India Ice Hockey, Part 3: Being True

A conscious decision was made prior to departing for Abu Dhabi for the 2nd IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) Challenge Cup of Asia (the 1st was in Hong Kong last year) that I was going to live by and promote the ideals of ice hockey - fun, hard-work, accountability, toughness, etc. - but still keep a distance between myself and the players. I was friendly, or at least in my opinion I was (sometimes I come off colder than I realize), but kept myself at arms length.

There were a few major reasons why I made this decision (from least to most important). I wanted to ensure that the team manager from the Ladakh Winter Sports Club was actively involved in managing the team during this trip, and didn’t just take this as a vacation to the UAE. As the coach, my primary job is to worry about the team on the ice and support what they’re doing off the ice, if it’s related to hockey (although when you move up in ranks, there are usually trainers and managers and assistant coaches that do things like that, but we’re not exactly the Montreal Canadiens here…maybe I should pick a winner…but we’re not exactly the Detroit Red Wings here). Of course, I care about how they behave and conduct themselves at all times, and would love to instruct each and every person on how they should carry themselves.

Just imagine it! A world according to Adam, where everyone is single, plays hockey for 12 hours a day, drinks massive quantities of expensive tea, The Beatles play on satellite speakers orbiting the Earth, and the utopia that is the Star Trek universe becomes a reality.

Did I just admit to all of that?!

Coming back to reality…the point is that I can’t be the team parent, especially since some players are 10-20 years older than me. With that in mind, I have made more than enough references to the way of life in Ladakh, and suffice it to say that they have a lot of development needed, in particular when it comes to analytical thinking and mental toughness.

Above all else, this was my primary motivation.

If, when all is said and done, these guys truly broadened their horizons, took some initiative, developed some toughness and determination, and maybe even learned some new things about life, then I can walk away elated. My experiences with them in Ladakh proved that this was not only important to their development as citizens of Earth, but also essential to their success in hockey.

I decided, though, that I would stay somewhat close to the captain and one of the goalies from the team, as they were the ones I used as team liaisons and translators. It was also important for them in their own hockey development, as this reaffirmed their leadership roles, and gave them a greater understanding of their responsibilities.

In the airport, I left the group mostly on their own to figure out how to get through. Out of 21 players on the team (a typical hockey roster can carry as many as 20 players, including the goalies, but one army player got added in because of politicking done by the army commander responsible for the team), nearly every single one of them had never left India before, save for 1 or 2. I wanted to see how they handled being fish out of water, as it was going to be a recurring theme over the upcoming week.

I waited for 15 minutes as they unloaded luggage off the bus and arranged themselves in groups of 4-6, based upon the reservation ticket. My ticket had 3 players, including the goalie that I kept in contact with, and even that was difficult.

I decided then that I couldn’t budge, this was going to be about personal development first. It was the only way to succeed. The impaired education system in Ladakh was now rearing its head, and I was going to prove to them how important intelligence and critical thinking was, on the ice, and off.

I wouldn’t have any reason to talk about a flight, if it was normal, but it wasn’t. The team was booked on a budget Middle Eastern airline, which is not a concern to me, as the funds are and were very limited. Prior to the team arriving in Delhi for the press conference and departure, the other military branch’s administration played hardball with the Ice Hockey Association of India, and ended up getting their flights paid for by the association as part of their condition for participating on the team, whereas the rest of the players either got funding, paid out of pocket, or had their division pay for the flight.

This infuriated me. I try my best to talk about character, and the ideals that the sport upholds, and this went against all of it. As it is, it’s an honor and a privilege for these players to be on the team, as the only thing it does is boost their potential for better careers, better positions, and ultimately better lives. That should have no value! Plus, any branch of the Indian military has enough money to pay for 6 players to participate in an ice hockey tournament. I don’t need to be an accountant to know that much.

I said it then when I found out about this, and I reiterate this point now, I would rather not have those players on the team at all if that’s how it’s going to be. I don’t believe any of them were involved in what transpired, but they were the bargaining tools in this power struggle, and the only body that looses is the hockey team. A precedent of selfishness had been set, and now I had another battle to fight, reintroducing selflessness and teamwork.

Because of this ongoing negotiation, the rest of the team had been booked in economy class. By the time an agreement had been reached, economy had been sold out, so those players were confirmed in business class, along with the manager. I was booked in coach.

There’s two tangents I need to take here. This situation happened to me once before. When I went to China, Angela and I flew coach on a 13 hour flight. It was brutal. I held a grudge for a long time about that, because it seemed like a terrible way to treat employees that were traveling to the opposite side of the world to help others. The least you could do was get them there comfortably, especially when the cost was a speck on the organization’s operating budget.

When I was scheduled to return to China, something that never happened for me, I was again booked in coach, whereas my director at the time was booked in business class. This really ticked me off (apparently, it still does!), as it again showed a cheapness and lack of respect for people trying to help others, and I was a bit vocal about my disdain. For me, that was the beginning of the end.

In regards to this trip, the situation is entirely different, and while I wasn’t offended about being in coach for a few hours, I wasn’t thrilled about it either, considering the circumstances that led to some of the team (and the manager) being booked in business class (he was late with his passport, so it delayed his booking as well). I made sure that when I got to the airport, I would get myself upgraded, and I did. For free. I don’t know which player, if any, got sent to coach as a result, but I do know that a handful of players, including the manager, sat in business class.

The budget flight flew into Dubai, which is not Abu Dhabi. Two and a half hours later, we arrived at our gorgeous hotel, tired (we were a few hours behind Indian time), and starving. Checking in was a nightmare, as the team would hover every once in a while, confusing everyone trying to check us in, myself included. There weren’t enough rooms booked for the team, but the hotel graciously gave me the single I required, as I wanted to make sure I was free of distractions and disturbances from the team, and force them to take some responsibility for themselves, manager included. I didn’t tell anyone where my room was, even when they asked.

My last act of babysitting was getting dinner for the team. One of the local volunteers drove me to a popular Middle Eastern restaurant (I love Middle Eastern food, but then again, I love food from everywhere!), something I had requested to enhance the culture shock for the team. I went alone, even after the goalie volunteering (rather, requested) to join. I declined. I ordered a massive hummus platter and falafel sandwiches for everyone, and arrived back at the hotel around 1:30am.

They were noticeably not thrilled with my food selection, which made it all the more important. They were in a foreign country, and they needed to be tolerant and understanding of the culture of that country, as they are the guests. Since they haven’t traveled outside India (and maybe even if they had), this was not a natural philosophy for them. Not everyone ate, and some looked upset that they had to pay, but that was also part of the arrangement that everyone was notified of, with ample time to protest, drop out, or raise the funds required.

It was the last time I’d arrange anything for the team. It was up to them now.

The next morning, we’d have our first and only practice prior to the tournament officially starting, and it’d be the first time that they’d skate on an international rink, let alone an indoor one.

What type of practice would you plan?

I want to take a moment to step back a little bit to say thank you. As I was reflecting on this experience, and what transpired in whole with the team, I made sure to stick to a plan that I believed in, develop mental toughness, character, responsibility, teamwork, and foster critical thinking. In times of frustration and stress, I felt that maybe I wasn’t focusing enough on developing skills, and that we’d fare better if I had (is this too much foreshadowing?), but it felt wrong to think that way.

It was only after a conversation with my mother, that I was reminded that this is exactly why I set out to do this mission, and it’s exactly what I said I’d do. One of my earliest posts (Who I am and why do I love hockey?) describes why I love hockey (redundant), and why I believe it’s more than just the best sport on Earth, but a powerful tool for improving the lives of people around the world.

As I got caught up in the heat of the moment, I forgot that mantra, even while living by it, and my mother, so often my conscience, reminded me of that exact point, single-handedly reassuring me that I’d kept my promise to myself, and the people that donated, while staying true to and honoring the game.

So thank you, Mom. I love you.


I thought this post was going to be about the tournament, but after seeing how much I wrote about the pre-cursors, the post on the tournament will come next.