KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – They came to play, and they wore pink.
In the first of five scheduled exhibition matches, Kandahar Air Field’s all-female hockey team, the Ball Busters, battled players from the National Hockey League Alumni Association in a three-period game of floor hockey March 7.
Hockey at KAF is not a new thing; regular matches are played almost nightly at the Canadian-built rink in the middle of the shopping and social area known as the Boardwalk.
The all-female team, which raises money for breast cancer research, was the brainchild of team captain, Rachel Clement, an Ontario, Canada, native.
“I was watching hockey one night and I thought ‘I really want to play but I don’t feel like I’m good enough for this team’ so I decided to start my own team for women who wanted to play but were worried they might embarrass themselves or who had no previous experience,” said Clement.
The 26-woman team had not won a game this season coming into the exhibition match but for the players, Clement said, it’s about having fun and working together. With the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8, Clement advocated women getting involved in sports and trying something new.
“I would encourage women to get involved in team sports. It’s something amazing to be part of a team, and you make such close bonds with these people,” said Clement.
This event, which pitted them against Team Canada, a group of retired NHL players with an impressive resume of Stanley Cup victories, was something the entire team had looked forward to. Hockey, Clement explained, is not just a sport in Canada but a part of the national identity.
The women in pink were true crowd favorites, but the “old-timers” quickly scored and kept the lead for the entire game, and although the women made a valiant effort to bring it to within one goal in the final minutes of play, they lost the match by a score of eight goals to nine.
“They were tough!” said Doug Risebrough, a Team Canada player. Risebrough played professional hockey for a combined total of 13 years, eight years for the Montreal Canadiens, five years for the Calgary Flames. “I think we thought we could maybe overwhelm them, but we only scored one more goal than them.”
This is Risebrough’s first visit to Afghanistan, and he said it was probably the most important thing he and the other players had ever done.
“I have played this game a long time and I knew it was special, but to come here and see how much hockey means to people – you know that hockey is important,” Risebrough said. “The overall commitment here is unbelievable. It’s heartfelt. I’m going to go back and talk to a lot of people and try to give them a sense of what I’ve touched.”
The hockey matches are part of a larger Canadian celebrity entertainment tour that features musical act Carpet Frog, comedian Tom Green and mixed martial arts fighting for the troops. Morale events such as these are a welcome reprieve from the daily stress of deployments.
“I’ve loved it. This is a lot of fun,” said U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Ryan McCrillis, 655th Transportation Company, after the game. “It’s been great to have them come out and spend some time with us. It wasn’t a real serious game and everyone has just been laughing and having a good time.”
Although McCrillis is a devout soccer fan, he said that hockey was very popular in his hometown of Portland, Maine, and the match was a great boost to his morale.
“[Events] help us to forget about the job for a little bit. It can get mundane here and this is just really nice to have,” McCrillis said.
For the women of the Ball Busters, the match will remain one of the highlights from their time in Afghanistan.
“It was a blast,” said Clement. “I’m never going to forget it.”
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