The Plan, Part 2: Leh Hockey Camp

For the first few days we were in Ladakh, a sense of restlessness kept me unbalanced, mentally and physically.  First, altitude sickness struck.  When you grow up and live at sea level (Long Island/NYC), you don’t think about altitude.  When people complain about playing sports in Colorado, it seems like they are just unfit.  The concept about how altitude affects the mind and body is completely foreign.   Altitude sickness is real and serious.  As you rise in altitude, the oxygen content in the air is reduced.  Your first breaths seem normal, but then the headache creeps up on you.  It starts as just a mild irritation, and by the end of the day, it’s a full-fledged brain pain.  This is due to the lack of oxygen, but also to the difference in volume of minerals in the tissue, including water.  The brain swells with the retained water from lower altitudes and is starving for the oxygen it’s accustomed to.  The same can happen in the lungs, although less common.  This lack of oxygen confuses the brain, greatly hindering focus and attention.  Basic thoughts are challenging.  The only thing on the mind is “make the pain go away!”  The human body is remarkable at adapting though.  The excess water molecules are filtered through the endocrine system so that urination frequency increases significantly for the first few days until the right balance is found.  At the same time, the body is working to digest the food in the system from the lower altitude, so appetite is temporarily reduced.  It’s important to keep eating and drinking during this period, but at a much lower volume than would be normal at the lower altitude.  This is the normal altitude sickness that people experience at this elevation, although symptoms can be more or less severe depending on personal health and random factors.  Rumor has it that smokers fare better with acclimation, as their bodies are already used to oxygen deprivation from the cigarettes.  Alex proved this true, as he didn’t experience the severe headache I experienced as a non-smoker. 

Through the acclimation process, all I could do was observe hockey and go on a field trip to see a lake (and more hockey).  Although I knew this wasn’t the case, it felt like the hockey camp in Leh would be delayed again and again, but finally hockey camps began at Karzoo pond, just off the Main Bazaar in Leh.  To one side are beautiful ridged mountains of snowy white and sandy tan.  Towards the town is Leh Palace, centuries old and towering hundreds of feet over the town.  On the opposite side of the mountains are more mountains in the distance, including the high peaks of Spithuk and Stok.  Opposite the town is Shanti Stuppa, a ceremonial stuppa built by Japanese Buddhists to promote peace and cooperation, and which provides one of the best views of the Leh Valley, as it’s also hundreds of feet up.
Our hockey camp in Leh – along with all of the hockey programming we run in India -are organized in conjunction with the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI).  Players participating in the camps pay a small fee per day to participate, as it enables to Ice Hockey Association of India to raise funds to pay for development camps in the future and fund a national team to compete in IIHF-sanctioned (International Ice Hockey Federation) competitions.  At the same time, the goal in Ladakh is to develop the level of hockey comprehension of the community, and it’s important for them to understand that ice hockey cannot sustain itself in Ladakh if everything is free.  There will be no value to the work done, and locals will be less inclined to take ownership of the game.  This has been the case so far.  Reinforcing the fact that hockey requires an investment of time and money (it doesn’t have to be a lot of money, as in parts of the US & Canada), makes people respect that fact that there’s work going into developing the game.  A simple analogy is when a college student pays for their own education they tend to go to class more and work harder, as they are investing in their own future, whereas if their education is paid for (by their parents, for example), sometimes they don’t value the investment of time and money made on their behalf, and don’t work as hard.

Prior to starting the hockey camp, I proposed that we limit the group to 60 max, and split it up between beginner and “advanced” (quotes intended) players, 30 each, for an hour each.  As is typical in Ladakh, the plan didn’t pan out as expected.  What ended up happening was 60 kids came on the ice, with no predetermined level of play.  Many didn’t have hockey sticks, and most were wearing skates way too big for their feet.  Two hours later, after running basic skating and passing drills, the session ended with no progress in splitting the groups.
Alex joined me on the ice to coach, taking photos and videos intermittently, as did Suhail, one of the Ladakhis that refereed the tournaments (he runs the Ladakhi Ice Hockey page on Facebook).  Day two was much the same, this time with Alex and Suhail spending more time supporting the drills on the ice.
There are a few problems about coaching hockey in a foreign country.  The most obvious is language.  While English is a major language in India, Ladakh is less like India than many parts of the country.  The level of English comprehension is limited.  Culture is also a major component, as the protocols for paying attention, standing in line and working together are aspects of culture, and differ from country to country and community to community.  To make matters worse, the education system in Ladakh is generally awful.  Teachers submit to the parents and pass students so as to not have any problems.  They frequently don’t show up for class, and work for a paycheck and nothing more.  So what we have is limited English comprehension and a population that is limited in its critical thinking, the skill that school is most important in developing (sure, math and science are important, but you can’t solve a math or science problem if you don’t know how to solve any problems), along with a population that hasn’t had formal instruction in sports (let alone hockey) so they don’t know how to work together as a team on the ice.  They don’t pay attention, and when they do they don’t understand.  That’s where we’re starting.  Fortunately having Suhail translate helped reduce some complication, although not much.

From the onset of our program, the goals have been very clear in words: use hockey as means to teach accountability, honesty, hard-work, team-work, selflessness & toughness, both mental and physical as a way to improve life in the community.  But in practice, how does that work, and what does it mean?

Every drill selected for the hockey camps in Ladakh had a component related to these criteria.  One of the biggest pet peeves of mine about hockey culture in Ladakh/India is that when people fall on the ice everybody laughs.  To put that into perspective, picture yourself with skates that are four sizes too large for your feet.  As a result, your ankles are turned inwards and your foot slides around.  Now add blades that are dull to the point that you slide sideways on the ice while trying to go forwards, and they’ve been worn down so much that every time you turn your blade no longer touches the ice, but the plastic the holds the blade does.  The fact that you were standing at all is a miracle.  Day in and day out, Ladakhi children are playing in these conditions.  With no protective equipment (usually).  So when you fall, and you will fall – it’s hockey after all – you land on hard and cut up ice with only your bones, joints and tissue to break the fall.  At the very least, you walk away with bruises.  At the most, you leave the ice broken bones and/or popped joints.
I haven’t used elbow and shoulder pads in over 10 years.  Every once in a while, I fall on my elbow and pop my joint sac.  I know this because I played with a doctor who checked me out after one of my games.  I hit the boards once without my shoulder pads and separated my AC joint.  I was out for 4 months.

The point is falling hurts, especially if you don’t have hockey equipment on.  It’s not funny.  It’s hockey.  (I am not including the intermission entertainment that is heavily padded and is solely there to fall and provide entertainment…that is pretty funny).

So lesson 1 to the kids on the ice: don’t laugh at your fallen teammate.  Until you are playing against them in a game, you are all on the same team, and you want to encourage each other to succeed and keep working hard (another goal), even when you fall.  They heard me, but they didn’t listen.  By day 3, the terms of this changed.  If I hear a laugh, I expect the person to come forward and admit it (accountability/honesty).  They will skate a couple of laps, and be done with it.  If they don’t admit to laughing at their fallen teammate, then the others need to be honest and accountable to the rest of their team and rat out the laugher.  If that doesn’t happen then everybody skates more than the one person would.  Not only did they hear me on that point, but they listened.

To address the paying attention was simple.  When players didn’t pay attention, I used the old-school trick of embarrassment.  I skated over to the player talking or looking the other way, and just stared.  It was uncomfortable for me and for them, and the embarrassment factor motivated the players to pay attention.  In a culture that appreciates respect of elders/superiors/instructors (in concept) and incorporates elements of “saving face” (that is, don’t explicitly embarrass somebody as it’s unkind); going against the grain gets players to respond quicker.  To skip ahead a bit, near the end of the clinic in Leh, I was explaining one of the more advanced drills to the group and one player was looking in the opposite direction.  I called him to the front of the group, took my whistle off, handed it to him, and asked if he’d like to explain the drill.  If I didn’t send him back in line, he may have shit himself right there.  I felt awful, but the point was made.  Pay attention.  It’s your time, money and skill development.  If you improve enough, you can represent your country.

When all of these components are combined, the community is improved because players understand that in order to achieve great things, they must work together in a more open and honest environment.  That transcends culture and religion.  Winters in Ladakh are harsh.  It’s well below freezing.  Many of the businesses close and most tourists avoid the season, even though the true character of Ladakh comes out in the winter.  Industry is limited; income is reduced; options are minimal.  Hockey is all that’s left.  Giving the kids and adults better resources to play hockey improves their state of mind in the toughest time of the year.  If they improve enough, they can represent their country in international tournaments, with experiences of a lifetime and a future most Ladakhis would never dream of.  This is an improvement of life in the community.

Before the camp started, I used the IIHF coaching center (I refuse to type centre) to sketch out drills to run, being acutely aware that 1) nothing goes as planned & 2) I will most likely have to adjust the clinic drill by drill.  Both were correct.  Nearly every drill that I wanted to do was too advanced.  Drills I did as a Pee-Wee, the same age as many of the advanced kids, were far too complex.  Passing without taking a slap-shot was a project.  Passing a puck in the general direction of the other player’s stick was a dissertation.  

Doing cross-overs, where you go in a circle placing one leg over the other, was for the scholars only, at least in the beginning.  The beautiful thing was that by the end of the camp, there was a significant improvement in these fundamental skills.  For some, improvement never came, but for most, the basics like skating and passing became much stronger.  The important part is getting these to become natural and instinctual.  

Day in and day out, we reinforced basic concepts of hockey, always starting with skating and passing, and continuing on to puck-handling and shooting.  If you followed my adventures two years ago, you’d know that Ladakh was (and still is) a slap-shot happy place.  It wasn’t until the very end of the camp that I even went over slap-shots with the advanced group, and only to work on screens, deflections and rebounds, never with the explicit intent to score from long distance with perfect line of sight.  The weakest link of hockey in Ladakh is goaltending, so I tried to make it clear that goalies from other countries would easily stop a poorly aimed slap shot that barely leaves the ice and travels no faster than 50 mph (80 km/h).  Most of the time, we worked on taking a proper wrist shot.  That was complicated enough.
The problem with pond hockey is that it’s easy to lose pucks.  The problem with hockey in Ladakh is that pucks are limited and expensive (upwards of $10/puck).  I came to Ladakh with only a handful of pucks.  In the future, I will be coming with bundles (up to my weight limit), at least until I can help some locals establish a business that can produce and/or sell pucks in a much more cost effective way.  Bringing pucks over from Europe or North America is not sustainable.  It must be more local, whether India, China or another country in the region produces them, and it must be sold at a more competitive price, even if it gets closer to $3 a puck, although I’m sure it can be sold for a profit at a much lower price.  The point is, there aren’t many pucks available, and as a result there aren’t many drills available.

To help with the puck problem, please use the contact form to request how to help.  We will coordinate a way for you to ship pucks to India as a temporary fix, until a permanent solution is created.

As mentioned in pieces before, the biggest challenge about teaching hockey in Ladakh has been devising drills that meet the following criteria (in no particular order, as all are important):
  • Easily explained in English so that it can be easily understood/translated
  • Reinforces basic fundamentals of hockey
  • Emphasizes the basic principles/ideals The Hockey Foundation has been established to promote (mentioned above)
  • Uses minimal pucks while keeping players as active as possible
  • Is fun in some capacity
  • Can be upgraded for the “advanced” group
  • Can be practiced together with no coach
  • With more practice, will greatly improve the skills of the players, based on current levels

A few days in, we were finally able to separate the beginners from the “advanced”, which were really just glorified beginners.  The big distinction is that the advanced group was comprised of better skaters.  The shooting and passing of both groups was generally on par with the other, although we selected the kids that were good at one of those categories to join the advanced group where we saw fit.  
One of the biggest surprises and delights for me was seeing most of the girls in the clinic not only be in the “advanced” group, but were frequently the most attentive in the group, performed the drills the best, and kept the rest of the group in line.  All around, their performance was among the highlights of coaching in Leh.  It’s important to note that many of them were selected to represent India in international speed skating competitions, so they already had a reasonable understanding of how to skate properly, although there are significant style differences between hockey skating, speed skating and figure skating, as well as the construction of the skates used for each.

The coaching camp progressed pretty well.  A couple of times we were joined on the ice by an American of Indian ethnicity from LA that had come to Ladakh with a group of people filming an independent Bollywood film about hockey in Ladakh (I had my 15 seconds of fame in the movie), from a Canadian Paul that was doing a world-circuit that included Ladakh in Winter because he was drawn to the region by SECMOL, just as I was two years prior, as well as from the organizer of the Canadian High Commission team that plays in Leh every year, as well as his son.  This help allowed us to demonstrate drills more effectively, have more eyes on the kids and offer more personal instruction when questions arose.

When all is said and done, there’s no doubt the hockey camp was a success in Leh.  When it neared its end, there were requests to set up extra days, but between the Canadian High Commission team (aka New Delhi Sacred Bulls) participating in the tournament in Leh (Alex and I were members of the team) and the plan to go to our next destination already in place, it was impossible.  It will have to be next year.