Sens owner rallies troops

HOLLY LAKE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

Eugene Melnyk's been a part of many Hockey Nights in Canada.

Now he's done Hockey Night in Kandahar.

Yesterday, the Ottawa Senators owner touched down at the Canadian soldiers' base with a giant care package of Canadiana: $50,000 worth of hockey gear and 2,500 Tim Hortons gift certificates.

Standing on an armoured vehicle in the desert sun, Melnyk joked about his willingness to do anything to sell a season's ticket. Then he got serious. "I'm your No. 1 fan ... I think you are doing a phenomenal thing out here and whatever I can do to promote you, I'm going to."

In the area after a business trip to Dubai, Melnyk toured the base and visited an open-air "rink" built by Canadian soldiers in the sand.

LOVE THEIR GAME

"It's absolutely phenomenal," Melnyk said in a conference call with reporters. "The soldiers here are very avid hockey fans. They get up at 4 in the morning to watch the games and they have a very well-organized house league."

Three nights a week, 300 players in 15 teams take turns facing off on the base. There were at least six games yesterday.

"Tonight is hockey night in Kandahar," said Melnyk.

While red Maple Leafs are painted on the boards and a Tim Hortons is nearby, the players never forget where they're playing.

"The games are 25 minutes long because of the heat," said league president Maj. Mike Hendrigan.

They're playing for the Kandahar Cup, a pint-sized version of Lord Stanley's mug. Playoffs are set for May.

Games were called off last Friday because a rocket zipped over the camp.

The soldiers, with their ratty gear, were like kids on Christmas morning when Melnyk starting hauling hockey sticks, pads and Senator jerseys out of an armoured vehicle, his makeshift sleigh.

"This is just a fantastic initiative by Mr. Melnyk," said Capt. Jim Bacon, of CFB Petawawa. "This is a great stress releaser and gets our minds on something near and dear to our hearts."

CANADA ROUTS U.S.

Before speaking with reporters back home, Melnyk watched a game between Canada and the U.S. The Canadians wore Sens jerseys while the Americans received Washington Capitals and New York Rangers gear. Canada won the game 9-0. Melnyk didn't lace up.

"They are tough cookies. They play with a very hard orange ball and they shoot very hard," the Sens owner said. "My participation was dropping the opening ball for the ceremony."

Even in Afghanistan, it seems Melnyk couldn't escape some ribbing from troops who prefer to wear the despised blue and white, but he did get Leafs fans to wear Sens jerseys during the game.

With the NHL playoffs around the corner and rhetoric about battles and war about to ramp up, Melnyk said that's dwarfed by seeing troops in a real war zone.

"It's all relative. At the end of the day (hockey) is a sport and we've got to keep that in mind ... No one wants to win more than our organization, but you've got to put the whole world into perspective and when you come here, it does put it into perspective."


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