Minus 30 degrees temperature? What are you going to do in Ladakh in the middle of winter? Are you trying to freeze yourself alive?
I was flooded with all the above questions and expressions before I decided to travel in the highland of Himalayas. Not to capture the transient nature of the mountains, but to experience a sport which was introduced two decades ago by the Indian Army as a part of their winter activity.
Landing on this New Year and fuelled by the mind-numbing cold, the experience I had in the next three days was nothing short of spiritual. Unlike the summer months, winter in this part of the country gives you an opportunity to see a different side of Ladakh. The blue lakes, rivers, vegetation, and brown mountains are all buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow.
While all activities reduce to a bare minimum and a sense of solitude takes over this region during this time, a group of girls are devoted to hockey – the ‘other’ hockey played on ice.
When one thinks of the sports in which we excel, cricket and a few Olympic sports usually come to our mind. But ice hockey? Yes. The sport that’s as foreign to India as cricket is to Brazil or marathon-running is to Antartica.
While the sport may not have a big following, there are an increasing number of young girls who are learning about sharp blades of ice skates. Nestled in the frozen Gupuk lake in Leh, is one of India’s natural ice rinks. It is also the site of a basic coaching camp for passionate and enthusiastic women. For the last seven days, the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation, an NGO that promotes the sport and uplifts the stature of women players in that region, has been running a workshop for young kids. While most were from the town, some came from as far away as 100 kilometres.
A 10-year-old girl laced up her skates and stepped onto the ice as her mother anxiously followed every step of her daughter. She appeared steady on her feet as the members of LWIHF held her hand and gave a quick demonstration on how to turn and brake.
The Ice Hockey program is part of an ongoing effort to build up Leh’s fledgeling winter sports capabilities and to grow an ice hockey culture amongst the next generation. To make better sense of this, let’s fast forward a few years. These ice hockey workshops are strategic – they are part and parcel of the country’s need to build its winter sports future.
However, India is not a country known for its prowess in ice hockey, nor for its performance, for that matter.
“It’s developing,” said Noor Jahan, 26, the General Secretary of LWIHF and goaltender of Indian national team. “In the last couple of years, we have constantly been trying to push ourselves.”
That wasn’t the case when Noor was a kid. There weren’t many facilities available and since the game was restricted to the men, she borrowed a pair of oversized skates and used to accompany her cousin to the rink. When Noor was in high school, she joined the Ladakh Winter Sports Club and picked up the stick for the first time. Instantly, she knew the game was for her. “I like the skating, I like the speed” she added.
But Noor did not have her equipment. So when she approached her parents for a pair of skates, her parents were quite amused, to say the least. “My mother asked what I was thinking. She said that I should stay at home and study, not skate in the rink,” she recalled.
The finest of sportswomen in India have faced discrimination at some level in their sports career, be it at the hands of authorities, selection teams, coaches, governments, or even their families. The story was same for ice hockey.
Being one of the fastest games in the world, these women were not considered competent enough to play this sport. “People used to take the boys seriously when they got on the ice, but we had to face a lot of ridicule. They never thought that girls could play this sport as well.”
The lack of equipment and unavailability of a proper rink were always a concern. It was only then around 50 girls got together and formed the Ladakh Women’s Ice Hockey Foundation for the betterment of the gender in this sport.
“Funds were one of the challenges. We were not given equipment directly, as a result of which, we had to borrow it from the men. But after 2014, our Foundation has been receiving donations in the form of cheques and equipment,” Noor added.
But that was not the end of their problems.
Last year, the rink in Karzoo, at a height of 3483 meters above sea level, was already occupied and the army took the arena in Gupuk. Finally, with the help of Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), they got an office space and built a small boundary.
But they needed water to prepare an artificial rink. An application to the Public Health Engineering Department was enough for a regular supply of water. Every evening, a tanker used to come with 3000 litres of water and the players used to fill buckets and then the pool. The first shift was from 8 pm and to form another layer of ice, another group of three girls used to pour water again at 10 pm. The last group used to wait and add water around 3 am with loud music to keep them awake.
Even though the team returned from the 2016 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia without a win, there were many positives. A relatively young Indian team almost came close to beating Malaysia in the group stages and Noor, fondly called Noori by the team, was awarded the tournament’s Best Goaltender Award after saving 193 shots from a possible 229.
With all their effort and hard work, their team has gained the recognition. They do not have to compromise on their practice rink or equipment. This year, Noor and her team don’t have to create an arena for themselves. They have access to a frozen lake, a few kilometres from the airport. The girls enjoy playing the sport same as boys do. They have got an office space which is a travel agency office in the summer but remains closed during these three months.
Believe it or not, what makes the sport more memorable here is that there are locals who gather to witness the girls play braving the bone-chilling temperature. There were Bose speakers that echoed Coldplay music and snow-clad mountains towered around the rink to further add beauty to the experience.
Seven girls with long, flowing hair played against an all-boys team from the Army. They wore helmets, gloves, elbow pads, padded shorts, and shin pads. With razor sharp metals blades on the skating shoes, this is not a game as safe as table tennis or chess. Sitting on the sidelines and watching for an hour, I saw a hard-fought encounter.
The match was informal. There was no official uniform, though a few girls wore custom-made socks with the tricolour on it. By necessity, the equipment was all imported, and much of it was donated or improvised.
Tsewang Chuskit, one of the stalwarts and the assistant captain, glided on ice like a ballerina. Kunzes Angmo, the President of LWIHF, manoeuvred the slippery ice like the Michael Jordan of hockey. There were sprints. Semzes Dolma dashed to the goal. The puck passed from one end to the other in flash of a second.
It was evident how the goaltender is the team’s pivotal player. Like in football, if the goalkeeper thwarts every attempt, the opponent can never win. The same applies for ice hockey, and a fully-padded Noor was doing exactly that in front of the small goal box. Height was another significant factor. The taller the player, the faster she can glide, the longer her reach to catch the puck.
It was heartening to see the potential and determination in the eyes of the players. Stanzin Chotso is the youngest player on the team. Last year when the team went to Chinese Taipei, she was supposed to appear for her board exams. But the 17-year-old decided to skip her Class 10 exams and join the team in what was their first international competition.
As per as the government policy, to get funding 75% of the states in the country should play a particular sport. Sadly that is not the scene for ice hockey. “I desperately hope the situation changes shortly and more states start playing so that we can take the sport forward internationally,” said Rinchen Dolma, the captain and one of the most experienced players in the team.
The face of ice hockey in Ladakh is developing and changing for the better. The enthusiasm and hospitality of the locals add to the magic of playing in the majestic Himalayas. But the lack of funding has been the biggest and most constant obstacle of these girls. “We started a bit late, but we see a bright future for the kids,” said Chuskit. Rinchen agrees, noting that some of the kids have ambitions of playing at higher levels. “Some of the kids who are skating here are excellent.”
“There are a lot of kids waiting to play this sport, but we don’t have enough facilities for them. We need to expand, and I hope we do that,” she said.
It’s unlikely that ice hockey will reach the popularity of hockey soon, but in this small corner of the country, it seems it’s one sport that will continue to receive a warm welcome.
(This article was brought to you in association with India For Sports.)