Burn­ing pas­sion drives In­dian ice hockey team

Bat­tling lack of funds & in­fra­struc­ture, coun­try’s na­tional ice hockey sides yearn for brighter fu­ture with more aware­ness of sport

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - SPORT - Rutvick Me­hta rutvick.me­[email protected]­dia.net

Mum­bai: For about a cou­ple of months to­wards the end of Oc­to­ber, the sleepy re­gion of Ladakh springs to life, not­with­stand­ing the on­set of the harsh win­ters.

Ev­ery year, a size­able chunk from the tiny pop­u­la­tion of around 3,00,000 throngs the Karzo Rink in Leh the mo­ment the pond freezes to ei­ther watch, play or fine­tune their ice hockey skills. And that in­cludes mem­bers of the In­dian na­tional team.

In­dian ice hockey team? You’d be for­given for ask­ing this ques­tion.

It’s pre­cisely this cu­rios­ity that gave birth to the idea of Fight­ing on Ice, a doc­u­men­tary that strives to spread aware­ness about the ex­is­tence of ice hockey teams in the coun­try.

“Be­fore start­ing the film, I asked a few peo­ple whether they knew if In­dia had an ice hockey team. Sur­pris­ingly, most of them said no,” di­rec­tor by Mithun Ba­jaj says.

Ice hockey might be one of the most pop­u­lar win­ter sports around the globe and at the Win­ter Olympics, yet its pres­ence and pop­u­lar­ity in In­dia is minis­cule.

There are var­ied rea­sons for that. The nat­u­ral weather in most parts of the coun­try does not suit the sport, while the cost of build­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial in­ter­na­tional rink is too steep. Be­sides, the equip­ment used in the sport — the skates, head gear, pro­tec­tive body gear, sticks, and the like — can also burn a deep hole in the pocket.

“Our sport is very much de­pen­dent on in­fra­struc­ture, es­pe­cially in a place like In­dia,” Tse­wang Gyalt­son, cap­tain of the In­dian men’s ice hockey team, says.

“We need ar­ti­fi­cial ice, and to build all that is very costly. Luck­ily, we have a place like Ladakh that has very cold weather, and also some other places like Hi­machal. Those place are helped by na­ture, and in th­ese places we de­velop our­selves and try and make a mark,” he adds.

Made a mark it sure has, both the men and the women teams.

Ob­sta­cles aplenty

While the Ice Hockey As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia (IHAI) has been part of the In­ter­na­tional Ice Hockey Fed­er­a­tion (IIHF) since 1999, the na­tional men’s team made its in­ter­na­tional de­but only in 2009, while the women had to wait longer till 2016.

Both the sides have been com­pet­ing in the Chal­lenge Cup of Asia — a con­ti­nen­tal cham­pi­onship or­gan­ised by the IIHF — since then, with the men fin­ish­ing sec­ond in Divi­sion I in 2017. The women, mean­while, tasted their first in­ter­na­tional vic­tory the same year.

Th­ese aren’t head­line­grab­bing results but con­sid­er­ing the odds stacked up against th­ese hand­ful of play­ers rep­re­sent­ing the coun­try, they are note­wor­thy.

Con­sider this: the women’s team made it to the 2017 Women’s Chal­lenge Cup of Asia in Thai­land only due to a crowd­fund­ing ini­tia­tive by the IHAI, where it man­aged to col­lect Rs32 lakh in 10 days. The same ini­tia­tive, how­ever, failed to raise Rs12 lakh for men’s team.

“When it comes to com­pet­ing against other teams, we fall very short,” the 27-yearold Gyalt­son says. “For that, we have to do in two months things we should be ideally do­ing for six-eight months.”

The two months he is re­fer­ring to is for the most cru­cial as­pect in any sport — train­ing.

With the only ar­ti­fi­cial in­ter­na­tional rink in In­dia (in Dehradun) shut due to lack of funds and with train­ing over­seas be­ing a rare lux­ury, the na­tional play­ers — most of which hail from Ladakh — have to wait till Novem­ber for nat­u­ral ice to form.

“There are a few vil­lages higher up in the moun­tains where we get ice around one month ear­lier than in Leh city. We try and use that ice. We go to those places, start pre­par­ing the field, start play­ing with the ball and slowly pick up from there,” the Leh-based Gyalt­son says.

Prob­lem is, that ice lasts for only a cou­ple of months, and the lim­ited time frame has to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­thing re­lated to ice hockey in the coun­try: lo­cal tour­na­ments, IHAI na­tional tour­na­ments and se­lec­tion tri­als for the na­tional team.

“By the time all that fin­ishes, the ice is al­ready melt­ing. If there are funds with our as­so­ci­a­tion, we try and go to other places to train. If there are no funds, we have only a week to train to­gether as a na­tional team in Leh it­self be­fore we go to com­pe­ti­tions,” Gyalt­son says.

A ‘spe­cial’ sport

Ba­jaj went to Lad­hak in Janaury 2017 to shoot parts of his doc­u­men­tary, and came back with a big­ger de­sire of tak­ing the sub­ject to the masses.

“I went there to shoot with the play­ers, and also trav­elled with them to a tour­na­ment there­after. What I ob­served was that the play­ers are so pas­sion­ate about play­ing the sport, no mat­ter the chal­lenges they face,” he says.

Gyalt­son tries to make sense of that pas­sion, a lot of which rubs off through the en­thu­si­asm that the Ladakhis dis­play dur­ing those two months of ice hockey car­ni­val.

“The sport has some­thing spe­cial,” Gyalt­son says.

“If you watch the sport as a spec­ta­tor, you will be left thrilled. The game has a strong heart. That is some­thing you can only come and see in this part of the coun­try when we play here.

“Peo­ple come out early in the morn­ing in the cold win­ters to watch the game. The tem­per­a­ture would be -20 de­grees and it might be freez­ing cold, but there is some en­ergy that is mak­ing them come and watch this game.

“Imag­ine, some­one who doesn’t play at all has so much at­trac­tion to­wards the game. So, once you start play­ing, you feel all the more love as a player that you did as a spec­ta­tor.

“If some­one watches this game at least once, he/she will leave say­ing I want to watch this again and again. That’s the key, I feel. Once peo­ple get to know about the sport, they will re­ally want to watch this sport again.

“The ex­am­ple is right in front of you. The weather here in Lad­hak is so harsh, the con­di­tions so chal­leng­ing but the game is so spe­cial that al­most noth­ing can stop us,” he adds.

Noth­ing in­deed is stop­ping the In­dian ice hockey teams. Not even the lack of pop­u­lar­ity, not even the lack of funds, not even the lack of ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture and train­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

“That’s how we have to man­age. It’s un­cer­tain. It’s dif­fi­cult times,” Gyalt­son says.

“But at the same time, we look back at the past, and we see that things are im­prov­ing, even though slowly. So, we take those pos­i­tives and we move for­ward with the hope of a brighter fu­ture.”

—ICE HOCKEY AS­SO­CI­A­TION OF IN­DIA

Ac­tion from the na­tional ice hockey cham­pi­onship in Leh

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