The Sweater – 2007 Real Life ‘Kandahar’ Version


I found this while going through old archives of The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail

Dec. 25, 2007

Poor Major Eric Cottenoir of the Van Doos.  
 A brand new hockey sweater arrived in the mail for him Christmas Eve. But when he put it on at the hockey rink, all of his friends laughed.

Instead of sending him the red, white, and blue of the beloved Montreal Canadiens, a big Canadian clothing chain shipped him the blue-and-white of the dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs.  Maj. Cottenoir was booed the moment he put the jersey on.

It was supposed to have been a scripted Christmas photo op on the Kanadahar Air Field’s hockey rink. Instead, it played out like a modern-day version of Roch Carrier’s The Sweater — in Afghanistan.

The celebrated short story that was made into a National Film Board short, depicts the ostracism of a young boy in rural Quebec, 1946, who is forced, against his will, to wear a Leafs jersey. Eatons, the big department store of the day, sent him the wrong sweater in the mail. At the rink, all his French Canadian playmates, decked out as wannabe Maurice Richards, make a pariah of their former friend.

Plus ca change…

Eatons is no more, but thousands of dollars worth of donated hockey equipment came to Kandahar this week from the Calgary-based Forzani group (owners of the SportChek franchise). The Afghan city’s air field doubles as a military base for the Canadian Forces, who have set up a thriving hockey league in an iceless hockey rink,  near the celebrated Tim Hortons coffee franchise.

Because Canadian symbols are proliferating in this corner of Afghanistan, it’s good public relations for companies to want to be part of it. Donations of hockey equipment, and quite a bit is sent over, become “photo opportunities” — which are not generally very interesting.  

Yet something completely unscripted happened when the Canadian Forces soldiers, predominantly Quebecois in the current rotation, were asked to put on the donated NHL jerseys for the benefit of the photographers.

A couple of dozen soldiers from the Van Doos grabbed what was available. And the red, white and blue of Les Canadiens went in a flash.

Once the Habs jersey were gone, the soldiers were forced to move onto their secondary choices:  The Senators, the Canucks, the Flames… 

But the Leafs jerseys had no takers. At least not until Maj. Cottenoir pulled one out and put it on.

Once decked out in white and blue, he was hit with a hail of boos from his fellow soldiers.  

 “My son is a Maple Leafs fan. He lives in Quebec,” Maj. Cottenoir explained sheepishly. “He likes some of the players, Mats Sundin.”

The excuses fell on deaf ears.

“It’s like the battle of French and English, Canadiens and Toronto, its about many many years,  said Corporal Steve Bourdages, a Habs  fan since he was four years old.  “If you’re a Canadiens fan, you’re always hating the Maple Leafs.”

 “It’s automatic.”

Even the military’s chain of command offers no protection against ingrained hockey rivalries.

On Christmas Day, Canada’s top soldier, General Rick Hillier flew into Kanadahar to dish out turkey to his troops.

The immensely popular general from Newfoundland was cheered by all the soldiers as he thanked them for their sacrifices in the ongoing war against the Taliban. 

But even he lost the crowd, at one point. 
“Who are fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs?” Gen. Hillier, a proud Buds fan, asked during his speech.

“Boooooooooooooooooo,” roared the Van Doos, drowning out what smattering of applause there was in the mess hall. 

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