Last week, I had the honor of traveling to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to play for our troops and their families stationed in America's oldest continuously functioning overseas base.
Established in 1903, the Naval Station currently supports the Joint Task Force that oversees the detainees captured in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. The base also provides Fleet logistical support, employs migrant operations for Cuban and Haitian refugees, and supports contingency/counter-drug operations. During my stay, I was privileged to meet members of all five services and their families, whose sacrifice protects our freedom. It was an illuminating and humbling experience, and not without its share of hockey talk.
I was flown into GITMO on a six-seat C-12 naval aircraft piloted by Lieutenant Scott Anderson and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Robert Turner. The trip took about three hours out of Fort Lauderdale and American planes are not allowed into Cuban airspace, so we were forced to fly completely around the island.
Naturally, I got to know my hosts a little bit during my visit. Lt. Anderson told me he flew P-3's in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and that he's married with two children. Given the name of my band, the subject of hockey was never far behind. It turned out that Gitmo has its fair share of avid fans.
For instance, Lt. Anderson is a Penguins fan. Favorite player: Mario Lemieux. Favorite memory: Super Mario going coast-to-coast to score against the Blackhawks in the 1991-92 Stanley Cup Final. Scott's pumped about Crosby and crew, though frustrated with the flux the franchise has suffered the last few years.
Once in Gitmo, I was given a tour of NE Gate by Corporal David Dean and his fellow marines. Corporal Dean -- known as "DD" -- hails from Dickson, Tennessee and is a fan of the Predators and the Red Wings. His favorite players: Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman. DD added that Wayne Gretzky was "patsy" during his playing days. Not a surprising sentiment from a marine who likes hockey fights. DD's fondest game memory is of a brawlfest between the Kings and Stars.
One of DD's duties is to patrol the American/Cuban border fence here. The NE Gate which was a transit point for Americans and Cuban base workers pre-Castro. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro forbade Cuban citizens to work at Gitmo with the exception of 300 who were already employed at the base. Today only three of the 300 are left, crossing through the NE gate daily.
As I made my way around, I kept running into Red Wings fans. Sergeant Tom Bui's favorite player: Steve Yzerman. Tom catches games here on the Armed Forces Network and says he enjoys the shootout but dislikes the one-point reward losing teams receive for an overtime loss. "You play to win," he says.
Tom was born in Vietnam. As a teenager, he escaped after six failed attempts and found his way to America. His best friend and roommate here is Sgt Joe Hickman, whose father was killed in the Vietnam War.
E4 Jason Kies, who recently married his girlfriend Sarah and is on his second tour in Gitmo, is yet another Red Wings fan. Favorite player: Chris Osgood. Jason's favorite memory is Detroit's double-OT win in Game 7 of the 1996 Western Conference Semifinals. He was with his father when Yzerman scored the game-winner, top corner, from just inside the blue line. Jason played some hockey in college and misses the fighting. He had the thrill of meeting Gordie Howe and has fond memories of Bob Probert and Joey Kocur.
Gitmo has two main restaurants, the Windjammer and the Baview, to go with a McDonalds and Subway. In the audience for my Bayview Patio show that night was an iguana the size of my five-year-old daughter. After the gig, I spent two hours talking hockey. First Lieutenant Dennis Widner was with his wife, E6 Kelli Widner. Her favorite hockey player is Dennis, a former center for the Bjornin Bears when he was stationed in Keflavick, Iceland. The Bears skated in a league that contained many former pros. Dennis' biggest thrill was playing with Mike McEwen who won Stanley Cups with the Islanders. His favorite team is (you guessed it) the Red Wings and he loves (yes) Stevie Y.
Note to Commissioner Bettman: Dennis is frustrated that the NHL is not on ESPN as he has a hard time finding the games.
Perhaps the biggest hockey fan in Gitmo is Captain Mark Leary, a Bruins fan who plays a bit himself. Though he has fond memories of Ray Bourque, Captain Leary's favorite players go back to the days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.
Captain Leary is also the Commanding Officer here. Last April, he cut the ribbon on a new in-line hockey rink built by MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) adjacent to the basketball courts. On Gitmo, MWR is crucial to the morale of the troops, as it is the only game in town, with weekly movies and sports leagues. I had just missed the Gitmo Extreme, which is best described as an Iron Man race through jelly fish. Craig, Jessica, and Rachel from MWR are currently looking to form a league of hockey teams.
I would like to thank Captain Leary, our servicemen, and their family members stationed in Guantanamo Bay for hosting my trip, along with the Betty Naylor of the amazing USO. It was an honor to meet and perform for you. Playing "Freedom Never Cries" on the shores of Camp America is a memory I will hold till I die. I look forward to coming back and will next time bring my blades.
I'm told Captain Leary has a serious slap shot.