“Don’t be afraid.” Gliding across the frozen pond, a volunteer coach held out her hand to a trembling child rooted outside. “Come! It’s like flying.”
Fearful eyes protested vehemently. “But I’ll fall!”
She coaxed the child onto the rink, explaining, “Don’t let your fear of falling stop you from flying.”
I watched from the periphery of Karzu Zing, a pond cradled within the wrinkled brown arms of the Ladakh range of the Himalayas. During the forbidding months of winter, Karzu Zing turns into a crude ice skating rink. Spindly poplar trees lace around it, stretching their bare, frosted branches towards the blue skies. The turquoise Indus River snakes through the villages of Ladakh, moulting a crust of white ice along its edges. The agrarian villages turn sleepy in the winter, with tourism and farming activities slowing to a near halt. While the rest of Leh is tranquil, Karzu Zing resonates with the resounding thwacks of pucks on ice.
Authors Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane famously described hockey as “the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter, we are alive,” in their 1972 book The Death of Hockey. So it is in Ladakh. In the bleak rays of the morning light, devoted youth sweep the ice to smoothen it for the day’s games, their breaths shivering out in thick white puffs. In January and February, the Ladakh inter-district tournaments take place in the mornings, usually followed by coaching camps for children. Friendly practice matches go on until the players are chased away by the setting sun. Life on the rink ends at the end of the day, with silhouettes of players dragging along a gushing hose to ready the ice for the next morning.
The origins of ice hockey in India are humble. Until the 1980s, players used to strap metal blades onto their shoes and chase a rock or a piece of moulded rubber as an improvised puck. In the last decade, thanks to the support of the hockey community worldwide, the game has seen tremendous growth. Makeshift equipment has been replaced by generous donations of second-hand gear from international NGOs.
The cost of new gear—skates, sticks, protective padding, gloves, and maintenance equipment—varies from Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 1.5 lakh per player—prices that players from modest Ladakhi households cannot afford. Organisations such as The Hockey Foundation, Canadian Himalayan Association for Innovation (CHAI) and Hockey Without Borders return year after year, with coaches donating bags of gear and months of their time to training players. This, along with the indomitable Ladakhi spirit, has fueled a collective dream to take Indian ice hockey to the world.
India played its first international match at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s second Men’s Challenge Cup of Asia, in 2009. After a deafening defeat, the team came home, disappointed but not disheartened. With the exception of 2010, India has participated in the Challenge Cup every year since. Not content to watch from the sidelines, women players created a national team in 2016. The team played its first international match at the 2016 IIHF Women's Challenge Cup of Asia—the first time they had played on an indoor rink with artificial ice. Although they placed last in the tournament, their resolve grew. In 2017, after two weeks of training in Kyrgyzstan, the team played their second international tournament in Thailand. They won against Philippines and Malaysia, placing fourth in the tournament.
While the progress team India has made is laudable, there’s a steep climb ahead before India can realistically compete against countries with decades of ice hockey history. Time-worn equipment, a lack of infrastructure for practice once the ice has melted, inexperience on international-standard ice rinks, and unsteady funding that often requires players to dip into their own pockets—these difficulties lay heavy on the teams, but they graciously lug them on their backs, moving forward with nothing but a steel will to improve.
It is this resolve, which silences logic and endures mockery, that drives India’s players to continue forward, against all odds. In January 2017 and January 2018, photographer Indrajeet Rajkhowa and I travelled to Leh. We stayed with the players, saw their daily routines, and came to know them. We began to understand what ice hockey means to them.
Ghulam Mustafa, 20
Mustafa remembers sneaking behind his sister’s back to steal her figure skates when he was 10 years old. She had received the pair from a Canadian woman travelling in Ladakh and protected them fiercely. Whenever he managed to slip them out of her sight, he would put them on and blissfully glide on the ice. Every worry in the world was forgotten, even the fear of discovery.
Ten year later, Mustafa’s sister couldn’t be prouder of her brother representing India.
Dechen Dolker, 24
The first time Dolker tried ice-skating, it was in a pair of figure skates that she borrowed from her school’s sports department. “I remember I was scared—shaky,” she told us. “But along with the fear, there was exhilaration. You fall down a lot initially, but you get back up each time. And, like that, you learn.”
Ali Amir, 37
“Ice hockey in India has come a long way from where it started”, Ali Amir told us. When he was 15, before ever having received actual gear, Amiri and his friends would attach blades from old figure skates to the soles of army boots. They would carve out wooden sticks and mould rubber into the shape of pucks. In subzero temperatures, rubber pucks break easily on impact, so they would make extra pucks for the games they played. “There was nothing to do in our villages during the winter, so we played for entertainment. Never did I imagine that I would one day be playing for India.”
“When we played our first international match in Abu Dhabi in 2009, a lot of our gear was handmade,” Amir recalled. “I still own the old equipment we made—we used thermocol over football shin pads for protective gear. We managed to get our hands on a single pair of hockey pants. We used that as a template and added padding to shorts to create our own. And we set out to play these other countries.”
The team was left dazed by their first experience on an international rink. “The ice was smooth, so smooth, unlike anything we were used to. Any impact with our opponents would make us spin, and lose sight of the direction in which we had to shoot the puck. We lost terribly.”
Although the team lost all the matches of the tournament, Amir remembers his awe during the closing ceremony. “I watched the winning teams being awarded their medals. I was applauding, but I my head I was thinking ‘When will that be us?’”
Last year, Amir and the team brought India the silver medal in the IIHF Men’s Challenge Cup of Asia. “When they placed the medal around my neck, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Every member of the team has made sacrifices in this journey. But that silver proved all our struggles worth it. I know that in the near future, we will compete at the Olympics.”
Rinchen Dolma, 27
In 2003, Dolma remembers a protest that was led by the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), an alternative high school that educates and houses a number of today’s players. The protest came at a time when the ice was dominated by only men. The question being asked was “Why aren’t women allowed to learn and play ice hockey too?” Dolma, then 13, didn’t know anything about ice hockey at the time. Two years later, she was among the other girls picking up the sport.
The road to becoming captain of the women’s team was not easy. “I have frequently struggled with financial burdens because of ice hockey,” Dolma said. “In 2008, I received an opportunity to go abroad for coaching. My father sold a piece of his land so that I could go. It is because of my family’s support that I can continue playing. I am blessed to have them.”
Deldan Namgyal, 21
“I would love to make hockey a career but I know that isn’t possible in today’s scenario, “Namgyal said. “Every time we play a match abroad or travel for hockey coaching, the money comes from our own pockets. If the government could help us with funding, that would be the greatest encouragement for us. Right now, we don’t even have a proper ice rink, unlike the countries we compete with. We practice hockey in the two or three months when our lakes freeze. In the summers, we rust, waiting for the winters again.”
Diskit Angmo, 22 and Tsewang Gyaltson, 25
The first pair of skates Diskit Angmo owned was a pair of figure skates gifted to her by her father. He was an ardent lover of ice hockey, insistent that both Angmo and her brother Tsewang Gyaltson (who plays for the men’s national team) learn to play the game. “Ice hockey is my life. It has taught me more than just how to play a game; it has shown me the value of a team. My team is like family to me,” Angmo said.
Three years ago, her father passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. “Where I am today, any achievement I’ve made through hockey, I always stop and think: this is all because of you, dad. I dedicate my entire ice hockey career to him.”
Kunzes Angmo, 28
Kunzes Angmo is president of the Ladakh Women’s Ice Hockey Foundation, a body set up to uplift the status of women’s ice hockey in Ladakh. “Today, our mission is to get ice hockey to more people in secluded villages,” she told us. “So far in 2018, we have set up coaching camps in three different villages. The money was raised through a crowdfunding campaign in collaboration with SECMOL.”
Angmo believes “My team is my strength. No decision is made by an individual person. Whenever there are hurdles, whenever we need to approach authorities for permissions or funds, we do it as a team. It is important that the younger girls come along, so they can learn how to handle these scenarios one day. Not all the battles we fight are on ice.”
Tsewang Chuskit, 24
Chuskit told us that in the last two years, the women’s team has been getting some recognition and media attention. “Many international coaches come to Ladakh to train us,” she said. “Now people say women here don’t face discrimination anymore, but we do. You can see it even during the inter-district tournaments. The men’s tournament is given more importance. There are guests of honor, there are commentators. For our matches, there isn’t even a scoreboard maintained. Sometimes, people in the audience jeer at us. While we’re playing, I’ve heard people laugh and shout things like ‘even a mother is playing in the team! Go home to your family, mother!’ Instead of encouraging us, some people just want to see us dragged down.”
Padma Chorol, 23
“My mother used to be terrified of me playing ice hockey,” said Chorol. “She would plead for me to not go, afraid I would get injured. She has seen how violent the game can be, since my elder brothers used to play. Knowing how much I wanted to join, my brothers would slyly tag me along anyway. We’d come up with excuses for my absence later.”
Over the years, with much convincing, her mother has warmed up to her passion.
“I want a career in hockey. I want to coach children and one day bring them to a level beyond where we are. I also don’t want the next generation of girls to face the issues that we faced. They shouldn’t have to borrow gear from the boys, I want them to have their own equipment.”
Virender Thapa, 28
“Ice hockey has made me realise that everything is possible, if you work for it,” believes Thapa. When he started playing, he was a natural right-handed player. The equipment available then was sparse, so when he irreparably damaged his hockey stick in a game, the only available stick was a left-handed one. “There is a huge difference playing with a left stick, when you’re a right-armed player. People said it wouldn’t be possible to just switch hands. I was told to just quit the game, but I gave it my everything and trained myself. I couldn’t let my passion die.” Today, years after switching, Thapa remains left-handed on the ice.
“I’m always humbled when I see lovers of the sport from other countries coming to Ladakh to support our game,” Thapa said. “The equipment, the coaching we have received from them, it fills me with gratitude. I know that it is our responsibility to pass this knowledge down to the next generation. We need to help and nurture them, so we can pay our dues forward.”
Rigzin Yangdol, 22
“Ice hockey has given me experiences that I would not have received otherwise,” feels Yangdol. She told us that through these experiences, “I have made friends in other countries, mostly players that I have met through international tournaments. It’s wonderful to learn about the lives of others. In the summers I see pictures of them on Facebook, having fun on the ice while practicing their game. It makes me long to skate again. But since I can’t, I just hit ‘like’ and keep scrolling.”
Stanzin Namgyal, 23
It’s been 17 years since Stanzin Namgyal started ice-skating. He told us that since he began,“Our winters in Ladakh have shortened. In the days when I started skating, the ponds used to be frozen for about three months. Now we get two months of winter. It makes me wonder what our time on the ice will be 10 years from now.”
Chamba Tsetan, 24
“I would like to open Ladakh’s first hockey store one day,” said Tsetan. “If you need to excel at any sport, you need to practice year-round. We were promised an indoor ice rink years ago, and they started to build one in 2009. But the construction has been put on hold due to lack of funds, and it’s been unbuilt like that ever since.”
The blind love of the sports fanatic is rarely for just the aesthetics of the game—it’s most often fuelled by a love for the team. Teams are more than jerseys, player statistics and wins. They are made of people and myriad of characters: the bold ones, the hardheaded ones, the goofy ones, the talkative ones, the relentless ones—all cemented together by that infectious passion for the game. When I first introduced myself to the team, I explained that I was hopeful of writing their ice hockey story.
“Your story, does it have a happy ending?” asked one of the players.
Laughing, I had said, “You tell me.”
In the last decade of ice hockey in India, there have been significant triumphs, however insignificant to the rest of the world. While ice hockey in India still lacks funding from the government, it often finds support elsewhere. In a 2017 campaign led by The Logical Indian, over 3,000 supporters enabled India to compete in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia by donating over Rs. 3.2 lakh.
Along with the money, hundreds of messages—of cheer, pride, and encouragement—poured out to the players from people rooting for them. On March 10, 2017, the Indian women’s ice hockey team made history with their first international win against Philippines. The next day, they won the match against Malaysia, placing fourth in the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia. The following month, the Indian men’s ice hockey team brought home the silver medal in the IIHF Men’s Challenge Cup of Asia—a first in their eight years of playing internationally.
Following this, in January of this year, the women’s team received support from four-time Olympic gold-medalist Hayley Wickenheiser and former National Hockey League defenseman Andrew Ference, who travelled to Ladakh with brand-new gear for the team, along with their coaching expertise. "I don't think I've done anything as powerful as this experience in terms of impact, in terms of purely for the love of the game," Wickenheiser told CBC News.
In February, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also extended his support to the team and presented them with Canada's ice hockey jerseys during an event at the Canadian High Commission in Delhi in February.
And finally, the Hockey Foundation spent months preparing for an attempt at a Guiness World Record for the highest-altitude hockey match with the intent of casting light on ice hockey in Ladakh. After innumerable setbacks, the attempt was successful, setting the record on February 4 this year, at 14,000 feet in the Kargyam district of Ladakh.
No matter how jagged the road ahead, these are the signs that ice hockey in India has a future.
As I watched the record moment when the hooter sounded the end of the India vs. Malaysia game in the 2017 Women’s Challenge Cup, I saw players yanking off their equipment, weeping with jubilation as they embraced each other. I realised this wasn’t the happy ending the players had asked about. It was just the beginning.