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They Now Drop the Puck Where We Used to Drop Artillery

03/10/2012 12:01 EST | Updated 05/10/2012 05:12 EDT
NHLI via Getty Images

It's unlikely that Don Cherry has ever heard of it, even though it's the sort of thing that would appeal to his sense of history: rough, tough, no frills, no tears, and lots of guts.

It's the Imjin River Cup Memorial hockey tournament in Seoul, South Korea -- dubbed the most prestigious hockey tournament in all of northeast Asia. It's in its 12th year, and took its inspiration from Canadian soldiers in the Korean War playing hockey on the Imjin river at the front in 1952-53.

In particular, "C" and "D" companies of the 3rd Battalion Princess Pats, shared a particularly nasty position known as "The Hook" near the Imjin River, which they'd inherited from the Black Watch after a severe attack by the Chinese.

The battalion had suffered its first casualties when it was called upon to help the Black Watch in a counter-attack role to drive the Chinese off the Hook position. The two companies then took over the Hook position when the Black Watch withdrew.

I was a "D" Company platoon commander at the time, and what I remember most about the "Hook" was the ever-prevailing smell of rotting bodies, many of which were buried by shellfire in the defensive breastworks of the trenches. All were Chinese bodies, which we didn't give much of a damn about.

As winter progressed, troops in reserve built a rink on the frozen Imjin river behind our lines. Sandbags constituted the boards. First it was the Princess Pats playing, then other Canadian unit teams. At the start, there were no hockey uniforms. Players wore battle dress, no pads, no shin guards, no real equipment except skates and sticks.

But it was immensely popular. "To calm and divert soldiers in the war," is how Vince Courtenay, formerly of "C" Company remembers the hockey.

Eventually, makeshift hockey uniforms were acquired. The whole division was aware of hockey games being played under the sound of artillery fire. Maj. Gen. M.A.R. West, commanding commonwealth Division, ceremonially dropped the puck in the regimental championship game.

At one point, officers were concerned that more injuries might occur from Imjin hockey than from enemy action. In that first game, one player's leg was broken. As I say, Don Cherry would have loved it.

When the war ended and the troops came home, Imjin hockey was relegated to fading memories and a few nostalgic photos.

Then around 2000, the Canadian owner of Gecko's saloon in Itaewon, a suburb of Seoul, came across an old photo of Imjin hockey but hadn't a clue what it meant. His pal, Vince Courtenay, told him the story of Imjin River hockey in the midst of war, and the rest is history.

The owner of Geckos, Chris Damboise, an animated cartoon producer from British Columbia, was so intrigued that he wrote the regimental adjutant of the Patricias and got permission to wear the PPCLI crest on the uniforms of his hockey team -- the Gecko Glaciers.

Other teams adopted the names of Canadian regiments. Players are a mixture of Canadian expats living and working around Seoul, and Korean athletes whom they've taught to play hockey.

Enthusiasm exceeds the available talent.

Not belonging to any formal league, every year there's an invitational tournament spread over six weeks starting in April for what is now known as the Imjin River Memorial Cup.

Off season, the Cup is on permanent display in Gecko's Café in Itaewon, along with the original photo of soldiers taking time out from war to play our national game.

Interestingly, a photo of Imjin River hockey is reputed to be in one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's offices -- big hockey fan that he is. It also adorns the reception area of Senator Yonah Martin's office in Ottawa. Born in Korea, Senator Martin has become something of a patron saint to Canadian Korean war veterans.

Some are hoping to put Gecko's Café on the itinerary for reunion visits of Canadian veterans to Korea. All that's missing is a plug by Hockey Canada's Don Cherry -- the soldiers' friend -- who'd be right at home with the Gecko Glaciers.