Ice Hockey in Ladakh, Part 3: Slap-shooting Idealism into Practice

The reason why we rushed back from Chiktan to Leh was that we scheduled a hockey game against the top SECMOL team that had missed the Kargil Open to participate in the CEC Cup in Leh, a prominent tournament hosted by the Ladakh Winter Sports Club.  As you know already (PART 1), this is the same tournament that had the SECMOL team dominated 15-0 in their first game, but they were able to rebound very well on the backs of a few players and make it to the finals.  If they hadn’t made it to the playoffs, they would’ve joined us in Chiktan/Kargil.

The night we returned, we went straight to Leh and stayed with some relatives of the aforementioned Tashi Angchok…what an amazing guy, by the way! Once again, these folks were incredibly warm and friendly. As common in Leh, they had specifically built small guest rooms on their property, which had a double and a triple room with non-functioning western-style bathrooms. Hey, it’s the thought that counts!

Dinner and breakfast at the house were delicious, and as with all of the families I have met so far, their children were adorable, and cared for in the most heart-warming ways!

After breakfast, the Vermont, USA triumphantly returned to SECMOL, with the trophy that had “Winner, Men’s Final” written on it (as stated previously, one of our players was a woman…still is, as a matter of fact). We played against the top boys team that had remained behind, this time without our 3 Ladakhi’s (although we borrowed a new Ladakhi goalie), and absolutely dominated them through our passing. At the end of the day, 5 non-acclimatized Americans that know how to pass, skate and shoot, can dominate any number of Ladakhi’s that can’t. 

It also allowed me to really notice the hockey deficiencies that I need to work on with their team, and in particular the players with the most potential.

That evening, we returned to Tashi’s to watch the Obama inauguration (yes, this is delayed by about a week…it allows me to set up stories). Our hosts prepared a special feast and we went into the Leh Bazaar (Main St.) to pick up snacks, beer and juice (Vitamin C is in high demand here during the Winter). Watching everything from Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India is one of the most unique things I ever could have imagined for such an important moment in American history. Myself, 4 folks from Vermont, and Tashi huddled up in a small room around a heater and TV, snacking silently, late at night, watching everything unfold. At 11pm, in the middle of Obama’s speech, when the power of Leh got turned off, our generator turned on, but not before missing about 2 minutes or so of the speech.

The reason I bring up President Obama is that in no small part, what is happening at home has contributed to what I am trying to do abroad. The pride I felt after Election Day in the fact that change is possible - and hopefully coming - motivated me to do my part. I have been an idealist for some time, and while you can’t live each day in a state of disillusion and think the world is a perfect place with friendly people, that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to contribute to the improvement. The election, and in particular the inauguration, was reinforcement that when people work together to make a difference, they can achieve anything. I want to work with people that love hockey, care about the ideals (the base of “idealism”) of the game, and want to improve the lives of children in India, as well as children around the world, utilizing a sport that can be so empowering.

As in China, where hockey has given the children more opportunities for a better education, or play hockey professionally in Asia, if not represent their country in the Olympics, the same is true in India. 

In a country where there is still rampant corruption, an immense population (1.1 billion and growing faster than China’s 1.3 billion), and an underlying current of tension stemming from religious and/or cultural factors – the caste system still exists in some ways, and there is a major difference between rural and urban populations – participating in a major hockey tournament in India is something to put on your resume and receive a distinct competitive edge when looking for jobs, such as in the military (a very desirable job here).

Before the 4th National Ice Hockey Tournament began, Tashi wanted to introduce me to someone. Before he could say anything, I knew what he was referring to. Before I departed on my journey to Ladakh & India, I reached out to Akshay Kumar, General Secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India. We had a brief conversation, and vowed to meet when he was in Leh. Since this was about the time I knew I was supposed to meet with Tashi, I knew immediately that he had run into Akshay and discussed how involved I have been with hockey to date.

Akshay was with the members of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club, the local body that runs the hockey in Ladakh…and by Ladakh, I mean Leh, as other regions of Ladakh have their own organizations (such as Kargil Ice and Snow Sports Club, or something to that affect). I discussed 

my background with youth hockey, as well as my passion for the sport and how I want to see it improve in India, and he shared how the association has grown into recognition/prominence, through some significant challenges, and the plans that he has to really see the sport grow constructively in India. Akshay’s desire to bring India into the world of ice hockey reinforced my desire to help the country succeed!

Immediately, we got to work. One of Akshay’s main concerns centered on the scoring system being used. I helped re-draft a score-sheet for officials to use, and explained what every column on the sheet meant and why it was tracked. For the time being, we took off the plus/minus chart, as it is too detailed for their comforts as of yet. As it is, there has been an incredibly tough time just figuring out what player scored the goal, let alone who assisted them.

Another concern of his was that with players and referees not understanding the internationally accepted rules of the game, that any team that represents India in international play (in particular the 2009 IIHF Asia Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi, UAE) would end up embarrassing the country because they were so accustomed to the local rules. I set out to help relieve this problem, and sat down with the local referees and began discussing the basic rules of hockey. For about an hour I instructed them on the penalties, like which ones are common, what the signal for those penalties are, and what the infraction for each call is. I went in depth with them regarding off-sides, icing and how to line up for face-offs as well.

Let’s start with icing. When it came to Ladakhi hockey, there is a penchant for taking slap-shots. No doubt, a hard slap-shot to the top blocker corner of the net, or a low slap-shot that gets deflected are very hard to stop for a goaltender. But as we know, the least accurate shot in hockey is the one you slap. Even for trained professionals it’s tough to just pick a spot and hit it, now add a talented goalie. Maybe “talented” is the important word, because goaltending in Ladakh needs to be improved upon heavily…similar to our situation in China a few years ago. To make matters worse here, while the goalies may not be able to stop many shots, most players are not terrific at aiming. They wind up from anywhere on the rink, looking to score on the lowest-percentage shot the game has, especially when you’re in your own defensive zone. As we know, if you miss the net from there, it’s icing, but here in Ladakh, it wasn’t being called. I explained that the background behind icing is to penalize a team that is just delaying the game by shooting the puck down the ice. It’s hockey’s form of prevent defense, and as a result, the face-off comes back in your zone. We discussed the ins and outs of icing, with a lot of questions coming my way regarding a slap-shot goal that was called icing in an earlier tournament that should have been allowed, but was called off for some reason. For the record, the more talented players in Ladakh are so accustomed to taking slap shots from anywhere on the rink, that they actually do hit the goalie in the chest on a regular basis. Sometimes they get lucky and it goes in. I wanted to make sure that even though that type of luck is rare in international play and in the NHL, every referee is prepared for anything.

Off-sides was a bit easier to grasp for the group, although it took longer for me to explain. We discussed the difference between skating off-sides, passing off-sides, and shooting the puck while off-sides. At the time, they seemed to really understand all of it, and proved themselves capable of understanding bits and pieces; there is a lot about off-sides that still needs to be ingrained in to the local psyche. The slap-shot dilemma can also be applied to off-sides, as every time the puck would come out of the zone (on a rink that was barely 2/3 that of the NHL), they would immediately attempt a slap-shot. If they were fortunate enough to hit the net, the ruling would be that the play is off-sides and the face-off would be dropped at or near the location of the shot. Yeah, good luck explaining situations like that!

In regards to face-offs, the situation in Leh is very similar to in Kargil. I started with where to have face-offs after off-sides, icing and when the goalie covers the puck, and while they swore this was understood, I knew the old habits of dropping pucks anywhere on the ice were going to die hard. The referees also seemed to all have a hot date after their games, because they didn’t give the teams any chance to change before dropping the puck, which was as hurried as could be. They also blew their whistle incessantly, and pointed randomly, which made me feel like I was back in New York watching a traffic cop trying to control the road during rush-hour. At the same time, players were lining up anywhere they damn pleased on the ice, which made Face-Off Philosophy 101 a bit tough to teach. 

Here’s the thing, in hockey, during a face-off, your teammates are either behind you (e.g. the defense, usually), or lined up with you and the face-off dot (e.g. the forwards, usually). If you have a stray forward that is playing with butterflies out in left-field, (aka hanging out at the other end of the ice), you might be tempted to win the face-off forward to that player. I’d probably want to do the same if that’s the way the game was played, but it’s not. Plus, it’s damn hard! You have to perfectly win your face-off forward to that distant player, through the opposing team’s center and teammates, including one that is probably in man-coverage at the end of the rink. OK…let’s say you magically accomplish that feat, how hard did you have to hit the stick and the puck? If you guessed “very”, you’re correct, and are now qualified to take a face-off against Ladakhis. In an area where sticks and equipment are not easy to come by, you’d think there’d be some logic applied to self-preservation, which includes one’s material possessions. Not the case. Sticks break often, and fly wildly, and players get hit everywhere when they take a face-off. It’s not uncommon to see a puck hurriedly dropped and only 1 player standing at the faceoff dot, or better yet, 2 teammates standing there.

Yeah, this is a bit of a challenge!

Let the 4th National Ice Hockey Championship begin!