When Andrew Wahba first visited Ladakh, the mountainous northernmost region of India, a hockey game in the remote town of Leh, 3 miles above sea level, caught his attention. A group of young men were playing on a natural ice rink in below zero fahrenheit temperatures with some makeshift equipment. Using a rock as a puck, one of them was moving with only half a blade while others were using field hockey sticks heavily taped to prevent them from breaking apart.
Then, at night, when temperatures were even lower, these men returned with five gallon buckets of cold water drawn from a well, walked to the end of the ice, and splashed it on to maintain the surface. They agreed to meet for a second shift at 2 a.m. and repeated this process every day for the rest of the winter, just to play some hockey.
This is how they'd make the almost-Olympic-sized rink every year, transforming a dirt pad from scratch, teams of 20 pulling three shifts every night—at 10 p.m., 2 a.m., and 6 a.m.—for two weeks, with only buckets and brooms for equipment.
"It was almost -25 C [-13 F]. My hands were frozen, and to have to deal with cold water at that," Wahba, a Canadian entrepreneur who founded True Travellers Society—a non-profit trying to integrate tourists with local communities—describes the scene from December 2013. "And there they were, like a herd of ants, singing and dancing while doing this."
Wahba first realized that hockey existed in a country otherwise known for its tropical climate through his friend James Turner, who'd been volunteering in the SECMOL (Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) school at Leh in eastern Kashmir for six weeks every winter since 2009. He conducted hockey lessons on a whiteboard with 16-21 year olds sitting on carpets and taking notes. They had so little equipment that one pair of skates could be sharpened only once the whole winter. Turner had heard from locals that Indian army men first started playing hockey in the Himalayas in the 1970s by attaching blades to their shoes.
For the last two decades, the Ladakh Winter Sports Club's annual ice hockey tournament has been the most awaited event in the region—which is separated from the mainland by mountains and narrow, rickety roads, has little electricity, no artificial heating, and remains perennially embroiled in political turmoil. When Wahba arrived last year from Canada, he was stunned to see hockey in the backdrop of snow-clad mountains in a location so remote and picturesque.
From the first snow in December until spring in March when the ice starts to melt, Ladakh lives and breathes hockey. India even started fielding a national team in 2008 with the help of New York-based coach Adam Sherlip and celebrated its first victory in 2013 over Macau, winning 5-1 in the IIHF's Challenge Asia Cup. In February of this year, the first international friendly was held in Ladakh between the London Fistfires and the Geronimo, a German-Finnish team, with almost 3,000 spectators standing atop trees and low-rise boundaries.
"The feeling of even taking three strides on that ice over the mighty Indus river, and playing hockey in front of the Himalayas, the roof of the world, is of utter freedom," Viktor Pesenti, who shot and produced the Hockey in Himalayas documentary that was released on Friday, told VICE Sports. "It was pure happiness."
But when Wahba visited the nearby valleys and villages where most of these players come from, he realized that around 90 hockey-playing kids were sharing 30 pairs of skates, waiting for their one-hour turn every morning. That was the start of a massive donation campaign in the Canadian cities of Regina and Estevan, Saskatchewan, which helped him collect more than 1,000 pounds of equipment and raise $8,500 for the shipping. Eventually, he was able to send 80 pairs of skates, 77 pairs of gloves, 30 helmets, 38 pairs of pants, 150 pucks, 44 pairs of shinpads, a few sets of goalie equipment, and 120 sticks to SECMOL.
"It was like Christmas morning for them [when the equipment arrived]," Pesenti said. "Some of these kids had been playing with one stick for four years. They were broken and chipped. And for them to receive and hold a new one, and so many of them, was a magical day, a gift from the sky."
As soon as the trucks pulled in and the bags were opened, the players were euphoric, kissing the blades in disbelief and raising the sticks as a sign of victory. "They started inscribing SECMOL on the stick. It was theirs now," said Pesenti, who's also the assistant coach of the University of London hockey team and plans to take his team for a match in Leh.
The idea is to also make the program sustainable through renting out the school's equipment for the nearby valley population and 'train the trainers' clinics where volunteer coaches from Canada and the United States coach senior Ladakhi players.
One of the staff at SECMOL, the school that's been training men and women in hockey for more than a decade, told Wahba he'd never seen 100 hockey sticks before. "On a spreadsheet it doesn't look like so much equipment," Wahba said. "But they told me you're gonna make players here happy for the next two decades."