Hockey boards return to Canada

Hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield, December 2016, before a few boards were brought to Canada. Photo credit: Greg Dempsey

Hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield, December 2016, before a few boards were brought to Canada. Photo credit: Greg Dempsey

Captain Nicola LaMarre, CJOC PA ~

Sport has long been known as a vital contributor to fitness, morale and esprit de corps of troops during times of conflict. From the fabled football matches between the British and German armies on a Christmas Day during the First World War to Canadian soldiers carving a hockey rink on a frozen river in Korea.

Fast forward to 2017.

When the Canadian Armed Forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014, a well-used ball hockey rink built by Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) engineers in 2006 at Kandahar Airfield was left behind.

The wood of the hockey boards was rough, blemished with scuffs, scrapes and the tell-tale black marks left by countless jet black hockey pucks. The red paint on the Canadian Flag was barely visible in places, bleached by the relentless Afghanistan sun.

Two sections of the Kandahar floor hockey rink boards were brought back to Canada with one section donated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and the other to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa where it will become part of the permanent Afghanistan display.

Before being turned into a permanent exhibit, the War Museum brought it to the Invictus Games Athletes’ Village at the Sheraton Hotel, in Toronto. Access to see the boards was restricted to the athletes, friends and family and team coaches and support staff.

For Corporal Mimi Poulin of Team Canada, seeing the Kandahar hockey boards took her right back to Afghanistan.

“All of those chips, the worn paint, it was us, we put them there. I remember each night we would all lean against those boards to watch the game.”

For many men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces the rink provided a sanctuary where, for a short time, they could forget the war zone and feel normal.

“Even if you weren’t playing, you would walk by and see the maple leaf and it would be a brief reminder of home,” said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, when he shared his memories of the rink with Team Canada athletes at the Invictus Games. “Seeing these boards again brings back some powerful memories.”

For many veterans of CAF operations in Afghanistan, the hockey boards bring back fond memories of the games they played and the friendships they forged in the sandbox.

However, for Corporal (Retired) Jayson Nickol, seeing the Kandahar hockey boards at the Invictus Games was bittersweet. For a time, he and his friends played on the rink just as they would have done back in Canada. When playing or cheering at the hockey rink their spirits were lifted.

Sadly, he went on to say, “The last time I saw my buddy was on that hockey rink. The next day he lost his life to an IED.”

The Invictus Games are to wounded warriors what a hockey rink was to those soldiers in the middle of a fight.

The name of the sport is not important. But the power of sport to sustain the mind during times of darkness and nourish the soul of the wounded endures.

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