The NHL on TSN's Gord Miller got a little bit of time off after the last game telecast of the season and it was time well spent. Gord accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla and Canadian Olympians Jayna Hefford and Marie-Philip Poulin on a very special visit.
I was sitting on the Prime Minister's airplane, returning from a trip that had taken us from the G8 summit in Deauville, France to state visit to Greece and a trip to Kandahar to see Canadian troops in Afghanistan. At this point, we had been flying for nearly 18 hours; I looked bad, smelled worse and the best sleep I'd had was the four hours I got on the steel floor of a cargo plane.
I wanted to change clothes, but Jarome Iginla was wearing my last pair of clean pants, while I looked on enviously as two other Canadian Olympians - Jayna Hefford and Marie-Philip Poulin of the 2010 Canadian women's hockey team - snoozed comfortably in the row in front of me.
And all I could think was that this is the most incredible road trip I've ever been on.
The call came while I was in Boston getting ready to broadcast game two of the Lightning/Bruins series for TSN. "How would you like to go to Afghanistan with Prime Minister Harper?" asked the man from the PMO.
"Sure," I answered, trying not to sound stunned. "When?" I was told that for reasons of operational security, the trip would happen on very short notice, and that I was not to discuss it with anyone, not even my family.
My playoffs were over after game four of the series, and upon returning home, I got a call from the Department of National Defence. The visit would take place on Monday, May 30. I would be going with the three Olympians and hooking up with the Prime Minister's delegation in Greece, which would mean taking an overnight flight the night before, connecting in Frankfurt and heading to Athens.
After the visit to Afghanistan, we would retrace our steps, returning to Canada late in the day Tuesday. Four days of almost continuous flying for 12 hours on the ground in Kandahar. "Sounds good to me," I said. But then came another call from the Prime Minister's Office. The commercial flights were expensive, and the Prime Minister had some open seats on his plane heading to Europe. Would I be willing to go on the whole trip? "Sure," I said. "When do we leave?"
"Wednesday morning," he said. It was Monday.
Early Wednesday morning, we met at a private hangar in Ottawa. Jayna Hefford and Marie-Philip Poulin had also agreed to come, while Iginla would join us later.
The Prime Minister's aircraft has been reconfigured from its original use as a Wardair plane (those of us old enough to remember grow misty-eyed at the very mention of that great airline). The Prime Minister has a suite in front with a sitting room and bedroom, while the rest of the plane has conventional airline seating.
Two hours into the flight, we were summoned to the forward cabin and told that the Prime Minister was inviting us to join him for lunch. The PM chatted about the upcoming summit, the trip to Greece and of course, the trip to visit the troops, his fourth since becoming Prime Minister. Most of all, he talked in depth with Jayna and Marie-Philip about their Olympic experience, recalling their games in detail.
When it was over, he returned to G8 preparations and we returned to our seats, as many passengers on the plane, still unaware of the "third leg" of the trip, wondered what on earth we were doing there.
When we landed in France, the Prime Minister was immediately whisked to his hotel in a motorcade. Our car took us to a separate hotel outside the security perimeter, which would allow us to come and go more freely.
Since Jayna and Marie-Philip had never been to Paris, I took them in for a visit on Thursday. I had spent a great deal of time there covering the 1998 World Cup soccer, so it was fun to show them all the sights.
Friday was more somber. We went to Normandy to visit Juno beach, where Canadian troops came ashore on D-Day in 1944. We also visited the Canadian Military cemetery in Beny-Sur-Mer, where more than two thousand Canadian soldiers are buried. The grounds are magnificent, and are maintained by the people in the area as an ongoing gift of gratitude to the Canadian people.
At the front of the cemetery is a marble monument with the inscription "Their name lives for evermore", an elegant and poignant statement. I would put Beny-Sur-Mer near the top of any Canadian's ‘must see' list when traveling to Europe.
On to Greece.
After narrowly avoiding a complete shutdown of every road in coastal France due to departing motorcades, we managed to join up with the PM's party again and fly to Athens, arriving late Friday night. Once again, we joined a motorcade that whisked us to our hotel in downtown Athens. A guy could get used to traveling like that.
On Saturday, Jayna, Marie-Philip and I once again went sightseeing: the acropolis, the old town of Athens, the port area and most intriguingly for them, the stadium that hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896. For the two of them, it was obviously special to go to the place where the modern games started. We decided to come back the next day and take some pictures with their gold medals.
By Sunday, Jarome Iginla had joined us. He had flown overnight from Calgary to Frankfurt, where he encountered mechanical delays that forced him to switch planes, delaying his arrival in Athens by three hours. Clearly exhausted, Jarome nonetheless wanted to come and see the stadium, and joined us for a photo shoot with the PM's personal photographer, Jason Ransom, who took some incredible shots.
We had two more items on the agenda before leaving for Afghanistan: a security briefing, followed by dinner with the PM. Suddenly, Jarome looked a little uneasy; he hadn't expected to be invited to dinner and since he was planning for the heat in Kandahar, he only had a couple of pairs of shorts and T-shirts with him.
I had an extra pair of pants I was planning to wear on the trip home, and offered to loan them to him. Jarome was worried they would be too long, while I was worried the waist would be about four inches too big around for him. The waist was a perfect fit, so I taunted Jarome about being shorter than me.
At dinner, the Prime Minister talked at length about the trip, how he would be going "outside the wire" which meant leaving the airfield in Kandahar. This time he would be going more than 50 miles off the base, further than he had ever been, despite the fact that just days before, seven American soldiers had been killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated in the field they were patrolling. They were less than 60 miles from Kandahar airfield.
The scenery from the rooftop of the restaurant was amazing, the lights of Athens glittered while the Parthenon atop the acropolis was bathed in light. The trip had been remarkable so far, but nothing could prepare us for what was to come.
The four-hour flight from Athens to Qatar was quiet, partly because by then, everyone on the plane had been briefed about where we going. In Dohar, we got off the PM's plane and boarded a C-17 transport, a behemoth of a plane that can transport everything from soldiers to supplies to tanks and armoured vehicles.
Known as a "Globemaster", the plane is designed for efficiency, not comfort. This time it had been configured with rows of seats in the middle, along with seats along the outside walls. We were warned that the four hour flight would be noisy.
As I took my seat, I noticed two soldiers seated nearby on the exterior benches. They nodded in my direction and I wandered over to say hello. When I asked their names and where they were based, they politely told me that all their personal information, including their names, regiment and location of their base was classified.
These were soldiers from Canada's special forces who would spend the entire time in the air and on the ground as part of the PM's personal protection force. A few minutes before the flight left, defence Minister Peter MacKay, who had joined us on the final leg of the trip, went over to them to say hello. When MacKay shook hands with the first soldier, the man looked him in the eye and pressed a medallion from his regiment into the minister's hand.
MacKay had just been "coined," an honour soldiers bestow on people (usually civilians) who have performed a service for the military. The Minister was clearly honoured and told me "those guys are some of the best soldiers in the world."
The flight to Kandahar took four hours, during which the mood changed dramatically. Up to then, the planes carrying the PM had been guarded by plain clothes military policemen, who often chatted amiably with us. Now, they were quietly changing into uniform, loading automatic weapons and checking sidearms. The special forces soldiers were changing into full battle gear as well, including Kevlar vests and helmets equipped with night vision goggles.
We landed in Kandahar at 10 am, and when the door to the plane opened, we were hit by a blast of heat. It was already 35C, and the day was just starting. As we came down the stairs, we were greeted by Brigadier General Dean Milner, the commander of the Canadian Kandahar Taskforce, and by General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence staff, the highest ranking person in the Canadian military.
As we waited for a van to take us to another briefing, a young soldier working on a helicopter looked up and saw us. He stared at Iginla, his eyes wide. Very few people on the base had been told we were coming.
We were then taken to a military briefing, where we were told what to do in case of a rocket or mortar attack. The briefing officer assured us that the attacks were usually unsuccessful and didn't happen very often, at which point he paused and said "although there was one yesterday…"
Iginla and I looked at each other, trying not to betray any emotion.
From there we were taken to perhaps the best known part of the base, the ball hockey rink constructed by Canadian soldiers and home to the 14-team Kandahar Hockey League, or the "tougher KHL" as the Canadians like to call it.
By then, word had spread that we were there, and soldiers and civilians on the base began streaming over. For the next two hours, Jarome, Jayna, Marie-Philip and I posed for pictures and chatted with the soldiers. It was blazing hot by then then, over 40C, but the Olympians (in far greater demand than I) never flinched, smiling all the way.
One soldier had an Iginla poster for Jarome to sign. When I saw it, I asked if he just happened to have one in his desk. "I'm in the intelligence service," he said with a wink. "I knew you were coming."
Then it was time for some ball hockey. As Jarome and the girls finished up posing for pictures, I grabbed some some gloves and a stick and joined some soldiers passing the ball around and shooting. After five minutes in that blazing heat, I made an excuse to go to the bathroom, worried that another minute on that concrete slab would lead to me being taken home in a paper cup.
Jarome, Jayna and Marie-Philip played for 15 minutes, after which time was mercifully called. We retreated to the shade of the nearby boardwalk for some cold drinks, at which point Jarome looked at me and smiled. "Dude, you're melting," he said. He was right.
From there, we toured the base, meeting the soldiers in their places of work. We saw the ordinance area, with every matter of weaponry imaginable, the engineering area where IED detection and defusing equipment is kept, and the light armoured vehicles or LAVs, which are used for the bulk of the "outside the wire" transport by Canadian troops. It was fascinating to hear about how the soldiers went about their day to day work, and they seemed proud to describe it to us.
After that it was time for a quick (and again merciful) shower, and then the start of the official events.
By then, the PM had returned from his trip outside the base and at 5pm, we met him at the monument to the 156 Canadian soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Like Beny-Sur-Mer, it is a simple but elegant tribute to the fallen, and the Prime Minister's wreath laying was another somber moment.
Then another briefing. The Prime Minister was about to make a speech to the troops, and I was asked if I would be willing to say a few words on behalf of the group, with Marie-Philip to do the same in French. We both agreed, albeit a little nervously.
We were told that there would be a couple of hundred soldiers on hand, but when we walked over, there more than a thousand crammed into a small area. The Prime Minister spoke of the mission in Afghanistan, how Canada's combat role was ending, and how a new mission - the training of Afghan soldiers and policemen - was beginning.
After a short break, we moved to a small riser, where Peter MacKay introduced me to the group and asked me to speak, with the Prime Minister standing a few steps away. I have given hundreds of speeches in my life, but this was easily the most intimidating, not because of the dignitaries on hand, but rather the soldiers. I wanted to make sure I said things the right way. Besides, most of them were heavily armed.
After introducing Jarome, Jayna and Marie-Philip, I talked about the mission to Afghanistan, and why it was important. I spoke about my friend Ace Bailey, a scout for the LA Kings who was killed aboard United Airlines flight 175 when it slammed into the World Trade Center, about how he frantically called his wife in the final moments of his life. As I finished, I looked down at a soldier standing in front of me, who nodded and gave me a thumbs up, the most gratifying response I've ever received to a speech I have given.
Marie-Philip then spoke in French, and showing amazing poise for a 20-year-old, talked about her pride in being there, and how much messages from Canadian Forces personnel had meant to the Canadian women's team leading up to the 2010 Olympics.
We only had a few hours left on the base. Hockey Canada had sent boxes of merchandise, which we passed out to the soldiers. Then we spent our remaining time chatting and posing for pictures. Jayna and Marie-Philip were a big draw with their Olympic gold medals, which they happily allowed to be touched and worn.
And off to the side was Jarome Iginla, surrounded by hundreds of people. At that point, he had been awake for more than 24 hours, was still adjusting to a 10 and a half hour time change and had been meeting people almost non-stop in the stifling heat. He never stopped smiling and never stopped making people feel good.
Many of the people who had posed for pictures with him in the afternoon had gone to the computer area and printed them off so he could sign them, and Jarome signed every one with a grin and a personal message.
Finally, it was time to go. As we went to board the plane, were greeted by General Natynczyk, Brig. General Milner and defence minister MacKay, each of whom shook my hand and pressed a medallion into my palm. Now I too had been "coined" and understood fully what it meant.
For some reason, I couldn't sleep on the C17. Finally, a young airman named Tony, who had noticed my discomfort, came over with an inflatable air mattress and laid it out on the floor. At last, I got four good hours of sleep.
There are three messages that came through loud and clear from Kandahar, messages that the people stationed there want Canadians to know.
The first is to respect the fallen. 156 Canadians have lost their lives serving their country in Afghanistan, and regardless of your feelings for the mission, that sacrifice elevates us all. As the inscription says in Beny-Sur-Mer, their name lives forever more.
The second is to take care of the wounded and injured. Thousands of Canadians have served in Afghanistan, and many have returned home with injuries, both physical and mental. Among the many excellent groups that have been formed are Soldier On (http://www.cfpsa.com/en/corporate/SoldierOn/index.asp) and Wounded Warriors (http://woundedwarriors.ca/nc/home/) both of which offer help and support, along with fundraising activities. Jarome, Jayna, Marie-Philip and I actively encourage you to support them.
And finally, there are the families of those who serve. While soldiers in the field face hardship and danger everyday, their families face the long absences and uncertainty that go with military life. For more information, go to http://www.army.forces.gc.ca/lfwa/families.asp
There are many people to thank for making a trip like the one we just went on possible. The staff at the PMO are first rate, in particular Giulia Ricciuto, who handled every detail of our logistics expertly, and put up with some of our missteps, including the part where we almost made the PM late leaving for France, and the time I accidentally walked down the stairs from the plane before the Prime Minister.
My traveling companions for the trip were splendid. Jayna Hefford and Marie-Philip Poulin are more than great athletes, they are tremendous people who represent our country and themselves with class wherever we go. I already miss their smiling faces every morning, ready for a new adventure.
As for Jarome Iginla, it speaks volumes that he is the first active NHL player a travel to Afghanistan, which meant the world to the men and women stationed there. And he even offered to have my pants dry-cleaned and shipped to me.
But most of all, thanks to the men and women serving in the Canadian Forces. For nearly a decade, under trying and difficult conditions, you have served your country and the cause of freedom well. We will never forget those who have fallen, will continue to make sure the wounded and injured are cared for, and wish you happiness and health as you return home to the warm embrace of your loved ones.