To wounded Canadian soldiers Mike McTeague and Denver Williams, this is the way the home front should be when their country is at war: united, supportive and playing hockey.
In a quintessential piece of Canadiana probably not witnessed in Toronto since the Second World War, one hundred men and women from the Canadian Armed Forces gathered at that city’s Air Canada Centre last Saturday night to take in an NHL game as honored guests of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey organization. The legendary Canadian sports franchise staged the event, called the Canadian Forces Appreciation Night, on Canada’s traditional hockey evening in order to show its appreciation to the troops for their tremendous efforts and sacrifices in the War on Terror.
“It’s a privilege for us, really. These men and women put their lives on the line to protect us all,” said Leafs General Manager John Ferguson. “It’s a privilege for us to say thank you in this way.”
Canadian troops fought alongside American soldiers in some of the fiercest battles in Afghanistan last year, suffering numerous casualties. Their stellar performance on the battlefield has earned them praise in the highest quarters. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, for example, called the Canadian combatants “fierce fighters.”
“The Canadian contribution to helping to build stability in Afghanistan is absolutely critical to the War on Terror,” said Rice.
Unlike in America where there is constant bickering and undermining of the administration concerning the Iraq war, no large split exists among the Canadian public concerning Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. And the twenty thousands hockey fans in attendance at the ACC proved that, welcoming the opportunity to show the troops their appreciation and support by giving them emotional and deafening rounds of applause in an evening that began with the impressive sight of four paratroopers in full combat gear rappelling down from the Centre’s rafters onto the ice.
“It was good; it was scary,” said Master Cpl. Brian Ragos, one of the paratroopers. “You could feel the energy of the crowd. It means a lot to be here.”
Mike McTeague, 19, a sapper from Orillia, Ontario, couldn’t agree more.
“It shows a lot of support for us and the troops,” said the Canadian soldier, whose damaged leg bones confine him to a wheelchair.
Nicknamed the ‘Miracle Kid’, McTeague had dozens of ball bearings penetrate his body wherever there wasn’t body armor after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint in Afghanistan last September. Miraculously, none of the projectiles killed him outright; but the young Canadian was not expected to live. Four of his comrades at the checkpoint, however, were not so lucky. They were killed, while eight other Canadian soldiers were wounded in an attack that saw an elderly man on a bicycle detonate himself.
“I remember some of the attack,” said McTeague. “We had talked to him (the suicide bomber) first, and then he came back on a bicycle. I was two to three meters away from the explosion.”
McTeague, an ardent Leaf fan whose presence at the game represented his first outing from the hospital since his wounding, says he “most likely” would go back to Afghanistan if given the opportunity.
“I say we’re making a lot of progress there,” he said. “The people are friendly. They always cheer you when you drive by and give you the thumbs-up.”
Cpl. Denver Williams, wounded in the same attack as McTeague and on crutches since then, says he remembers “everything.”
“I didn’t pass out once,” said Williams, whose left leg still hurts whenever he stands on it. “The guy came up behind me and blew himself up. I looked down and saw my leg twisted up under me. I dived into a hole and started administering self-help. Before I went into the hole, I saw my leg and said to myself: ‘I’m going to be a f…king gimp’. I knew I was going to lose the leg. But they saved it.”
Like McTeague, Williams, a native of Jamaica who came to Canada at age fifteen, says he would definitely go back to Afghanistan, calling the suicide bombers only a small group and the majority of the people friendly.
“I think I got took out of the game too early and didn’t accomplish my job,” said the Toronto resident. “I like to finish what I start.”
Unfortunately, however, for the Maple Leaf fans among the troops, the hometown team couldn’t finish what it started, losing 6-1 to the Vancouver Canucks. But Sgt. Glenn Toneguzzo, holding a Maple Leaf flag in his hand, said he wasn’t disappointed in the result, saying it was always his lifelong dream to attend a Leaf game, for which he thanks the Toronto organization.
“This is better than going to the Playboy Mansion,” he said.
Unless, of course, the Bunnies play hockey there.
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