Ice hockey, a sport that is often related to the All-American dream has been able to stomp its authority on the country’s imagination, ever since the 1980 Winter Olympics. But, the sport has found new following in the most unexpected of places.
Since 2009, the Indian national ice hockey team has been regularly participating across various Asian Championships. The country’s climate is not even close to conducive for the growth of a sport such as ice hockey, but a seed planted by the Indian Army in the colder regions has finally started to germinate.
In 1975, the Army introduced the game of ice hockey to Ladakh and its capital Leh. The Ladakh Scouts started playing ice hockey with nothing but wooden sticks and flattened stones as pucks. Since then, it has managed to capture the region with an iron grip.
One look at a local Ice Hockey game will show you how the sport has grown from relative obscurity to becoming a mainstay there. The outdoor rinks would see flocks of people standing on trees just to get a glimpse of the match.
The popularity of the sport in regions such as Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Shimla soared to the level that a national association was formed in 2002. However, the national team now does not have enough funds to reach the Asian Championships to be held in Kuwait, later this month
Lack of basic infrastructure
With barely any sponsors, government help and media coverage, most talented youngsters end up leaving the sport, due to the lack of a future in it. Primarily an indoor sport, there are no rinks in the country for the national team to practice.
Hence, the only practice they get are two-three months, during the winter. The rink they currently practice is 1/3rd the size of an international rink.
Harijinder Singh Jindi, General Secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India said, “Basic infrastructure is lacking in the country, with little or no sponsors, just 2-3 months of practice, you can’t expect a team to grow.
He added, “The Sports Ministry have said that they can only help us when we qualify for the Winter Olympics or Winter Asian Games. How do they expect us to do that with just 2-3 months of practice.”
The only international sized rink was constructed by the Uttarkhand government in Dehradun. However, even that has been lying shut for the past two years. Singh added, “ We have requested the Uttarakhand government to give us the rink and not charge for the power, let’s see how it goes.”
In 2012, India finally announced itself on the Asian stage by hosting the Challenge Cup. It is here where the national team wrote the first page of its Ice hockey history. Their 5-1 victory over Macau was their first ever international success. Macau were recently promoted to the premier division of the IIHF challenge league.
The team mainly consists of members from the army jawans, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and students. With over 1200 registered players, the sport is growing.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has spotted the potential in the country. Every year, they conduct various coaching camps across the country. Even the Canadian Embassy in Ladakh has often sponsored the team, yet the Ministry only sends in a measly Rs 1 lakh every year.
No money to attend Asian Cup
Ice Hockey is an expensive sports, there are no two ways about it. Tsewang Gyaltson is the Vice Captain of the Indian National team, he said, “the cost of my equipment is close to Rs 70,000, for a sport to grow to a certain level you need extrinsic help. Ice Hockey would not be what it is if Canada and some well wishers helped us. We need basic infrastructure from the government.”
Gyaltson has been a part of the national team, since 2013 and travelled to Thailand and Kyrgyztan to represent India, said
“My parents forced me to quit the sport in between, because there was no future. But when the international rink came up in Dehradun, I got my admission done there, but even that shut down.”
The only money he has ever earned through the sport is by winning local tournaments in Ladakh.
However, the growth of this fledgling sport has been put into doubt, over the past few weeks. The squad needs a total of Rs 12 lakhs to travel for the tournament, but has only managed to gather Rs 7 lakhs from friends, well-wishers and families.
A recent tweet by the IHAI said, "We have a national team and are begging for money... Please support our ice hockey team travelling to Kuwait. We need to raise funds for the team. A 20k donation will cover costs for 1 player.” This is the state of a team that has been showing potential of growth, despite being away from the mainstream realm for more than 25 years.
Singh said, “We have tried really hard and are still trying, but we have not been able to gather the funds yet.” Categorised by the Sports Ministry, under the category of ‘others’, the sport is not liable for financial help, the category has often exposed the Sports Ministry’s ability to spot talent from these sports.
Motivation from abroad and community
The Asian Challenge Cup will be held in Kuwait from April 18-24 and promised to be a break-through tournament for India, who will be coached by American Adam Sherlip.
Sherlip spends his Winters spotting talent in Ladakh and inculcating them in the national setup. Just so you were wondering, he pays for his expenses. Assistant Coach, Abdul Hakim Giri said, “The camp at Ambience Mall is our very first camp before an international event, it will be sad if we can’t attend it.”
Despite the rink being 1/3rd the size of an international rink, it is the best option as the team is put up in Dumduma, which is being provided by a friend close to the association. This also adds to the fact that each player is paying Rs 20,000 for themselves from their own pocket.
The accommodation and stay will be taken care of by IIHF, who really want the sport to grow in India. But, the Sports Ministry themselves are not interested in Ice hockey’s growth.
Singh said, “the only reason why ice hockey is what it is today, is because of the inter-personal relationships it has developed over the past few years. We fund all tournaments through our own pockets, we just want basic infrastructure.” He added, “ If we have just 8 rinks around the country, we could produce 60 teams, this would increase competition,”
Maharashtra is one such example, despite not having snowy areas, the sport has proliferated in small rinks across the state. Their efforts even saw them reach the finals of the on-going National Championships.
The success of such teams are also based on the fact that several hockey players have decided to take up the sport seriously. Malaysia is one such country, which has started doing really well thanks to the prevalence of indoor rinks and people converting from field hockey.
India’s national sport might just act as a feeder to its poorer cousin.
Most teams cannot attend National Championships because they are held in Ladakh, during the winters. This would mean that the only way to reach there would be by air. The cost of each team to sustain themselves would Rs 15k a day, despite the efforts of the Army, who provide lodging at a cheaper rate.
If the sport can grow from stick and stones to India winning against a mid-tier Asia team, it sure can push on further. If the USA winning the 1980 Winter Olympics is a miracle, India sustaining an ice hockey team is nothing less.
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