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What do Lviv, Ukraine, and Marseille, France have in common?
Edmonton Eskimos safety Neil King and his older brother and teamate, long-snapper Ryan King, visited members of the Canadian Armed Forces at both locations as part of a morale-boosting tour by CFL players and personnel in late April/early May. They checked out a military base in Ukraine and had a tour on a frigate docked at the French port.
“To just experience how influential we are around the world … was pretty eye-opening,” said Neil, who also found it interesting “to step into their world and experience how (the soldiers and sailors) go throughout their day-to-day activities.”
The tour was organized by the Canadian Forces. There were two players from each of the nine CFL teams in the travel party of roughly 25 to 30 people, including Canadian country music singer Dallas Smith, who flew out of Ottawa on the prime minister’s plane. Upon landing in Lviv, the group received a tour of the city and took an hour-long bus ride out to the military base on Day 2.
“We had a lot of early mornings and late nights,” said Ryan, who was also part of a similar tour last year along with Edmonton kicker Sean Whyte and Eskimos president and CEO Len Rhodes, two other CFL players and several former NHL players. “We felt safe everywhere we went because we were with the military.”
Both King brothers listed the chance to talk with military personnel serving Canada abroad among the highlights of the trip.
”A lot of them were sent from Edmonton so it was pretty cool to have that connection with them,” said Neil.
“They have to sacrifice a lot so the Canadian military tries to bring personalities over there or a band or comedian or whatever the case is,” Ryan said. “They’re deployed anywhere between eight to 12 months. They’re away from their families, their friends. They’re in some pretty unique living conditions overseas and it’s not like what anyone here would be living in.”
At Lviv, tables were set up displaying weapons, body armour and the typical day-to-day gear the soldiers wear. During the tour of the base, Neil was shocked by the lack of space in the living quarters.
“It was bunk beds and you’ve got a couple of spaces on your rack where you could hang your military clothes and that was about it,” he said. “Generally, there were 12 people per room. You have a little shade (on your bunk bed) that you close and that’s all the personal space you have.”
Space was even tighter on the battleship, with three beds stacked on top of each other instead of just two. “The top bunk was pretty much right on top of you,” Neil said.
The football players organized a two-hour football clinic for the soldiers at Lviv. Neil noticed some really good athletes, but not necessary great football players.
“It was cool to see both men and women participate in the games that we had,” Ryan said. “They’re very passionate about what they do. They’re very dedicated in their sport and their skill. They’re very team-oriented people.
“They’re going to fall down and get up and do it again. … They did a great job of adapting to what we were trying to teach them and they all had a really fun time. Definitely a couple of scrapes and bruises from the soldiers and that’s just because they were going 110 per cent as they were trained to do.”
Ryan didn’t see any of the soldiers he met during the 2016 tour, but he was impressed with development of infrastructure on the base in Ukraine since last year. Among the additions was a workout facility and a communications centre.
“When I was there the first time, it was pretty bare,” he said. “There were no bathrooms on the inside (of buildings). They were stuffing a lot of soldiers in small rooms, so they’ve expanded the building to sleep the soldiers a little more comfortably, if you call 12 to a room comfortable.”
More room had also been created by building another base nearby to house the new group of Ukrainian soldiers that arrive every month.
“They are not firing any weapons or supplying them with any weapons, but they’re basically putting them through a quick basic training (including gun safety),” Ryan said about the Canadian soldiers, explaining that the training is complicated by having to use interpreters. “Basic training in Canada is three to six months. Basic training in Ukraine right now, because of the state their country, they’re shipping them out every month. They’ll bring in a full group of Ukrainians and speed train them within a month and then send them out to fight for their country.
“The Canadians wished they had more time with them, but the reality is the country is at war right now so they need as many soldiers as possible able to fire a gun and do first aid and all that kind of stuff.”
The two-day visit to Marseille was quite different. After a tour of the city, the group boarded the HMCS St. John’s frigate.
Ryan was impressed “just to see a navy port, to see all of the NATO alliance boats docked – French, American, Canadian boats. You look around and it’s just like battleship on battleship on battleship.”
The sailors were treated to a 90-minute show by Dallas Smith and a comedian, who was also travelling with the group, and then the visitors had to leave the ship because it was departing for the Mediterranean Sea within a couple of hours.
“When you come home, it just changes a lot in the way you think about life and the way you think about all this stuff we have and we’re able to live in,” Ryan said. “We go to Commonwealth Stadium and we have these facilities that are A-plus and you look overseas and these guys are in a little dungeon working out with a couple of dumb bells and they’re making it work. It really promotes hard work and (serves as a reminder) to stay dedicated in my vision, which is to be a pro athlete.
“The more stuff like this I do, the more proud I am of our military, the more proud I am to be Canadian and the more proud I am to try to represent the Canadian military any way I can,” he concluded.
Less than a week after returning to Edmonton, Neil King took off on another trip that was just as important, but in a different way, before the season started. He went to the Riviera Maya, Mexico, with his girlfriend and now fiancée, Karlee Petasky.
“I wanted to go down (to Mexico) and pop the question and just enjoy the sun,” King said about his proposal on a remote beach of a nearby island. “I couldn’t have picked a better moment or a better time.
“It was an amazing trip and, obviously, she said yes, so it was extremely exciting.”