For more than a decade, Canadian soldiers like Capt. Travis Smyth stickhandled and poke-checked their way around the ball hockey rink at the Kandahar Airfield.
Now, more than two years after Canada’s official mission in Afghanistan wrapped up, the hockey rink has been disassembled and its boards are on their way back home — to be preserved at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
“When I think about it now, it seems a little bit surreal that I was playing hockey on a rink in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a war zone,” said Smyth, who spent seven months in 2010 stationed in Afghanistan with the Royal Canadian Regiment based out of Petawawa, Ont.
“It seems a little crazy, but it certainly was a great relief for the troops that got to play on it.”
The nearly regulation size rink was home to hundreds of games, including a four-on-four hockey league that had about 20 teams from Canada and squads from the United States and Slovakia.
Most teams had around 10 players, said Smyth, and the matches were “fairly competitive.”
“The Slovakian teams were really good … they had stacked their teams. They had tryouts for their teams,” Smyth recently told CBC Ottawa’s All In A Day.
“On the Canadian teams, a third of them would be really good players. And then the rest would be recreational, or no skill level at all.”
At its peak, Kandahar Airfield housed more than 50,000 people, said Smyth — and a hockey rink was a near necessity for soldiers looking for an outlet after long, hot, dangerous days under the Afghan sun.
Games were about 30 minutes long, Smyth said, and regular players would typically get in about two games a week. Visiting dignitaries and politicians would sometimes take shifts. Smyth recalled once sharing a line with former defence minister Peter MacKay.
“I was quite impressed!” Smyth said. “The guy knows how to play hockey, no doubt about it.”
In 2007, a team made up of former NHL players like Bob Probert and Ron Tugnutt travelled to Kandahar to face off against a squad of Canadian soldiers, as the Stanley Cup gleamed from the sidelines.
The pros won 7-1.
“Most soldiers would tell you they were probably working anywhere from 14 to 17 hour days for six, seven, eight months on end. So to take that 30 minutes later in the evening was something that I think troops were able to appreciate,” Smyth said.
“For that brief minute, you could set aside your mission.”
The plan now is for a portion of the rink’s boards to arrive at the Canadian War Museum by February, said Stephen Quick, the museum’s director-general.
Once the boards arrive, museum staff will first make sure they’re sturdy enough to be exhibited, Quick told CBC News.
An ‘iconic piece’
The museum will then figure out how to properly fit the story of the airfield’s hockey rink into the greater context of the Afghan War, before putting the boards on display. Part of that process, Quick said, will involve carrying out interviews with soldiers like Smyth who played on the rink.
“Each mark on that board is like a brushstroke. And each one of those brushstrokes represents some form of contact with the board, and with the lives that were there [in Afghanistan],” Quick said.
“So for us to be able to tease the history out of that, tease the stories out of that — it’s really important for us to have the iconic piece that then is kind of like the foundation for those stories.”
A Hockey Hall of Fame spokesperson told CBC News the museum would be receiving part of the rink, but no arrival or exhibition date had been set.