'The real heroes don't wear hockey uniforms'
Tom Anselmi's voice sounded a bit ragged across the miles, a victim of the perpetual sandstorms in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
It was a reminder of the distance, not just in miles, that separates the world we inhabit here in North America, and the daily lives of the soldiers from Canada, the United States and beyond whose duties have taken them to this long-troubled country.
The executive vice president and COO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is in the midst of his fourth trip to Afghanistan in what has become the ultimate hockey road trip.
For this year's journey, Anselmi and alumni associations from the Leafs and the NHL brought along 15 former NHLers, 12 rock-and-rollers, a NASCAR driver, a bull rider and, oh yeah, something called the Stanley Cup.
Veteran Keeper of the Cup Mike Bolt told ESPN.com last week in a text message the soldiers at the Kandahar base were loving every minute with the prized hockey trophy. During the visit, the Cup sat on a table near the ball hockey rink (complete with what looked to be NHL-regulation boards) where there has been some hotly contested games. Anselmi told ESPN.com the cheering section for a game involving Slovak soldiers would have put many NHL fan clubs to shame.
Added Leafs GM Brian Burke, who made last week's trip and coached the NHLers in one of the ball hockey games, "It is awesome to be here."
"[We're] honored and proud to salute these men and women to whom we owe so much," Burke wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com. "The real heroes in the United States and Canada don't wear hockey uniforms. They wear camo, and police and firefighters' uniforms. I am thrilled to be here."
And it's that juxtaposition between the light-hearted (concerts held Thursday night in Afghanistan which apparently included some body surfing through the crowd and soldiers posing for pictures with the Cup) and the humbling (sounds of F-18s and A-10 Warthogs taking off on missions) that Anselmi said never fails to have an impact.
And there are moments, he said, that will always stay with you.
• The visitors bought coffee at the Tim Hortons on the base for the troops, dropping $400 early on the morning of their arrival (specific timing and details of the trip were not revealed for security reasons). One of the men working at the Tim's on the base is from London, Ontario, and told Anselmi, et al, about how his brother had been killed in action in Afghanistan.
• And then, there are the ramp ceremonies to honor soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. Anselmi described how thousands of soldiers at the base line up to pay their respects as the soldier is placed on a military transport for a final trip home, wherever home may be.
• A year ago, Anselmi and former NHLers Mark Napier, who is the head of the NHL Alumni Association, and Mike Pelyk, the head of the Leafs' alumni group, were asked to help escort two Canadian soldiers who had died in action back to Canada. They took part in the ramp ceremony in Kandahar and another at the Canadian Air Force base in Trenton, Ontario.
• Burke described talking to a Canadian soldier whose truck was blown apart by an IED (improvised explosive device, or makeshift bomb). "Thank you to these brave soldiers," Burke said.
"The striking thing is just the spirit of all these kids over here," Anselmi said. "They're proud Canadians or proud Americans or proud whatever."
In the beginning, the goal of the trips was to bring a little of home to the troops stationed in Afghanistan; share some hockey and some music and perhaps offer a break in their routines. Since then, the mission has been not just to share a little bit of home with the soldiers, but to also carry their messages of bravery and commitment back to North America.
"[We thought] maybe [we could] inspire them or something," Anselmi said. "When we got here, we were the ones who were inspired."