The Toronto Maple Leafs’ connection with the Canadian military is real, strong and long.
Franchise founder Conn Smythe served in two World Wars. Leaf legends Turk Broda and Syl Apps interrupted their careers to serve their country. When Brian Burke was the president and general manager he made all kinds of gestures to revitalize the ties that so-long bound Canada’s foremost hockey franchise with its armed services.
The gestures are always meaningful, but it’s hard to imagine in recent times when the connection will be more poignant than Saturday night.
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The Leafs will host the Boston Bruins on Hockey Night in Canada, the first gathering of the nation’s hockey congregation after a week in which Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was killed in a targeted hit-and-run attack in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Quebec and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was murdered on the steps of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the shadow of Parliament. Both deaths are considered acts of terrorism with Canadian soldiers as targets.
The three Canadian NHL teams playing in the early games – Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa -- are planning a joint tribute pre-game to Cirillo, the 24-year-old reservist from Hamilton who was part of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders of Hamilton and Vincent, an airmen.
It will no doubt be moving. It represents a rare opportunity for millions of Canadians to reflect on a pair of excruciating events, in particular Wednesday’s shooting which resonates both for its powerful symbolism and the smallest details – in Cirillo’s case a six-year-old boy who will be growing up without his big, rugged Dad; a picture of two very sad pups now without a loving owner. Meanwhile, Vincent leaves a sister without her twin.
Three soldiers will be stand-ins for a nation’s grief during the ceremony. One of them is Capt. Ron Frobel of 8 Wing in nearby Trenton, Ont. He first enlisted in 1982, long enough to have served both in the former East Germany during the Cold War and to have had two tours in Afghanistan post 9/11.
The 27-year veteran was going to be at the game anyway to be honoured as one of Lupe’s Troops – the program sponsored by Leafs forward Joffery Lupul where a selected member of the armed forces is a guest at every home game; their service resume read aloud by ACC announcer Andy Frost. With the events of the past week the program has been understandably expanded.
Even in normal circumstances they can be moving tributes as the spotlight finds a previously anonymous soldier who suddenly finds themselves basking in the warmth of 19,000 people recognizing them for what they have always done without acclaim.
“It gets you down to the roots,” says Master Warrant Officer Mardie Reyes of the 7th Toronto Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, who was honoured at the Leafs season opener on October 8th. “ I wish there were words to explain the feelings that I felt during that brief moment of recognition, just to know our work, our sacrifices -- our family’s sacrifices -- are appreciated throughout the country. It hits home.”
On Saturday it will hit home with everyone watching, as the nation gathers to recognize a soldier who lived to serve our country and was targeted and killed while volunteering to guard one of our country’s most meaningful touchstones, and another who was simply run down in a parking lot for wearing his uniform.
“[The deaths] hit me hard, said Reyes, who will be watching the Leafs-Bruins games with his peers at their base Saturday night. “It almost brought back that same feeling I used to feel when I was over in Afghanistan, repatriating brothers-in-arms at those ramp ceremonies, It hit me hard.”
“We all have that belief that no one deserves to die unnecessarily,” said Reyes. “And over there, knowing at any time you can go. It puts a lot of stressors on you, but something like this, close to Remembrance Day, at of all places the War Memorial? Who would have thought, you know what I mean?"
By fate, Capt. Frobel will be the vessel for emotions that will likely come pouring out buckets. He’s thrilled to be at the game anyway – he became a Leafs fan in 1967, and has been “bleeding blue and white since it was woolen,” he says. "I never give up."
But now he’s on a mission, and it's much bigger than the Leafs game. It's about the Maple Leaf.
“I won’t know until I stand in front of a Canadian flag and salute it what I’ll feel,” he says. “I’ve welled a number of tears for soldiers I didn’t know personally but share the same passion for serving our country. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I hope I stand true, I hope I don’t shake. I hope I don’t cry. But there will be sorrow.”
In the forces they have a saying: don’t cry in front of the troops; a soldier cries alone.
Not this Saturday night. Not on Hockey Night.