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Hockey Night in Kandahar


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Gallery: http://www.ctv.ca/gallery/html/Kandahar_hockey_20100204/index_.html

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – "Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack!"

No bombs nor rockets — just a spectator yelling during a tight game of the Kandahar Ball Hockey League, played Monday through Friday nights at NATO's biggest military base in southern Afghanistan.

There's no ice and no puck, but no matter. Canadian troops still get their ice hockey fix — even in the middle of a war.

Occasional rocket attacks, sudden deployments and other military operations don't stop the league, which is held twice a year to match six-month stints of Canadian troops who share the base with forces from the United States, Britain and other nations.

"Canadians love their hockey," said James Stark, a Canadian goalie.

The five-a-side teams, including a goalie in helmet, leg pads, chest pads and gloves, battle with a rubber ball on a concrete-floored rink with wooden sidings in an open slab of desert surrounded by the "Boardwalk," a walkway lined with stores, coffee shops and restaurants. It's a social scene, humming with commerce, where soldiers go to relax after a day on duty in the desert.

And maybe catch a little hockey.

There are more than two dozen teams drawn from different units in the league's two divisions, some of them coed and most of them Canadian. The U.S. Marines used to have a team. The Slovaks have one. Some team names are flamboyant — "Dust Devils" and "Desert Dogs" — while others are less so. One is called "Maintenance," after the Canadian military unit that fixes equipment.

"It's fairly close, with the way the ball rolls, to ice hockey," said Master Cpl. Mike Dobson, a "Maintenance"player. "This is just something to pass the time, more than anything."

The players keep it serious. Games have two stop-time periods of 15 minutes each, so they last about 45 minutes in total. On Wednesday night, referees in white- and black-striped shirts ejected players for two minutes for a variety of offenses: roughing, high stick, sticking and "unsportsman."

One referee with a whistle jammed in his lips wore camouflage trousers and military boots.

The Canadian military gym provides the equipment — "just bring your own pair of sneakers, and your own pair of (safety) glasses," says Dobson — and the rink is about two-thirds as big as a full-size one. The current league began in November and runs through the end of March or early April. After the playoffs, the winners get a trophy and a group photo.

Goalie Stark's Desert Dogs, a team comprising Canadian civilians that provide services to their nation's military, lost a hard-fought 4-6 on Wednesday. The cool conditions, though, were a breeze compared to the intense heat that players endure during the summer league, said Stark, who has worked in Afghanistan since April 2008.

Rocket attacks on the Kandahar base, though infrequent, are a troubling sign that the Taliban can still operate on the fringes of the huge base bristling with weapons and other hardware of powerful Western militaries. If an attack happens during a hockey game, it doesn't hold up the players for long.

In fact, the teams don't even leave the rink. As the warning siren wails, they hit the floor and press themselves against the wooden sidings. Goalies aren't very mobile anyway, Stark said.

"It would be a bit of a challenge to run to a bunker with all that gear," he said. "As soon as the 'all clear,' the game picks up again and away we go."

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