Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Canadian Hockey Boards Removed from KAF

By: Matthew Fisher, The National Post 

The iconic Canadian ball hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield, its boards adorned with faded Maple Leaf flags, has been dismantled.

A dozen Canadian embassy staff, including Ambassador Ken Neufeld and a few soldiers, played a final game of shinny last week on the concrete slab in the infield of the airfield’s boardwalk before U.S. army engineers helped take down the boards.

Image result for The faded boards from the Kandahar Airfield
The faded boards from the Kandahar Airfield hockey rink are headed to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and possibly the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
“I gotta say, it was a lot of fun,” Neufeld said. “But it was emotional, too.”

A Canadian soldier on his fourth tour in Afghanistan, who asked that his name not be published because of the sensitive nature of his current work, said that “to be part of the ceremony and bring those boards back, it felt like a healthy closing of a chapter.

“Strange to think we were playing hockey in the desert but there we were. It was a very positive experience. We sweated blood and tears for that place. It will always be part of me.”

The boards of the rink are to be flown to CFB Trenton to eventually be put on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. There have also been discussions about exhibiting some of the mementos at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

At the peak of the Kandahar mission, the rink was home to a highly competitive ball hockey league comprising 24 teams. Two of them were from Slovakia, one was from the U.S. and the other 21 teams were from Canada.

The rink also hosted visits from such hockey stars as Jarome Iginla, Guy Lafleur and Tiger Williams as well as the Stanley Cup.

“I am not aware of a single Canadian soldier who did not stop at the rink when they passed through Kandahar on their way to and from the battlefield. It was a touchstone,” said Howard Coombs, a Royal Military College professor who visited Kandahar in 2004 and spent nearly a year there in 2010-11 as an adviser to the last rotation of troops in Task Force Afghanistan.

Canadians served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. During the years in Kandahar, the ball hockey rink became a social focal point and a cathartic oasis for Canadian troops fighting in the Taliban heartland.

The rink was completed in late 2006, and was mostly the work of Canadian engineers volunteering days off or evenings to build it.

Kandahar was not the first place where Canadian soldiers fighting overseas have found time to indulge the national passion. Soldiers from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos) played on the frozen Imjin River during the Korean War. Before that Canadian troops played hockey in Europe during both world wars.

“The men and women who played hockey in Afghanistan represent the continuation of this tradition,” said Stephen Quick, director general of the Canadian War Museum. “The boards from the rink at the Kandahar Airfield will help tell that story.”

The Canadian troops and their gear were hauled out of Kandahar when the combat mission ended in July, 2011. Since then, the U.S. has sharply reduced the number of forces that it has in Afghanistan. The rink has not been used for hockey for some time. With a net set up at centre ice, it had been converted into a makeshift tennis court.

As well as repatriating the hockey boards from Kandahar, Ambassador Neufeld was in the city to meet the provincial governor and to check on Canadian-funded training for Afghan female police officers.

The Trudeau government pledged to spend $465 million in Afghanistan between 2017 and 2020. About $90 million of that money will go to Afghan security forces.

The Taliban has retaken much of the territory that it lost to NATO forces since Canadian combat forces left Afghanistan five years ago, but Kandahar remains relatively calm.