Sport – sustains the minds and heals the souls of soldiers

Close up of faded Canadian flag that has been painted on the rink boards.
December 2016 - Hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield. Photograph provided by Greg Dempsey, First Secretary, Embassy of Canada to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

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By Captain Nicola LaMarre

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.

The Invictus Games are symbolic of the power of sport in the recovery of soldiers broken by the ravages of war and conflict. Physical and mental injuries sustained during war rob a person of the person they thought they once were. Lives are irrevocably changed. For some, sport gives meaning and purpose to those looking for a reason to go on – something to strive for.

In Toronto, at the third Invictus Games, the ability of sport to sustain a soldier through times of war met the ability of sport to re-build a soldier broken by those wars.

Falling apart, the ball hockey rink, built by Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) engineers in 2006, at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan sat all but forgotten since the CAF withdrew their forces from the region in 2014.

Today, the wood of the hockey boards is 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 is barely visible in places where it once courageously dared to defy the relentless sun in the skies above Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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 of the brave men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) however, the flag shines as brightly as it did years ago when they played floor hockey under that same blazing sun. The paint is unlikely to fade from their memories. The scuffs and scrapes are badges of honour. The rink provides a sanctuary where, for a short time, soldiers could forget the war zone around them and feel normal; feel Canadian.

“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, as he took some time to share memories of the rink with Team Canada athletes at Invictus Games 2017 in Toronto. “Seeing these boards again brings back some powerful memories” he told the group.

Also visiting Team Canada at the 2017 Invictus Games, General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff recalled his memories of the rink. “I haven’t seen these boards yet. I can almost taste the dust that was in the air. It is amazing to see these (hockey boards) here in Canada. They are a part of our history.”

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 is bittersweet. For a time, he and his friends played on the rink regularly just as they would have done back home. Playing or cheering, at the hockey rink their spirits were lifted. Sadly, he went on to explain, “The last time I saw my buddy was on that hockey rink. The next day he lost his life to an IED.” Bittersweet.

Although the group gathered around the Kandahar hockey boards is small, what is clear from the stories being told is that the hockey rink did a lot of good for the thousands who played on it or, simply cheered from the sidelines with friends. The Invictus Games are to wounded warriors what a hockey rink is to soldiers in the middle of a fight.

The name of the sport is not important. The opponent could be your friends and allies or, it could simply be that you are fighting a battle with yourself. The power of sport to sustain the mind during times of darkness and nourish the soul of the wounded endures.

There are two sections of the Kandahar floor hockey rink’s boards that were preserved and brought back to Canada. One of the sections was donated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and the other (the one brought to the Invictus Games) was donated to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa where it will soon become part of the permanent “Afghanistan” display.

 

Image gallery

  • Black and white photo of soldiers playing hockey as a crowd is gathered to watch.
  • a large group of Canadian soldiers in the stands watching a hockey game.
  • Hockey rink boards with a Canadian flag painted on them.
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