Cinderella stories make sports stand out.
Just in case you missed it, a heartwarming story unfolded this month at the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Thailand. It involves an unlikely combination of few passionate women, crowdfunding, generosity, and ice hockey.
The story of this Indian Ice Hockey team is spreading across the hook and nook of the country at a fast pace.
The world apparently loves fairytales. But fairytales like this seldom happen. Some special players and the moment of magic they produce are the ultimate payoffs for people. Their successes validate the emotional investment in ways that are hard to describe.
A first international win against the Philippines, a second international win against Malaysia, and finishing fourth among seven teams. Sports might be a result-driven business, but all these numbers do not tell the complete story.
In a plot twist, despite being a national team, they did not have the necessary funds to make it to an IIHF competition — pretty much like the last few years. Harjinder Singh, General Secretary of Ice Hockey Association of India, had essentially been self-funding the team’s efforts thus far and had even dug into his personal savings for the sake of growth of this sport in our country.
But in the world of ice hockey, and perhaps Indian sports in general, there has never been a more quintessential underdog story.
To glance at the bigger picture, firstly, all the 20 members of the Indian Ice Hockey team play the sport in a natural ice rink which is nothing but a frozen pond. But, unlike last year, to give the girls the best of training before the competition, Harjinder was forced to turn elsewhere. He took the girls to Kyrgyzstan so that they get quality training on a legitimate ice hockey rink before they could fly to Thailand for the Challenge Cup.
Luckily, the citizens of the Internet are compassionate to an underdog story and were not about to let the team sit this one out due to lack of funding. In an extensive social media campaign started by The Logical Indian and Ice Hockey Association of India, over 3,000 donors came forward and raised an amount close to Rs 32 lakh in just nine days. Because of the outpouring of support, the money raised was used as a stipend to cover the Indian team’s training expenses, accommodation, airfares, visas, team jerseys, and equipment for the women in Kyrgyzstan and Thailand.
“There have been times where I’ve read messages from people that brought tears to my eyes. I am extremely grateful to everybody who backed us. They have made us think that we can do this,” said Padma Chorol, one of the forwards on the team.
Secondly, they competed against teams with significant financial backing and with better infrastructure than ours.
However, even the most optimistic of well-wisher in me had no reason to expect a win before the tournament. And why not? Playing on a frozen pond in Leh and on an artificial rink in Bangkok are two different ball games. On top of that, take into account the statistics of 2016 Challenge Cup of Asia where they conceded 39 goals and scored only five.
But the women produced the unthinkable.
In the first game, they pushed UAE till the very end but went down by a scoreline of 4-6. The best goaltender of the last edition, Noor Jahan, saved an incredible 25 shots but was visibly upset after the game. “I have never performed like this before in my hockey career. I was too nervous today. But I know I am better and will do better in the next game,” she said.
While outsiders expected a similar result in the next match against the Philippines, Tsewang Chuskit did not merely want to prove everyone wrong, she was determined to win the game by showing the girls back in Ladakh how ice hockey should be played.
Done, and done…
Unlike the previous game, India started the game cautiously in the first period. However, India broke the ice seizing an opportunity in the penultimate minute of the second period when Chuskit slotted India’s first goal to give India a 1-0 lead. Rinchen Dolma scored at the 42:05 mark to give a well-deserved lead. Rinchen took no time to convert Padma Chorol’s pass and fire off a shot that went under Cabili and into the net at the 8:39 mark. Although the Philippines team came back strongly scoring three quick goals to go ahead, Chuskit scored the equalising goal and soon after found the winner with a superb angular shot towards the end of the third period. The Philippines player continued to play offensive in the final 60 seconds even getting a few more shots on goal, but it was too late.
After ensuring the victory against Philippines, Chuskit and her teammates huddled solemnly in the middle of the rink and wept while the national anthem was playing loudly inside the stadium. It was probably the biggest emotional outpour for the team till now.
The assistant captain of the team scored three goals in the match which helped her bag the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award later on.
“It’s crazy. At least we can go back home with our heads held high,” said Noor.
In the next two games against eventual champions New Zealand and hosts Thailand, everyone expected the outcome to be entirely one-sided. They were clearly the better side and beat India comfortably not before at least a dozen unbelievable saves by Noor who never let the game get out of hand.
After going down to third-placed Singapore, India was ready to take on Malaysia in the final league game.
Goals from Padma Chorol and Deachen Dolkar gave India the lead within the first four minutes of the game while two quick goals from the opposition in the span of two minutes made it 2-2. Tashi Dolkar made it 3-2 going into the second period but Malaysia clawed back into the game soon after. The ‘Women in Blue’ turned on the style in the third period with Tashi Dolkar and Tsewang Chuskit making it 5-3. A late goal from Hui Woon wasn’t enough to stop India from sealing an emphatic victory – their second international win ever.
“Had sports been just about winning, scoreboards would be more famous than sportspersons.” While the record books will show only two wins for India, they will register the players who rose to fight and prove the real talent within themselves.
The fact that they won two international games without having the best of facilities back home bears a testament to their capability in overcoming their opponents, and much of that is down to their team unity and collective spirit.
Playing an exciting brand of attacking game that focused on ‘head, heart, and sticks’, the women dazzled their way every time in the rink with great rhythm and intensity. They did not have any unrivalled player, who will score them an endless number of goals. Instead, they had five goalscorers.
The most beautiful aspect of their game was their work off the puck. They played through the middle, out wide, or on the counter. They had Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C to bank on. A beautiful game combined with a burning desire to prove something.
The credit for their accomplishment should go to coaches Alexis Daudelin and Owen Melanson for exploiting the strengths of his players and transmitting his ideas flawlessly. Preparing effective training schedules, limiting injuries, and keeping the side motivated and focused has indeed worked brilliantly. It has been a team effort with former coaches Adam Sherlip, Abdul Hakim, and Shomit Datta laying the foundation of winning mentality.
Adding to efforts of Alexis, Owen, and a couple of big names on the squad were a host of other side stories. It was Noor Jahan who was battling a small niggle on her knee yet coming out on top. It was the story of Chuskit scoring the winning goal two minutes before the final hooter against the Philippines; also the captain Rinchen Dolma who truly symbolises the team – a player who is tough, strong, and fearless.
Within this collective fairytale, lies myriad personal stories. Like that of Tashi Dolkar who is only 18 and the youngest in the team. She stays almost 125 kms away from Leh and hasn’t seen her parents in the last four months. “I nearly gave up on my dream because every time I see my father paying for my ice hockey equipment and expenses, I feel it is a burden for him.” Overcoming all obstacles, the forward scored two crucial goals against Malaysia and went on to bag the Player of the Match award.
Then there’s the story of Diskit Angmo. She suffered an injury last year in Chinese Taipei after just one game and bed-ridden for four months. The 21-year-old came back strongly this year. The ‘Player of the Tournament’ for India has been a revelation, rescuing India from tricky positions with her stick countless times. “We are the first batch of ice hockey players in Ladakh. I hope this achievement serves as an inspiration to the young girls and this time the promises of infrastructure back home are fulfilled.”
India is not exactly known for its sporting achievements, rather the country’s lack of interest in other sports is because only after success, support follows. It’s because the treatment meted out to some success stories. This is what Kunzen Angmo feels.
Where does the sport go from here?
It’s just one example of the millions of underdog stories out there deserving of our time and consideration, and hopefully, it becomes an example of the power of the common man. But even though the crowdfunding for the team was a success, the future of the team is a bigger worry for the association.
Awareness of ice hockey is quite obscure outside the Himalayan region of Ladakh, where it is very popular. The bane of nascent Indian sports has not spared ice hockey, as scarcity of quality training and the paucity of proper equipment have plagued the game.
There is no international standard rink in our country. The only rink in Dehradun has been lying defunct for the last five years. A couple of exposure trips can give the youngsters opportunities to face the international show and develop their game accordingly.
But the game has fallen short of capturing what it deserves and surely it is not the game’s fault. What we need is a more wider outlook. Restricting the media and public attention to a few sports has acted negatively and will continue to do so.
The positive progress in providing facilities to ice hockey players across the country will surely reap the rewards, but this is a long-term process. There is a desperate need for an amendment in the country’s infrastructure, jurisdiction and opportunities to help these sports flourish. Cricket can remain the king, and Virat Kohli can still be the most celebrated sportsperson in the country. It, however, would be a pity if the rest do not get their due.
The Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) should be praised for identifying the need and approaching a more aggressive approach in popularising the game. While it is crucial for these players to make their living out of the sport, it should be the responsibility of the government to ensure that there is at least a year-round development program in place.
India is moving a step ahead every day in different sports. I’ve seen it firsthand.