One day, Fort Wayne native Rocco Fiato was walking around his workplace when he decided to try something really different. He's starting a hockey league in a desert.
It's not as strange as it sounds, because Fiato, 25, is a United States Air Force staff sergeant out of Fort Wayne's 122nd Fighter Wing serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Recently, he ordered almost $9,000 worth of equipment from Komet Kuarters, including 120 jerseys, 100 sticks, 24 pucks, 25 street hockey balls and goaltender equipment.
"The hockey league was an idea that was previously initiated from Canadian players when they were stationed here a couple years ago," Fiato said in an email. "I have played hockey since my mom put me on skates when I was 3 years old. I grew up loving the sport and playing hockey in Fort Wayne my whole life."
The circuit, which is called the Kandahar Hockey League or KHL, was previously started in 2006 when Canadians built a half-sized rink. The league folded when the Canadians left and the equipment started to fall apart without being replaced.
"We've been diligently working back and forth on this for 30 days," Komet Kuarters owner Bill Franke said. "We had to comply with all of these Pentagon/NATO regulations. We had to provide all kinds of additional information before we had a done deal. They did a little investigating and shopping themselves, and they found out we are very competitive with our prices."
Staff Sgt. Jacob Bowen, an East Noble graduate, will serve as the league's program manager and schedule coordinator.
The 12 players per team wear gloves and shin pads, and the goaltender wears regular gear, including a mask. Each team uses two forwards and one defenseman at a time, along with a goaltender.
"Playing hockey out here is not like playing back home," Fiato said. "The air is filled with contaminants and the smell of the burn pit from burning trash. All in all, it is not too bad because you get used to breathing in the non-fresh air and you adjust to the deployed environment just like any new environment you enter. Your body gets used to its surroundings, and you have to adapt and overcome in order to just play the game and do what you enjoy. It's all worth it!"
Fiato said the daytime temperatures in Kandahar right now are in the mid 60s to low 70s. The temperature drops to freezing some nights, but that just makes the hockey rink feel normal, he said.
Besides giving the service members something to do while they are not working, playing sports helps them adjust to the climate. During the 2008 Olympics, the Canadians hosted a tournament that included 16 teams representing eight countries.
"I needed something to get my mind off the every-day stressors of war, and the constant day-to-day grind," Fiato said. "I initiated a bid sheet that was submitted (to) morale services on base. After a quote was obtained from Komet Kuarters, the bid sheet was approved. I utilized public affairs, first sergeants and flyers to help recruit players."
Fiato's idea is that the league will last three or four months. He started the process of ordering equipment and such in November, but going through military channels takes time. Franke has been trying to work out a deal to cut down the cost of shipping all the equipment to Afghanistan so the project can stay under budget.
"The Canadians left some gear here, but not enough to utilize for the whole league," Fiato said. "I knew in order to get this thing started we needed funding because many players do not want to have to spend a ton of money on equipment and then ship it home once the season is done."