By Bill Graveland

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - It's not blatantly obvious, but Hockey Night in Kandahar really does exist.

Canadian troops here are keeping track or attempting to keep track of the NHL and their teams at home.

"How are the Leafs doing?" asked one soldier recently at the forward operating base in Mas'um Ghar, in the former Taliban stronghold in the Panjwaii district.

"More importantly how are my Habs making out?" asked his patrolmate, prompting both men to laugh and joke about dropping the gloves.

The crew of an RG-31, a light armoured vehicle used here, alternates the team crest in the back of the 200 kilogram reinforced rear door between the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs - depending on who is driving.

Due to the large number of soldiers in Kandahar from Ontario, the Leafs and Senators are definite favourites.

"I'm a hockey fan - another Leaf fan," said Cpl. Laura Mills who was stating the obvious wearing a blue Leafs jersey.

"It's the Canadian team. It's the Canadian Maple Leaf," she said with a laugh while selling 50-50 tickets at a ball hockey league set up by Canadians.

"I keep up through the Internet mostly," said Sapper (Pte.) Jeff Quesnelle, 24, of Perkinsfield, Ont., who was in Kandahar for a couple of days of R&R.

"And through word of mouth sometimes where your buddy will go down to the Internet and say, hey, by the way the Leafs won 3-1 over Boston," he added.

There are a lot of Leafs fans among the Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

"Yeah, it's the real Canada's team," added Sapper Ryan Kendall, 21, of Gravenhurst, Ont. "But you don't really have a lot of time out here to keep track, it's just pretty much word of mouth when everyone else talks about it - you listen in."

That's not to say that Quesnelle isn't up to date on the Leafs season so far. At least up until the end of October.

"My sergeant's sister has been recording all the games and sending them to us on DVD. When we get a chance we always watch a game in the lav (light armoured vehicle) at night," he said. "They look pretty good - I'm at the end of October games right now."

He might want to stop watching.

The heart of hockey country at the Kandahar Airfield remains Canada House, which is a gathering place for soldiers stationed here or on leave. It also has armchairs and a big screen TV.

There are a few signs of hockey around - an Oilers banner hangs on one wall and a poster of the Stanley Cup, with all the NHL teams listed, is placed on another. A signed cardboard cutout of Don Cherry is stapled to the wall.
However, it takes the real diehards to get up and watch any of the games live. It's not uncommon for the start time to be 4:30 a.m. local time.
Cpl. Mike Poole, 51, of Vancouver was wearing his vintage Vancouver Canucks jersey as he watched the Ottawa Senators take on the New York Rangers.
"I usually come in at 6:30 in the morning before I have to go to work for 7:30. I might catch part of the game then," said Poole. "First thing in the morning on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There's a fair number in here.
"It's hard, though. We have to go to work and with the time delays it's 12-and-a-half hours in Vancouver."
According to Quesnelle, keeping tabs on one's team is an important aspect of life with the military, especially in a warzone like Afghanistan.
"I think it just gives us that much more to talk about and makes us that much closer out here because we have that common bond," said Quesnelle. "It just helps us out like anything else."

Copyright 2006 Canadian Press