aka “The Canadians (and two Americans) take on the best of Ladakh”
About a month before coming to Ladakh, I got a message from Tony Kretschmar, the organizer of the hockey team (mostly) from the Canadian High Commission (Embassy) in New Delhi, called the New Delhi Sacred Bulls (cows are sacred in India… get it?). He wanted to know whether I’d be returning to Ladakh for hockey, as we had met the previous time I was in town. A couple of weeks later, I gave Tony a definitive “yes”.
The Canadian High Commission has been participating in the Ladakh Winter Tourism Cup (formerly known as the Indo-Canadian Friendship Cup) for 11 years. Tony has been on the team for 10, when he got a job working for an engineering firm in New Delhi. These days he’s working for the same firm in Shanghai, close enough to still participate in the tournament every year.
The team was smaller this year, arriving with only 7 players and no goalie. Alex and I joined the team as well, as did Paul, the aforementioned Canadian doing a world-tour, bringing the total to 10, plus a goalie borrowed from local teams. The three of us, having been in the region longer and been on the ice more, were in better general shape for the tournament, between acclimation and practice, but that didn’t make the experience any better.
Once you get over the symptoms of altitude sickness it doesn’t mean you are back to normal. Oxygen is still at minimal levels. At an average pace, your body just gets by, but your heart is working harder to keep you at status quo. Just a small exertion is difficult on the body, forcing the heart and lungs to work harder than they are accustomed to. Our team had just enough players to allow us all to skate hard during our shifts. Typically, if you have 10 players, you have two full lines that rotate back and forth at a consistent tempo. This allows both lines to skate hard and rest up at adequate intervals. Any less, and players are forced to take uneven shifts, which usually results in less rest and/or shifts on the ice of half speed. That’s at normal altitude.
At high altitude, each shift is more difficult. Going 100% is now a venture that results in less time, more exertion, and a longer recovery. Even having acclimated and skated nearly every day after my altitude sickness, these shifts were difficult.
On a 1-on-1 level, most of our team was better than our competition in an understanding of hockey and an ability to follow through on that understanding. That’s not the issue. Hockey is a team game, and Ladakh hockey has yet to develop the team game. Players don’t know positioning when they don’t have the puck, which is far more important than where you go with the puck. Our goal was to make sure we stay in our positions and pass the puck to the open player. I made it clear I’d rush the puck a few times when the motivation struck (I volunteered to play defense - aka defence for the Canadian readers), but other than that, I’d just stay in my position and play the part (stop the offense, pass to my teammates, get the puck on net when I had it at the point).
Every game, while difficult, was still easy. When you play hockey the right way, it’s easy to win. It doesn’t matter what level you play at, assuming general parity, if you play against a team that doesn’t play together, you will win. It’s the whole reason why I argue that hockey is the best game to communicate ideals that improve the community.
The best players in NHL history and present could never be successful, in personal and team accomplishments, if they didn’t work together with their teammates, and vice versa. Wayne Gretzky has scored more goals than any player in NHL history. He has double the assists. His Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers would never have been possible if he didn’t have teammates like Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe (among many others), that could score off of his passes and stick up for him physically on the ice, as he is an obvious target as the best player on the ice. If players went after Gretzky, they’d be dealt with swiftly. The Islanders dynasty before them operated in the same way. Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby won Stanley Cups with the Penguins because they had teammates that could score goals as much as their captains could (Jagr & Malkin, respectively), and had role players that played tough defense, got into the scraps necessary, and dished the puck to the stars or scored the goals when the stars were being covered. If it was just a team of fighters, passers, or goal-scorers, the concept of a team game is gone, and the success of that team is greatly hindered.
Now, we’re not NHL-ers, contrary to what the Hindustan Times said of me two years ago (twice!), but we do understand that we’ll win if we work together. That’s all we did. It was rare that the opposing team even made it into our defensive zone, and when they did, we shut them down quickly. Every game was a victory. In total, our local goalies only let in a handful of goals.
We played against many players I trained on the Indian National Team, between one team that included the captain from the national team, and ITBP, which had about half the team. ITBP was by far our toughest competition. They skated harder than we did, were in far better shape (being a “police force”), and has the highest concentration of good players in Ladakh. What they didn’t have was a concept of where to be on the ice when they controlled the puck and where to be on the ice when we controlled the puck in their zone. They had the one of the best goalies, but once we realized we had to play harder, we relentlessly peppered him with shots. There was no way he would be able to stay on top of them all.
Overall, the tournament was a ton of fun. I was overall pleased with my play, when I could focus on anything other than breathing. I scored when I needed/wanted to, for the most part, although I nearly took out Bashir’s son on a shot I missed, and got physical in the ITBP to send a message to the players that they need to toughen up. The team played well together and got along very well off the ice.
The tournament itself was organized a bit strangely, as the team only participated in the exhibition round. The tournament continued through to a playoff round and finals, without the winning-est team making it trough. Granted, other than Tony and his son, nobody from the team remained in Ladakh for the rest of the matches, as they were only in town for a few days. Next year, the intent is for the tournament to be better organized around the team’s duration of stay. At the same time, it will even more so be a Winter Tourism Cup.
I want to use this moment to let you know there are tentative plans for more teams to participate in the Winter Tourism Cup next year, which will most likely take place in both Leh, Ladakh and in Dehra Dun, 5 hours outside of Delhi, where India’s only indoor ice arena is located. This trip would be about two weeks, and are open to select people.
If you are interested in coming to Ladakh/India (as stated previously, they are different in so many way) for two weeks to experience ice hockey and the culture of Ladakh & mainland India, please fill out the contact form and select the “Hockey Exchange Excursions” from the drop-down menu. I’ll provide more information as it becomes available.
Applications will be accepted through August 31, 2011. Costs have yet to be finalized. Stay tuned for more details.
Lastly, it’s important to understand the impact that the Canadian High Commission team has had on hockey in Ladakh. While the team only comes once a year for rarely more than a week, their participation in an annual tournament at the highest altitude ice rink in the world garnered the attention of documentarists (spell-check is not allowing that word. I’m sticking with it.), newspapers, and ultimately one of the coaches from the LA Kings. That support led to a Ladakhi hockey contingent going to the USA & Finland for training, of which some drama in the region still exists (maybe those are details I will share again one day, as I am still trying to understand all sides of the story). Their continued support has greatly helped improve the quality of the game in the sense that it has shown the locals that even older, out of shape, oxygen-starved hockey players that play together are still better at the game when they play together than locals that play every day the wrong way.
The Hockey Foundation is creating a more consistent training program for Ladakh so that they can share their unique culture with the rest of the world in international friendship tournaments like the one they’ve been hosting for over a decade. Until then, you’ll have to come to Ladakh to see and feel the magic yourself!