Hillier takes Stanley Cup, former NHLers to Afghanistan

Canada's chief of defence staff arrived in Afghanistan Wednesday with 19 former NHL players and the Stanley Cup.

Temperatures may be pushing 40 C, but all thoughts were on hockey in Kandahar Wednesday as Canada's chief of defence staff arrived with 19 former NHL players and the Stanley Cup.

Hockey Hall of Fame personnel put the Stanley Cup on temporary display on the landing strip after arriving at the main Kandahar base. ((CBC))

Gen. Rick Hillier arrived at the main Kandahar base with the group offormer pros, who include Bob Probert, Dave (Tiger) Williams, Ron Tugnutt,Réjean Houle and Yvon Lambert.

Along with showing off the Stanley Cup, the group plans to play a couple of ball hockey games withsome of the more than2,000 Canadian soldiers stationed at the base and get a tour of the region.

The Hercules transport plane touched down on the Kandahar airstrip Wednesday morning and a large blue case was rolled onto the sweltering tarmac.

Soldiers, hockey players and journalists clustered around as the cup was removed by its white-gloved handler. At one point, Hillier kissed his fingertips and touched the gleaming cup.

It's the first time the trophy has been in Afghanistan or a combat zone.

The trophy,originally knownas a Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, has evolved over the years since it wasfirst awarded in 1893.

The original trophy, now under glass in the Hockey Hall of Fame, was in the shape of a bowl. The trophy taken to Afghanistan is known as the Presentation Cup.

'Just have fun'

Hillier praised the hockey players for taking time out of their busy schedules to travel halfway across the world to show their support and boost morale on the base. Eight Canadian soldiers were killedin roadside bombings and one diedin an accidental falllast month.

"I think our men and women are going to appreciate it immensely," said Hillier.

"It's our duty to support our men and women over here. They've got a tough job," said ex-Toronto Maple Leafs forward Williams.

Probert, an enforcer with the Detroit Red Wings for most of his career, said they are in Afghanistan to "play a couple games of ball hockey and just have fun."

Gen. Rick Hillier, with his hand on the Stanley Cup, said the trip to Afghanistan is a 'visible sign of support' for Canadian troops. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

Playing and watching ball hockey is an important ritual for the Canadian troops in Afghanistan, with the teams playing for the Kandahar Cup, a pint-sized version of Lord Stanley's coveted trophy.

Last month, the owner of the Ottawa Senators visited the base, donating $50,000 worth of hockey gear. Eugene Melnyk brought hockey sticks, pads and jerseys for the soldiers.

Distraction from controversy

The visit takes Hillier away from the controversy swirling around Parliament Hill.

The Conservatives have been put on the defensive in the House of Commons over allegations that prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers were later tortured in Afghan custody.

Hillier and Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor have been accused of allowing the transfer of prisoners despite the risk of abuse.

The issue made headlines following the publication of sections of an internal Foreign Affairs Department report, which said the human rights situation in Afghanistan "deteriorated" last year.

With files from the Canadian Press