MINSK, Belarus - Canadian fans are hard to come by at the world hockey championship, and some of those wearing paper hats with the red-and-white Maple Leaf are Belarusians who have picked a team to cheer for at the tournament.
Then there's Chris Sebastian and Kyle Snowden, lifelong friends of Canadian captain Kevin Bieksa from Grimsby, Ont. After deciding last week to come to Minsk, they ran into some trouble along the way.
Sebastian and Snowden left Toronto in the second period of Team Canada's opening game Friday against France and didn't arrive until there was a minute left in Saturday's game against Slovakia. It was a 32-hour journey with stops in five countries because they didn't have the requisite visa to travel through Moscow.
Snowden pointed at Sebastian and said that he thought for 30 hours his friend was going to kill him because "we were flying all over Europe trying to get here and finally it came to the point where we had to make a decision: Are we going to go to Minsk tonight or not?" he said. "In order to do that we had to fly from Warsaw to Frankfurt, back to Minsk, spend an extra thousand (dollars) Canadian. It cost us a lot, but to get here and actually be here it's just amazing."
The story of Bieksa's friends' trip from Canada to Russia to Poland to Germany to Belarus became well-known around the team once they arrived. Bieksa, playing in his first international tournament, called it "not the ideal route" but also appreciated the dedication of his buddies.
"It's pretty neat, especially with the travel day that they had," Bieksa said. "They just wanted to come over and support me, watch some games and cheer for Canada. As you've noticed we don't have too many fans over here, so two more definitely help. I've known those guys since I was a kid and trained with them. We used to play hockey together, so it means a lot for me."
Bieksa, who has family coming this weekend along with others from Team Canada, didn't expect his friends to make that kind of effort to travel to Minsk. They talked about it, of course, and his friends finally booked their tickets three days before the tournament began.
Sebastian said their families usually get together this time of year—after Bieksa's season is over—to play a golf tournament. With the 32-year-old Vancouver Canucks defenceman at the world championship for the first time in his career, this was another chance to get together.
"When's the next time your buddy's going to be the captain of Team Canada?" said Sebastian, who played with Bieksa on the Burlington Cougars of the Ontario Junior A Hockey League in 1997-98. "So this is a big thing for us. It took us 32 hours, it was worth every hour."
Sebastian and Snowden arrived at Minsk National Airport while Canada was playing Slovakia and took a cab right to Chizhovka-Arena. After picking up their tickets, they got inside just about a minute after Bieksa scored his first goal of the tournament, Canada's third in a 4-1 victory.
"They've seen me score a few goals over the years, so I don't think they cared that much," Bieksa said Tuesday. "I think they were just happy for the win."
They were also in attendance Monday night when Canada held on to beat the Czech Republic 4-3. In that game Bieksa took a stick to the face that led to a five-minute major penalty and two power-play goals.
"That's how he plays," said Sebastian, who went on to play at Niagara University in Western New York and then in Italy and Britain. "He's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. He plays a hard-nosed game. It probably doesn't even faze him."
Travel hassles didn't faze his friends, either, who will be around for games against Denmark and Italy before heading home. They're part of a small contingent of Canadian fans that Sebastian lamented was not enough.
"That's why I like it," Snowden replied. "I like kind of being the small-sport crowd for Canada."
Canada's fan contingent will grow by a couple dozen or more when family and friends arrive over the weekend. But it's unlikely most of them will have as many problems as Sebastian and Snowden did getting to Minsk.
If nothing else, though, it made for a good story to tell Bieksa and his teammates.
"That's what friends are for," said Jason Garrison, Bieksa's Canucks teammate, Canadian defence partner and roommate. "Obviously it's a whirlwind of a trip. It's pretty amazing, obviously, for Kevin and the guys that know about that story. The commitment for a couple Canadian guys coming over to watch Team Canada play in the worlds in Belarus, it's pretty cool."
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had the wrong first name for Kyle Snowden.