Canada's top soldier, musicians and former NHL players took the Stanley Cup to Canadian troops in Afghanistan Wednesday as the defence minister wrapped up an unannounced two-day tour of the area.
Gen. Rick Hillier, country rockers Blue Rodeo and a group of former hockey players met briefly with Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who left the Kandahar base Wednesday.
MacKay spent roughly three days in Afghanistan visiting with soldiers and touring Canadian-backed projects. This was MacKay's fifth trip to the country and he said he sees progress each time he visits.
"I'm seeing tremendous success when it comes to the [Afghan] army," he said. "But as far as the infrastructure, we're seeing roads built, bridges — that because of the security situation — these projects couldn't have occurred just a year ago."
MacKay visited an Afghan National Army training compound, a police station and flew out to meet with Canadian soldiers at two forward operating bases. He also viewed the construction of a road between one of the bases to an area in the Zhari district. The Canadian-funded roadwork has provided jobs for 500 Afghans.
MacKay acknowledged "incremental progress" in the security situation.
"The insurgency remains a real challenge, but you have to look at it in relative terms, you have to do a retrospective occasionally. Look at where we were five short years ago," he said.
"By North American standards there is obviously a lot of work to do. By Afghan standards, I would say they've come a long way."
Cup, hockey players arrive
As MacKay wound up his visit, the roughly 2,500 Canadians serving in Kandahar are gearing up for a ball hockey tournament later this week.
Hockey stalwarts like Mark Napier, Mike Gartner, Chris Nilan and Bob Probert are in Kandahar to greet the troops and square off on the ball-hockey rink. The NHL's top prize, the Stanley Cup, was delivered by its white-gloved handler.
"I don't know if the ball hockey will be entertainment, but we're going to have a bit of fun with the guys," said Gartner. "The idea is a morale booster for the troops, to let them know there are people back in Canada that really care a lot about what they're doing."
Hillier, who jokingly predicted the bottom-dwelling Toronto Maple Leafs would be taking the Cup home this year, said he plans to play the position of "scorer" in the tournament.
"What an incredible team Canada to bring here to show our support for our men and women," he said.
The troops will also be entertained by Blue Rodeo, Montreal rocker Jonas Tomalty and Newfoundland-born singer Lori Anna Reid.
Hillier accompanied the Cup to Afghanistan in May 2007 for a ball hockey tournament with troops and 19 former NHL players. Temperatures hovered around 40 C for those games.
The owner of the Ottawa Senators travelled to Kandahar in April 2007 with $50,000 worth of hockey gear for the troops. Eugene Melnyk brought hockey sticks, pads and jerseys.