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  • Courtesy Rocco Fiato, left, a member of the 122nd Fighter Wing stationed at the airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan, helped re-start a hockey league on an old rink. Lt. Col. Tad Clark, right, was one of Fiato's commanders in Kandahar.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 1:00 am

Comfort of home: Playing hockey during deployment

Local airman starts Afghanistan league

Josh Patterson | For The Journal Gazette

Playing hockey in the middle of Afghanistan presents several logistical challenges. Rocco Fiato found a way.

While on deployment back in 2012 as a member of the 122nd Fighter Wing stationed at the airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Fiato found an old rink that had fallen into disrepair.

“They had the rink there, but no one ever used it,” Fiato said. “The goals were all broken down, but I started playing on it.”

As Fiato continued his time on base, he learned some of the history behind the rink.

The Kandahar airbase served as home for upwards of 35,000 soldiers in the mid-2000s, including a sizable contingent from Canada.

Several Canadian soldiers worked to construct the rink, volunteering time during off days to complete the project in 2006. The rink proved very popular, with as many as 24 teams playing in a league at its height of popularity.

A number of renowned NHL players, among them Jarome Iginla, Guy Lafleur and Tiger Williams, also visited the rink, and the Stanley Cup even made a visit.

As time went on and the need for Canadian soldiers on the base waned, so did interest in the league, which stopped playing in 2010.

Still, an idea popped into Fiato's head. Having grown up as a fan of the Komets, the rink presented a way to bring some of the comforts of home to the middle of a war zone. And even though it wasn't ice, the boards still existed and the foundation was there to re-create some of those memories from his youth despite being stationed thousands of miles from Fort Wayne.

“I approached an Air Force captain and I said 'Hey, can we get some gear? What do we need to do?'” Fiato said.

Initially, Fiato's plan was small – get a few sticks, a couple of street pucks, so he and some of his fellow troops could play pick-up games. The captain – who had a Canadian parent and remembered the league's popularity – had a different idea.

“He said if it was for morale and welfare purposes, you can try to get a contract, and you should try to get the maximum ($10,000),” Fiato said. “We drew up the contract and went through all the channels, and they signed off on it.”

Cash in hand, Fiato then turned to Komet Kuarters to place his order – 100 sticks, 100 jerseys (with the Komets logo), two new goals, street pucks, even new goalie equipment.

“They didn't mind that we used the (Komets) logo,” Fiato said. “They also sent us a bunch of free T-shirts in a care package.”

This league iteration grew to about eight teams, though the nature of rapidly changing assignments from the military coupled with a steady, significant reduction in troops at the airbase prevented the league from growing larger.

Soldiers continued playing even after Fiato's deployment ended, but the rink was eventually disassembled in 2016. Some rink boards, emblazoned with the red Canadian maple leaf – though a bit faded and scuffed up from a decade or so of use – have since made their way to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

That ensures the good times spent on that rink, on an airbase in Afghanistan, will be remembered forever. With another deployment upcoming for Fiato, he'll reminisce about the old rink as well.

“It was a good stress reliever,” Fiato said. “Even when we weren't playing league games, I'd go out there and skate around and shoot the puck. It was definitely nice.”