KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Don Cherry doesn’t know it yet, but his well-known support for the Canadian Forces over the years has earned him a rare souvenir: a custom-made hockey jersey worn on the dusty battlefields of southern Afghanistan.
Capt. Steven Defer was as far from an ice rink as one can get when he decided to have a military fatigue-style jersey designed to expresas the army’s gratitude to a select few Canadians.
Last fall, while at a forward operating base in Sperwan Ghar west of Kandahar city, the padre was wrestling with ways to lift the spirits of battle-weary soldiers while recognizing the support the military receives back home.
“What I wanted to do was to come up with an idea that got our soldiers to think about our nation before they came home,” Defer said.
He was in a colleague’s room that was adorned with hockey jerseys, “kind of like pretty much every other den that any (hockey) fan has,” when he came up with the idea.
From across the growing expanse of Kandahar Airfield, Defer collected discarded scraps of camouflage netting — formerly used to cover windows, buildings and tents — and stuffed them into a garbage bag.
He hauled the bag to Neil Wall and Tommy Burke, two Canadian corporals who are as proficient with a needle and thread as they are with a C7 service rifle.
From Defer’s heap of fabric they created four beige and brown hockey jerseys, each with a maple leaf stitched on the chest.
They mimic the fatigues Canadian Forces personnel wear in the desert terrain of Afghanistan.
For a five-week period from February to March, the jerseys were worn by soldiers in every company, squadron, battery, platoon and section within the Task Force 3-09 Battle Group’s area of operations in Kandahar province.
“They put them on in a way that met the needs of the chain of command and they draped them over their trucks as flags, stuff like that,” Defer said. One group even wore them while clearing a route of improvised explosive devices, he added.
“In a sense, these jerseys are our game jerseys.”
Defer canvassed members of the battle group to determine who should get a jersey. One name was unanimous.
“You couldn’t go to a section in this battle group and not have Don Cherry’s name mentioned,” Defer said.
Mixed-martial arts superstar Georges St-Pierre was also chosen because many soldiers admired his raw athletic ability, he said.
Apparently, his rugged build didn’t hurt either.
“Whenever you mention his name, it seems the ladies in the battle group, or many of them at least, seemed to have an affinity for that,” Defer said.
New Brunswick country musician Julian Austin, who has performed for troops stationed in Afghanistan, will also get a jersey. The remaining one will go to the Museum of the Regiments in Calgary.
The jerseys have been signed by high-ranking soldiers in the battle group. Defer said he has yet to notify Cherry, St-Pierre and Austin of their new keepsakes.
“I hope . . . they appreciate how much the soldiers of this battle group wanted them to have these.”