Hillier that he insisted she join the trip.

The Stanley Cup was carried off the plane by the Keepers of the Cup, who, in spite of the heat, both wore the requisite white gloves that exhibit the respect displayed towards the magnificent icon of hockey supremacy. Defence Minister Peter MacKay, also in Kandahar for the visit, expressed the thoughts of the members of the armed forces. "For Canadians, this symbolizes something that every young boy or girl grows up dreaming about — playing for the Stanley Cup!" Those on the base would get their opportunity.

Former NHL'er Chris Nilan tours the Stanley Cup with a few U.S Marines. (Craig Campbell/HHOF)
General Hillier addressed the 2,500 troops on the base, and was laughingly greeted with both cheers and catcalls when he pointed to an empty space on the bottom ring of the Stanley Cup and said, "See this spot here? That space is being reserved for the Toronto Maple Leafs when they win it all in a couple of months." The general chuckled when he reminded those non-believers that the base was a 'no boos' zone.

Through the afternoon, the soldiers got the opportunity to meet the players and musicians, and get their pictures taken with the Stanley Cup. The line-up was long, but no one left without a souvenir they'd cherish always.

On Thursday, it was the much-anticipated ball hockey game between Team Kandahar and Team Canada, with the Afghani-Stanley Cup perched nearby. With teams ready and 1,000 spectators looking on, Gregg Lawless sang the national anthem, then General Hillier and his wife Joyce performed the opening face-off. General Hillier took a few shifts for Team Kandahar, wearing the captain's 'C' on his jersey.

NHL Alumni members led by their President, Mark Napier (Montreal Canadiens white sweater) joined General Rick Hillier, the Chief of Defence Staff and his wife Joyce (Canadian Forces red & white sweaters) for a photo with the Stanley Cup.
The military personnel, somewhat used to the heat and dust, fielded a different team for each of the three periods. Meantime, the former NHLers gutted it out, leaving more than a few gasping and exhausting by the end of the game. "We were really losing some guys at the end," smirked Mike Gartner. "They didn't want to go out there for their next shift any more!"

To rally Team Kandahar, Joyce Hillier got the spectators to do 'the wave.' The NHLers only hoped it would give them a slight breeze.

When the dust had settled (so to speak), the final score was 9-2 for the ex-NHLers on Team Canada. "It was really fun playing these guys and letting them know how much we and Canada support them," said Gartner.

Hockey's ultimate prize takes a seat in the immense hull of the Canadian transport aircraft nicknamed "Hercules". (Craig Campbell/HHOF)
Both Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo are hockey players going way back. Jim still plays regularly when time permits and Greg, a former netminder in the Toronto Marlboros organization, once stopped shots (or at least, tried to) from Team Canada prior to the Summit Series of 1972. Both played with the former NHLers on Team Canada. Keelor twisted his ankle at one point, and hobbled off the rink, but that night, after Lori Anna Reid and Jonas opened, Keelor and Cuddy performed a series of Blue Rodeo hits, as well as a few songs from their respective solo repertoires, to appreciative fans.

On Friday, Team Canada thumped a team of soldiers from the United States Army by an 8-2 count. Then, on Saturday, March 22, the Canadian Army fielded its 'all-star' team against the NHL squad in the heat of an Afghanistan spring. The soldiers, who had to compete against 70 aspirants for the chance to play for the team, scored a goal within seconds of the opening face-off, but Team Canada shut them down the rest of the way and emerged with a 5-1 victory, in front of spectators from all over the world.

A collection of military personnel, hockey players, musicians, and the two Keepers of the Cup join for a photo with Stanley in front of the aircraft "Canada One". (Craig Campbell/HHOF)

After four days, it was time to return to Canada for the musicians and players, but all had witnessed an episode of their action-packed lives that they will never forget. "For me, I grew up in a military family, so it was a great opportunity to be able to see these guys and say thank you," mentioned Chris Nilan.

Stu Grimson was able to condense his experience in one word: "Awesome!"

General Hillier explained how important this visit was to his troops. "This is Canada. Hockey is our passion," he said. "Troops come out of the field stressed. After showering and getting a meal, they want to come and play hockey. It's their connection to home."

Safely scrubbed and packed in its travel case, the Stanley Cup left the war fields of Afghanistan behind, wondering where the next adventure would lead.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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