The Stanley Cup was brought to Afghanistan on Wednesday in an effort to boost troop morale, after Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier said some troops are "pissed off" about the attention given to detainee abuse allegations.
"Let me just come out very frankly here: I met a variety of soldiers who are pissed off," Hillier told reporters. "They're angry that these allegations have detracted from the overall mission here."
Hillier said the sentiments didn't apply to him because he never gets "pissed off."
He addressed the issue after arriving in Kandahar with a group of former NHL players and the Stanley Cup in a show of support for Canadian troops.
It was the first time the Stanley Cup has ever been taken to a war zone.
Enforcers Bob Probert and Dave (Tiger) Williams, goaltender Ron Tugnutt and former Montreal Canadiens stars Rejean Houle and Yvon Lambert were some of the former hockey greats who made the trip to Kandahar.
The hockey legends were as eager to meet the troops as soldiers were anxious to have their pictures taken with the famous trophy. "I just want to sit down and hear some of their stories," said Probert.
"This is the cup that's coming back to Canada," Hillier said, a reference to the two Canadian teams left in the playoffs, the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks. Soldiers posed for photos and chatted with some of the players, including goaltender Ron Tugnutt, two-time Cup winner Mark Napier and Montreal Canadiens legends Rejean Houle and Yvon Lambert.
"Especially here in Afghanistan - those types of things are pretty special for us."
Hillier and the players arrived aboard a C-130 Hercules that performed a low, tight banking turn before coming in for a landing - an experience Tugnutt said he won't soon forget.
"It's a good thing I went to Disney last week with the family; it prepared me for the ride in," he said. "I went on all the big roller coasters, and that experience - plus a few Gravol - prepared me for that flight. It was very intense, actually, and (the soldiers) said, 'That was nothing'."
Tugnutt said he was thrilled to be asked to visit with the Canadians.
"When we were offered to come and do this, it was a great honour," he said. "To be able to come and experience this and meet the soldiers, it's been incredible - talking to them, hearing their stories."
Later in the day, the group travelled to Camp Nathan Smith, just outside Kandahar city, to visit with members of Canada's provincial reconstruction team, where they signed autographs and mugged for more photos.
Hillier, clearly beloved by the troops, gave another rousing address, first noting all the positive changes that had occurred since his last visit to the region in March, drawing attention to schools newly reopened in a district of the province that "was a battlefield last fall.
"The way you do your job, your professionalism, your dedication, your courage, makes it easy for me to go around Canada and say that your country needs to support you. And they do.''
Morale-boosting from the top of the command chain aside, it was otherwise hockeyhockeyhockey on this day.
Hillier drew cheers of approval by relating how U.S. air force personnel had, on Kandahar Airfield's tarmac, immediately descended on the cup for photographs. "I tell them: `I don't want you guys getting too comfortable with that damn cup now because it's coming back to Canada'."
The general, a passionate Maple Leaf fan from Newfoundland, also offered his services to either manage or coach the Toronto club, come yet another start-anew season. "I can lose seven games in October, too!''
For Tiger Williams, the one-time Leaf enforcer, this is a return Afghanistan engagement. This time he arrived in full combat fatigue kit, having bought his own uniform, rather larger in size than the uniform he wore as No. 22 in Toronto.
"It's an honour for all of us to come here and spend time with Canadian troops,'' said Williams, whose father and grandfather served in the military.
He then pointed out the parallels between soldiering and playing hockey.
"There's a lot of teamwork involved in both and accepting authority all down the line. You're only as strong as your weakest link.''
The alumni will play two ball hockey games against a Canadian soldier squad, starting this morning, with veteran broadcaster Brian Williams announcing the line-up. The ex-pros will also cook for the troops at a barbecue – a double beer ration per soldier for the special occasion.
The party of hockey players was welcomed to Kandahar by Gen. Tim Grant, commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan.
"Tens of thousands of Canadians want to pass on their best wishes to you - their prayers, their thoughts, all of which are with you, and their immense appreciation for what you're doing here in Afghanistan," Hillier told the assembled soldiers.
"Everywhere you go in the country right now ... you'll see it, that Canadians, as never before in my life or my history or my time in uniform, support you."
Napier, who won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in his rookie season in 1979 and again with the Edmonton Oilers in 1985, said their trip was turning out to be no less a thrill for the players than it was for the troops.
"When we got word they were sending Team Canada over here, we put the word out to a few of the members of our alumni association, and we got about 15 or 20 calls right away from guys wanting to come over here," Napier said
The players are set to face off Thursday morning in a ball-hockey game against a team of soldiers that Tiger Williams, for one, knows won't be easy to beat.
"These guys play for real, so it's going to be entertaining," chuckled Williams, a custom-made "Tiger" name tag on his military uniform.
"We've got Bob Probert on our side, though, so look out, you know?"
Hillier said he plans to suit up and play a shift on a line with both Williams and Probert.
Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant, the commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, said the visit would prove invaluable to the mood and morale of the soldiers, who braved 50 C temperatures Wednesday and are facing a long, hot summer ahead.
"From a morale standpoint, there is no equivalent to this," Grant said. "You can't put a price on it."