As told to: Dave Bidini
Photos courtesy JP Melville
These days, I only really ever play a rare pickup hockey game. Most recently with my kids. We’ve all got skates. A batch of sticks and a puck or two are in a handy corner of the shed.
A couple of times, my sons and I have cleared off the ice at our cabin pond, playing hockey all day, complete with bonfire. Sometimes when I am out for a walk, I just stop at the local outdoor rink and watch the folks play.
But just this past December, the link between Canada, hockey, and our international reputation as Canadians came tumbling back to me. I was browsing through an old photo album, thinking of making a Christmas gift of family memories for my wife. The album was full of pictures from my international work in poor countries; places like Tibet, Thailand, and Mali and sometimes in conflict zones like Kosovo and Azerbaijan. When I flipped to yet another page in the album, two postcards slipped out and onto the floor.
I picked them up, curious. Why would I have postcards in my old photo album? Each card had a picture of a hockey player in an action pose. The names on the bottom right of the cards were indecipherable. The signatures were in Cyrillic. The backs of the cards were also in Cyrillic. “Oh,” I thought, “Russian.” And then it kicked in, the memory of how the cards came into my possession.
Back in 2001, I scored a contract to work with internally displaced refugees in rural Azerbaijan. My placement would be in Imishli, a remote town just 15 kilometres from Iran. I left Canada mid-August. My family would follow shortly after.
The economy in Azerbaijan had collapsed after an acrimonious separation from the Soviet Union in 1991. The mountainous region between Azerbaijan and Armenia had become disputed territory, with the end result that some 30,000 people died (mostly civilians) and almost 1 million people became displaced refugees within Azerbaijan. My job was to work with the refugees and help rebuild their lives. Many of them had lost wives, husbands, children, even grandparents in the conflict.
Then on September 11, the airplanes smashed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York. By the end of the year, the USSR was gone, Russia was back on the political map, and the bombing of Afghanistan was underway.
On that night, I worked alongside close colleagues. From dusk until dawn we organized an evacuation of international staff and their families from Imishli to the capital, Baku. Eventually, we did return to work in Imishli. But we all went 24-7 on cell phones and only traveled in a convoy.
It was a pretty intense time. Unfortunately, Imishli was on the road route of clandestine, black market traders from the Middle East into eastern Europe. My family was put under 24-hour guard. Kidnappings were a concern. Further, the government of Azerbaijan had given the Baku airport to the US for refuelling planes on their bombing runs to Afghanistan. All the non-US foreigners were being “cleared of the situation,” and, as a Canadian, I lost my job. It was a sleepless year.
But when I was leaving Imishli there was a gathering of local staff – a big circle of about 100 people who had shared many intense work experiences. As we stood together, stories were told about lost family members in the slaughters in the Karabakh mountains. A few kind words were spoken about how the international members of the team had come to help. I, for myself, said nothing. There were too many tears in my eyes. As the evening drew to a close, one of the gate guards from our compound, a devout Muslim, approached me and handed me a small packet, as a going away gift.
Inside were those two hockey postcards.
I’ve had the cards with me since 2001 but the identity of the players remained a mystery. I do not read Russian. But the problem was nothing that couldn’t be solved by a quick scan of the cards and distribution by email. Over the next few days I got lots of comments back. I put two and two together, matched internet images, and discovered that I had postcards of two of the famous players on the USSR 1972 Summit Series team: Alexander Maltsev (10) and Yevgeny Mishakov (12).
There is something essentially Canadian about hockey, but it’s also a sport which we share with people all over the world. There’s something more to it than just a game. That sharing helped me in Azerbaijan, a kind of bonding that made it possible to work together for a better world. Our collective humanity was more important than conflict.
And that small gift of two hockey postcards made me realize that somebody believed in me, not because I am JP, but because I am Canadian.
DAVE BIDINI is the co-creator of ‘Slapshot Diaries’ as well as a writer/musician/columnist from Toronto and the author of 12 books.
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