You don't get much farther from Vancouver than the dusty fields of Kandahar.
Though it's winter, temperatures here topped 20 degrees under overcast skies Sunday. Most of the sports capturing attention during the Winter Games wouldn't be recognized in Kandahar - asked by The Globe and Mail whether he knew the Olympics were this month, the city's sports minister confessed recently he didn't.
But don't tell that to Canadian and American troops based at Kandahar Air Field, the hub of the coalition's military operations in southern Afghanistan.
Starved for a little Olympic action, both countries hit the cement Sunday afternoon in a ball hockey game pegged on tonight's preliminary round match between the Canadian and American men's teams in Vancouver, which will air just after 5 a.m. local time Monday.
Though a long way from Vancouver, the result of the four-on-four game at KAF bodes well for Canada - a 16-2 win, or an "ass whooping" as one American soldier called it.
We're just going to trash the Americans...We're not here to play. We're here to win. It's as simple as that. Canada's Brigadier General Daniel Ménard
"They didn't score over 20 goals, so that's good," laughed U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jeremy Patelzick, an American forward. "For what we had, we did well."
The game was a weekend highlight of KAF's sparse social calendar. In the works for over a week, Sunday afternoon's game at KAF drew over 500 spectators who crowded around a Canadian-built rink in the centre of the massive base's boardwalk market area. A Molson Canadian banner in the corner declared it "Hockey Night in Kandahar," while the soundtrack featured all the music staples (Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me," and AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" among them) of any rink in Canada.
Canadian soldiers made up the vast majority of the crowd, many holding flags and signs cheering their team on.
"I feel like a Canadian stereotype," said Lieutenant (Navy) Neil King, who was wearing a Canada jersey, holding a Canadian flag, and drinking a Tim Hortons coffee while sitting on a yellow utility truck that had a large Canadian flag hung off it.
"Just the atmosphere here. It's always good to see the Canadians take on the Americans," Lt. King said, before - in true Canadian fashion - politely tip-toeing through his prediction of a lopsided affair. "You know they've got a decent team, but not quite to the level of the Canadians. So, I'm expecting, you know, quite a few goals on our side."
Two top commanders, Canada's Brigadier General Daniel Ménard and American General Ben Hodges, came to drop the puck, and weren't as shy in their pre-game smack talk.
"We're just going to trash the Americans," a smiling Brig.-Gen. Ménard said, joking that between the Canadian team and crowd only "one or two" soldiers were actually left in the field - none of them decent hockey players.
"We're not here to play. We're here to win. It's as simple as that."
Though the American squad was put together at the last minute with some players who only started playing the game a year ago - some kept their sticks in a golf bag - Gen. Hodges wasn't backing away.
"That big smile on General Ménard's face, you'd better take a picture of it now because it won't be there in about an hour, alright?," he said. "How hard can it be? I mean, you chase a ball around and hit it with a stick."
About a minute in, Canadian Yannick Imbeault opened the scoring on a breakaway, getting the American goalie to commit before switching to his backhand and burying the puck. It was the start of a big period - Canada was up 8-0 at the break - and of a big game for Mr. Imbeault, who finished with a hat trick. Within minutes, it was 2-0 on a goal from half ("Wow'd you see that?" quipped American Colonel Mark Murray, who commands the Americans serving in Task Force Kandahar), then 3-0, and 4-0 on a rebound goal by the Canadians.
"Hey, this is for three periods right? Our superior numbers don't start mattering until the end of the second period," Gen. Hodges proclaimed.
Canada drew its players from about two dozen Canadian teams in the base's ball hockey league, which is almost entirely made up of Canadians. All were men.
American Marine Rene Garcia, who put together the American squad, said only nine or 10 people came to their first one-hour practice. Eventually, they recruited a ragtag crew of just over 20 players, including one woman, Second Lieutenant Sara Merchanthouse.
"We've got people who have just been playing for a year, and those that have maybe 12 years of experience, but not constant, just on and off," the marine said before the game. "Hopefully we can run, and keep them [the Canadians]busy."
America got its first goal to open the second period, closing the score to 8-1 and prompting chants of "USA" from its bench. But the Canadians kept running up the score, drawing their own chants even when the ball was deflected out of the rink and straight into an American flag being held by some American spectators.
"There were four of them [American fans in total] I think. One of them made the best save of the game with his flag," Canadian spectator Sergeant Barb Anderson quipped after the game.
It was 13-1 after the second 15-minute period.
"This ain't over 'til it's over," Col. Murray said. "Did you see the Miracle on Ice? 1980? Against the Russians?"
He began barking orders at the players.
"We're not playing with any hostility," he yelled. "Why not?"
The game's only penalty came in the third period, against a Canadian. It didn't matter, as the only goal scored during it was a shorthanded one by Canadian Dave Gagliano, who had two during the game. It was the last of the game.
Canadians Jeff Manz and Jody Noseworthy finished with four goals each, while Chuck Bruyea, Shawn Denesha and Jesse Laprade had one each.
"Really good sportsmanship on both sides, all the fans were happy on both sides, so I'm really happy it turned out this well," Private Denesha said after the game.
One of America's two goals came from 45-year-old Colonel Brian Drinkwine, the self-described elder statesman of the team.
"I had to prove myself in front of these young fellers here," Col. Drinkwine said with a smile. "They may have a step or two on me in the legs, but I've still got a shot here... It was great to see. Glad I had a couple moments to come out and play. Now, get back to work."
After the game, the teams shook hands to cheers from the crowd, which included Sgt. Anderson, who wore one of the new Canadian jerseys and held an Afghan-made Canadian flag that read "Kandahar 2010" under the maple leaf.
"It's a nice break for us, a little bit of what's going on back in North America and what the rest of Canadians are thinking about right now," she said. "Canada came to win. The U.S. came to play ball hockey."Report Typo/Error