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HOCKEY KNIGHT IN TURKMENISTAN

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A Canuckistani puckhead failed in his attempt to bring hockey diplomacy to the secretive police state, but at least he lived to tell the tale

Had I known there were no bookstores in Turkmenistan maybe I would have said, ‘No way,’ when my wife told me she’d been offered a job there. Any nation that bans bookstores is no place for a writer.

book building

Irony is finding a building that looks like a book in a country that has no bookstores

There were other signs that the Central Asian petro state was not going to embrace me as a comrade: I am an anarchist (funarchist, actually) – whereas Turkmen authorities once jailed a young man, for a year, for organizing a flash-mob dance party. The ultra authoritarian police state, known to expats who reside there as North Korea Lite, is a vast desert where the summer temperature usually hovers around 45 degrees – whereas as I am a tree-hugging, snow-loving Canadian whose genetic roots are buried in the Finnish permafrost.

But, even at 53 years of age, I am still the bug-eyed kid on the lookout for an electrical socket with a butterknife in hand, so instead of saying, ‘No way’ to my wife on that fateful day back in March, I said, “Let’s go!” after I stopped laughing.

Minutes after my wife nervously hung up the phone to ponder whether or not she wanted to be a stranger in the strangest of lands, I flashed back four years. I was pounding away at my keyboard, listening to BBC World Service, when the word “hockey” was mentioned. The Beeb does not mention the sport very often, and when it does it usually prefaces it with the word “ice”, so as not to confuse and disappoint the legions of grass/field hockey fans who listen to “the world’s news service,” so I gasped and listened intently.

The Beeb’s intrepid reporter, Rayhan Demytrie, intrepidly reported that the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, known to expats who reside there as Birdy, had decreed that his country would become a hockey superpower, and ordered his minions to sally forth and make it so.

birdy on ice

Will President Birdy sack a cabinet minister when he discovers that he missed a great opportunity to put Turkmenistan on the international hockey map?

I was born with skates on, so the story delighted and fascinated me, but Turkmenistan was a long way away and I had many other things that delighted and fascinated me, so I thought nothing more of it at the time. But the minute my wife called back and said she had accepted the posting, my mind started to gnaw away at the BBC story. That night, at about 4 a.m., I awoke with my latest, and perhaps greatest, of absurd schemes – The TurkmeniStanley Cup.

turkice

Despite the fact that the summer temperature hovers around 45 degrees Turkmenistan’s 10,000 seat arena maintains pretty good ice.

By the time our flight touched down at Ashgabat International Airport on April 22, The TurkmeniStanley Cup had fully formed in my mad mind. Birdy is not the only world leader whose inner child dreams of hockey hegemony. Despite global warming, one might think planet Earth is turning into Planet Ice by looking at the list of nations that have joined the International Ice Hockey Federation. Nigeria and Namibia, Argentina and Armenia, Israel and Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Mongolia, Mexico and on and on the list runs. In this mad dream of mine all the world’s hockey minnows would come together every summer to compete for the ultimate prize in mighty-mite hockey – The TurkmeniStanley Cup (I do hope you’ll forgive me for repeating the name of my dream – The TurkmeniStanley Cup – repeatedly, because I am ridiculously proud of the moniker and I want it to stick in your heads forever – mwa hahaha!).

Kids in all age divisions – atom, peewee, bantam, midget, junior and senior – would compete for the TurkmeniStanley Cup.

No doubt, President Birdy’s mug would have to be carved into the mug itself. Perhaps the trophy would have shades of green to match the country’s flag. Overall, however, the TurkmeniStanley Cups would be almost identical to Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice.

The tournaments would last two weeks, giving plenty of time for the players to explore behind the veil of gas and sand, and get to know each other. Lifelong friendships would be formed, and renewed, in person and on ice, every summer. But there is so much more to The TurkmeniStaley Cup.

Even in Canada, hockey is an expensive sport. In places like Brazil, South Korea and Turkmenistan, hockey is largely a sport reserved for the offspring of the financial elite. Those silver spoon kids will, in all likelihood, become the barons of business, the captains of industry, the political powers of their countries for generations to come, so The TurkmeniStanley Cup would become a de facto act of  diplomacy. Hockey diplomacy!

brawl

Canada’s junior hockey ambassadors didn’t quite understand the meaning of hockey diplomacy when they went to the Soviet Union for the World Championships in 1986/87 and brawled with their hosts

But wait, dear reader, for there is even more to The TurkmeniStanley Cup; the all important Canuckistani angle.

I am not just another beer-bellied, armchair, powerplay quarterback. I played hockey throughout my youth. And, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good (a basketful of trophies will attest to my assertion). I won individual awards throughout my minor hockey career in the greatest hockey town on Planet Ice, Thunder Bay.

fw gardens

The Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay: Planet Ice’s Mecca.

Hockey was my life when I was a child. To this day, hockey is the only thing I am patriotic about. And while there is not much I miss about Thunder Bay, I still have dreams about playing shinny late into the cold winter nights on the Lakehead’s outdoor rinks. As I watched the Turkmen hockey championship game on TV, I realized that I could easily become the best player in the country, so I ordered a new $1000 pair of Graf (RIP) skates, a pair of $1000 Rollerblades, and started blading miles in the sweltering heat, which made the pavement soft and almost gooey.

As I bladed along Ashgabat’s  long, lonely highways I dreamed of bringing scores of Thunder Bay kids to play hockey in Turkmenistan. There would be no point in bringing the best minor hockey players from the greatest hockey town in the world to compete against the minnows of Planet Ice, so I resolved to work with old hockey friends in the Lakehead to form teams comprised of scholastic standouts who play the game, without necessarily excelling at it.

Every winter Turkmenistan’s future hockey legends would fly to Thunder Bay to play hockey as it was meant to be played – outdoors, on a pond.

pond

Would this be HockeyHalla for young Turkmen puckheads? Would they meet their first puck bunnies in those snow banks?

And still, gentle reader, there was more to my mad scheme. In addition to being a good hockey player, I was also a pretty good baseball player. A year or so ago, I received a friend request on Facebook from my Little League baseball coach, a guy named Pat McDonald. Years after I left Thunder Bay, Pat coached the AAA Bantam Kings to the Ontario Provincial Hockey Championship. The star of that team was a guy named Eric Staal, eldest of the Stall hockey brothers.

Eric won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He also won gold at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. I was convinced that Pat could get Eric, and the rest of the Staal brothers, to come to the TurkmeniStanley Cup to teach the coaches of the world’s hockey minnows how to coach their hockey minnows.

staal

Would Eric Staal have become a global hockey diplomat in Turkmenistan?

Eric Staal would certainly know Patrick Sharpe, another Thunder Bayite who has made it big in the bigs. Sharpe won three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks, and earned a Gold Medal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. Surely, I reasoned, he, too, would be willing to plunge into the Heart of Oddness to do his part for hockey diplomacy.

But who would pay for all this madness? Despite the recent global slump in petroleum prices Turkmenistan is hardly a beggar state, and the total cost of the tournament would be chump change.

chart

If Birdy wants the TurkmeniStanley Cup to happen, he can afford to pay the bulk of the costs.

In my mind’s eye, I could see Turkmenistan Airlines’ Boeing 777 200LR landing at Thunder Bay International and chartering 291 wide-eyed hockey kids, their families, and NHLers, past and present, off to an all-expenses paid adventure that none of them would ever forget.

777

Turkmenistan Airlines 777 could be the Airforce One of hockey diplomacy.

The TurkmeniStanley Cup would also host a business summit.  Companies from hockey minnow states that wanted to explore trade opportunities would converge on Ashgabat and do business while the kids were ripping up the ice. Those companies would help cover their teams’ expenses, but those expenses would also be offset by the tournament’s signature sponsor, Coca-Cola. Hockey and Coke: the two greatest things in the world on ice. Coke sells its products in every country in the world, save Cuba and North Korea, and this would be an incredible promotional vehicle for the global giant, garnering headlines the world over.

With a plan like that, even I, a bona fide political satirist whose words would strike fear and loathing into the hearts of the Turkmen political elite, would be able to convince President Birdy that the TurkmeniStanley Cup was a no brainer. Right?

The problem was, how could I, a man whose grade two report card had the words, “BRIAN HAS A PROBLEM WITH AUTHORITY”, scrawled across it, get my pitch to the authoritarian President?

problem

Maybe the author was never meant to rule Planet ice?

Canada does not maintain an embassy in Turkmenistan, but Uncle Sam is all over the place like white on snow, so my first pitch was made to the American Ambassador, Allan Mustard (no, he is not a Colonel, I did not meet him in the kitchen, and he did not have a knife, but, yes, he has heard all those jokes before), whom I met at a Sunday tailgater.

Understanding that there would have to be an American angle to the idea, I expanded it to include Thunder Bay’s sister city, Duluth Minnesota, which is 200 miles down the north shore of Lake Superior from the Lakehead. I grudgingly admit that Minnesotans are just as rabid about hockey as Canadians. Including Duluth meant that we could attempt to bring Brett Hull  – who played his collegiate hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before winning Stanley Cups with the Dallas Stars and the Detroit Red Wings, being part of the only American team to ever best Canada at a best-on-best tournament (the 1996 World Cup), and being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame – to Turkmenistan.

The Ambassador seemed amused by my idea, but he hails from Washington state, which is not exactly a hockey hot bed, so he didn’t really appreciate the brilliance of it all.

mustard

Allan Mustard, the American Ambassador to Turkmenistan, , didn’t quite grasp the gravitas of the absurd scheme.

However, the week after I happened upon Mustard, I happened upon his second in command at the US Embassy, a guy named Paul Poletes. Although he is not a puckhead, Poletes went to university in Minneapolis, so he understood the magic of it. At first, the South Dakota native was very excited about The TurkmeniStanley Cup. Sadly, my attempts to obtain a formal meeting with Poletes to explore the possibilities fell on deaf ears. Americans, even those who have lived in Minnesota, are still hockey infidels, after all, so I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised.

Not easily deterred, I the turned to the wife of one of my wife’s work colleagues.

The woman was very well connected, not only in Turkemnistan but across Asia and Europe, not only in business, but also in politics. She’d dished out baksheesh like Scott Stevens once dished out bone busting body checks. And, even though she didn’t know a hip check from a wrist shot, she loved The TurkmeniStanley Cup.

No more than a week after pitching her the idea, this beguiling woman had arranged a meeting between ourselves and Kaakbay Seiidov, the Minister of Sports.

On the morning of the scheduled meeting I attended the luxurious apartment of this mysterious woman a few hours early to run through the pitch. She had given her servants the day off, and was busy doing dishes from an extraordinary dinner party the night before.

I was slightly nervous: the only meetings I had ever had with cabinet ministers came after I had occupied their offices. Conversely, my colleague was absolutely nonchalant. So nonchalant, in fact, that she blew the Minister off… without bothering to call his office to notify them… so she could enthrall me with tales of international drama and intrigue from her fascinating life… while she washed dishes… and I drank cognac… and laughed.

The following week I was summoned to a lunch meeting with the international woman of mystery. She informed me that the Minister was not willing to meet with me, a hockey mad Canuckistani of no import. At first I feared that the Turkmen government had discovered my past when doing its due diligence, and that I, and my wife, would be labeled persona non grata and deported on the next flight. But it wasn’t so.

birdy 2

Would Birdy have sent the author packing if he’d found out that he was not who he said he was… or that he is who he says he is… or that he really isn’t sure who he says he is?

While Brian Salmi is the name I was given at birth, and the name I use publicly, I have legally changed my name twice. The Turkmen authorities had not a clue that the name is Bond. James Bond. Wait, I’ve got that all backwards – James Bond is my legal name, so the Turkmen authorities knew not that I am, in fact, Salmi. Brian Salmi.

Well, that’s not quite right, either, but never mind all that jive for now.

The Minister didn’t know, or care, who I was. He wanted nothing whatsoever to do with a man like me based solely on the photo I had submitted with my visa application. Not so long ago, it was illegal for a man to have long hair and/or a beard in Turkmenistan. Although the male cranial follicle ban has been lifted, men like me are still, evidently, not welcome in the company of the Turkmen political elite, no matter what we have to say for ourselves, no matter how glorious our ideas are, no matter how much their country could benefit from our deliciously crazy schemes.

cabinet

Will there soon be a new face at the Turkmen cabinet table?

I was tempted to ask the international woman of mystery to inform the Minister that he should never judge a book by its cover, but in a country that bans bookstores the veracity of that maxim would be totally lost in translation.

I have now given up my dream of organizing The TurkmeniStanley Cup.

beach hockey

Having failed in his effort to become the Alan Eagleson of the 21st century the author has reverted to his traditional day job: drinking beer and pounding sand

Since my wife and I have left Asia it has come to my attention that Canada’s Ambassador to Turkmenistan, John Holmes, has recently met with representatives of the Turkmen foreign ministry to discuss economic cooperation. Perhaps Ambassador Holmes will champion The TurkmeniStanley Cup one day. I do hope so, because it would be a shame to let this dream die, and surely someone, someone who is not me, can make it come true.

P.S. – For the record I do not have a problem with authority… I simply refute/ignore anyone’s preposterous claim to have any authority over my sovereign self.

Editor’s note: The author, whatever the Hell his name is, hopes to complete his new book, Hockey Knight in Turkmenistan, by Halloween.

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About zilla

i was born with skates on. i have three thumbs. i often wish i was a penguin. but i don't like fish, so maybe not.

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