Stanley Cup deployed

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

KANDAHAR -- Bad news travels fast, via whispers around the departure lounge, just as our group of NHL alumni, Canadian music stars and media boarded a plane for Afghanistan.

Another Canuck serviceman killed, the 81st so far, reminding us this wasn't an average game or gig.

We'd talked about how volunteering for this trip had been a hard-sell to some family members, who've seen the many solemn ramp ceremonies at Kandahar and Trenton and aren't 100% swayed by constant assurances of minimal risk to civilians. Hearing of the latest casualty, just as we were ushered to a stealth black military jet, you understood why they'd hugged you a little tighter at the door.

But crossing paths with the sad homecoming of Sgt. Jason Boyes gave none of the group any second thoughts at the gangway.

"Our people there need us to go even more after something such as this," said Mark Napier, head of the NHL Alumni Association and making his second tour of Kandahar.

In five years in the region, the forces have done their best to bring a touch of Canadiana to the desert. By now, you've heard they've built an NHL-sized ball hockey rink with the Tim Hortons beside it. Someone thought enough to send over a few maple leafs to add some greenery to the lounge at New Canada House, but the thick clouds of desert dust at every turn and a constant motion of military personnel and vehicles even works its way inside.

BLUE RODEO LIVE

So when Napier, Mike Gartner and Bob Probert show up in person with sticks in hand, with TSN pin-up anchor Jennifer Hedger doing the intros and Blue Rodeo headlining a concert, it means the world to those at risk outside the base helping the locals and those facing months of monotony inside the wire and concrete.

The NHLers wouldn't dream of coming all this way and not playing a little shinny, never mind the jet lag and 25C-30C heat. But the real guest of honour is the Stanley Cup, also making the long trek here a second time.

"Last year, they were still talking about it at the camp three weeks after we left," Napier said proudly. "You have to understand what big hockey fans they are. It was May and we'd heard of some soldiers from the Ottawa area who were out on a long night patrol, came in at 3:30 a.m. and instead of going to bed, went right to the TV and stayed up to watch the start of the Sens playoff game.

"They see everything in real time here, so they would also have seen Sunday's protest (against the Afghan mission) at Queen's Park while they were in action."

JONAS ON BOARD

Napier put together the lineup for this visit with Tom Anselmi, senior vice-president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, whose friendship with Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy helped convince the band to come along straight after playing the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex. Montreal rock quartet Jonas are aboard, as is Lori Anna Reid, a St. John's, Nfld., folk/pop balladeer, whose performance at the 90th anniversary celebration of Vimy Ridge so moved chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier that he invited her to sing in Kandahar.

Napier and ex-Leafs Mike Pelyk and Dave Hutchison coaxed newcomers such as Gartner, former Calgary Flame Colin Paterson and Isles' Brad Dalgarno this year, but Napier admits it takes some arm-twisting because of the distance and the safety concerns.

Anselmi recalled his first day there last May when a Taliban rocket landed on the sprawling base.

"They were showing us around, when all of a sudden, alarms went off and you could hear all these fighter jets scrambling for takeoff," Anselmi said.

Having the men and women of his command get the chance to crowd around for autographs and pictures with the stars, Hillier was pleased such a diversion could be offered, particularly after the death of Boyes.

"We wrap around each other at times like these," he said. "Hockey and music are our nation's passion and a gesture like this shows we are not forgotten."


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