The moustache has landed

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

KANDAHAR -- He stood in the hazy light, the night air still thick with the sand and grit of the storm that had raged over what they call the Boardwalk here, the gathering place of coalition forces where a hockey rink is the centrepiece.

Lanny McDonald stood with his back to the chain-link fencing that sat atop the boards at one end of the cement rink, underneath the Canadian flag which is hung from the top of the fence, the flag now pressed against the fence by the wind. The Hall of Famer was pressed by the throng of soldiers and players and fans who waited patiently for an autograph.

This was well after Team Canada, a group of NHL Alumni who have come here for a third-straight year, had played a ball hockey game against a crack group of Canadian soldiers, another event to bring a bit of home to the Canadian men and women posted at Kandahar Air Field or those seeking respite from life "outside the wire."

SIGNED HOCKEY CARD

"I remember the night Darryl Sittler had 10 points," said one soldier as McDonald signed yet another hockey card.

"I carried him," said McDonald with a wink.

"How many assists you have that night, Lanny?" asked the fan.

"Uhmm, 12," teased McDonald, then turning sincere. "I had four points and I talk to Darryl probably once a week."

It has played out well over 100 times since Team Canada landed here late Sunday night, dropping out of the night sky in a Hercules aircraft, ending a 20-hour travel day that started in Ottawa.

The visit by Team Canada here is becoming a tradition, a chance for the NHLers to show support for our armed forces. But a legitimate question has arisen: Who appreciates the experience more, those being visited or those doing the visiting?

There is no question who the star of this Team Canada is, a 56-year-old with a trademark moustache and a Hall of Fame legacy that strikes a chord with people here, some of whom weren't even born when he played his last NHL game, and scored his last NHL goal, which won the Calgary Flames the Cup in 1989.

"I think that moustache is as famous as he is. Maybe even more," said young Cpl. Joe Slade, a vehicle technician based out of Petawawa who was on hand to show off some of the Canadian Forces equipment to an admiring Team Canada Monday morning.

"It might sound corny, but I wanted to pinch myself," said Cpl. Rikk Lewis of Eastern Passage, N.S., a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, after talking to McDonald. "I got choked up when he scored his 500th goal. It was the third-to-last game of the season and I liked him because he had played for the Leafs. I cheered for the Flames that year because of him."

McDonald, a rookie on this Team Canada, has joined NHL alumni Dave "Tiger" Williams, former Senators goaltenders Ron Tugnutt and Mark LaForest, Mark Napier, Perry Berezan, Mike Pelyk, Troy Crowder, Larry Patey, Colin Patterson, Neil Labatte and Ed Staniowski, meeting the troops and sharing a few moments.

It might be after a game like last night's (the second of two on the day for Team Canada), over meals or crossing paths at Canada House. The alumni will play a couple of games a day through tomorrow and Ottawa singer Amanda Rheaume and Canadian recording stars Glass Tiger will put on a concert tomorrow night.

McDonald's star power here is unmistakable, almost 20 years after playing his last NHL game.

He has been touched by it, but is no less forthcoming in his admiration for the men and women working here.

Sunday night after we arrived here, McDonald, a couple of other NHLers and members of Glass Tiger shared some pizza at Canada House, the gathering place for Canadians with a totem pole standing sentry out front.

McDonald talked about what he had heard about Team Canada's visits here and the profound effect they have on the ex-players, like Patterson, a former Flames' teammate of McDonald's.

"Colin Patterson and Tiger have been telling me, 'Lanny, you've got to do this,'

When (Patterson) asked if I was interested, I said, 'absolutely.' Look what they do for our country and the world. It's pretty friggin' unbelievable. Just being here for 24 hours, it's amazing to see how proud they are of what they are doing. There's a phenomenal sense of pride.

"I just admire what they're doing. They're under tremendous pressure every day, every minute. If we can have a little bit of fun, tell some stories ... as good as it is for the soldiers, you'll walk away a different person by being here."

As he spoke, a man walked up to our table and asked for an autograph.

WANTED TO SHAKE HAND

"I just wanted to shake this man's hand," said A.J. Clark, serving here out of Petawawa. "It's going to be a pleasure to tell my dad I met you."

Later, as we over a gravel road in the inky blackness back to our quarters, McDonald chuckled when asked about his unflagging popularity.

"Yeah, except now it's people telling me, 'you were my grandmother's favourite player. She's 92,'" said McDonald.

Despite playing on a knee that required surgery for a torn meniscus and cartilege just two months ago, he scored the first goal in Team Canada's 11-2 win over a team from Tactical Air Control Party yesterday.

"He definitely plays to the crowd, he's a showman," said Vancouver's Kael "Kato" Rennie of the TACP team. "But he's a classy guy and it hurts me to say that because I'm a Canucks fan."

After last night's game -- a 5-2 loss to a combined team, the first game the NHL alumni have lost over here in 14 games over three years -- Jo-Anne Bisson, an Ottawa native wearing a Senators sweater who was behind the bench of the winners, buzzed around the cement rink collecting autographs.

"What does this mean to us? It means the world," said the administrator at Land Equipment Maintenance Support.

"For them to take time out of their busy schedules? It means more to us. I've been looking forward to this for so long. Where else could they go where they can make a difference for each and every single person?

"From us to them, 'thank you.' "

CHRIS.STEVENSON@SUNMEDIA.CA


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