I first traveled to Ladakh, India in January 2009, on a whim, because I saw the impact hockey had on the children that had the opportunity to play the game when I coached in China and around Long Island, New York, during my time working for the New York Islanders.
That trip was hastily organized on my part, to say the least. I showed up in India without a sleeping bag, but with a ton of idealism...and a bag of hockey equipment to donate to SECMOL (Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), the school that inspired me to travel halfway around the world to play and coach hockey. My desire - then and now - was/is to make an impact on peoples lives, with hockey as the entry point.
That trip in 2009 was supposed to last only 5-6 weeks, but ended up being over 3 months. It was among the most impactful 3 months I've ever experienced in my life, and from that maiden voyage to India, The Hockey Foundation was born.
After spending 2010 trying to get my life back in order after being away from home for so long (my total trip in 2009 lasted 5 months), I returned to India in 2011 with a companion. I met Alex Harney in October of 2010, and we immediately hit it off around our love of tea, travel, hockey and philanthropy. After a relatively brief conversation, it was agreed upon that Alex would join me in Ladakh to take photos and video, as well as assist on the ice. I consider this to be the official debut of The Hockey Foundation, and now nearly 6 years later, we've accomplished so much due to the hard work and passion of a small band of brothers and sisters bonded over our mutual passion to change lives via hockey.
In 2011, Alex and I obviously brought more equipment than I personally did in 2009. We also set out to support new communities, and help expand our reach around Northern India. We were fortunate to meet Paul Kozowyk (from Calgary) in Ladakh, and he joined up with us for a portion of our coaching program to lend a hand behind the camera and on the ice while in Kargil District (in Western Ladakh). It was a great season, but a tough trip, especially because I had left my full time job for 3 months to make sure that THF's season was as full as possible.
I was so grateful to my full-time employer for giving me the extended time off in 2011 that I promised them I wouldn't repeat a 3-month sabbatical in 2012. All was going as planned until India was awarded the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, the annual hockey tournament the team participates in most years. I coached India's first national ice hockey team in 2009, passing off the duties to my assistant coach in 2011 (the team didn't compete in 2010), and in addition to a request to resume my duties behind the bench I was also responsible for finding an ice technician to help set & maintain the ice during the tournament. The CCOA was a resounding success, and is still the site of India's only international win, which took place on my birthday, March 21, 2012.
While that trip was dedicated to the CCOA, THF returned to Ladakh (and Shimla) in 2013 to expand our programming, and expand we did!
Alex and Paul returned to India to support THF. We came with significantly more equipment, an itinerary to reach even more communities, and expand our impact dramatically. Mid-way into this trip, we were joined by Antoine Jouvet (from Montreal) whom had been travelling in SE Asia and was completely under-dressed for the Ladakh weather. He was so dedicated to joining our program he had his equipment shipped by his family just so he could join us on the ice.
That was the beginning of a string of years in India that successively built upon one another. For the core group from 2011/13:
- Paul was no longer able to join us due to his pursuit of a PhD
- Alex returned for a 3rd consecutive year in 2014, but skipped 2015 after having just been married (he proposed earlier that year at one of the high passes in Ladakh!), taking a honeymoon and moving in to a new home, and returned in 2016, where he and I had the opportunity to introduce hockey to Southern India for the first time. Over that period of, Alex was still the primary camera-guy, capturing the invaluable photos and video footage that were not only used by THF (like in our "How Hockey Helps" video), but by a handful of documentaries that had been about hockey in Ladakh/India over the years
- Antoine returned in 2014, 2015 & 2016, making 4 years straight with THF in India! Every year he brought new volunteer coaches with him, and took on greater responsibility on the ground, building long-term relationships with the different hockey programs around Ladakh.
One thing I'm supremely proud of is how our program grew every year, mostly due to the hard work of these individuals. We coached more players in more communities, donating more equipment in the process (thanks in part to the support we received from Sun Life Financial). We got to learn how hockey changes lives for so many people in Ladakh, in Shimla, in Delhi, and all over the world. Our volunteer coaches lives were changed through the experiences they had, the impact they made and the relationships they built. Hockey in India really is approaching a tipping point. New community rinks are being built every year, indoor facilities are being planned, equipment importation/distribution companies are being former and a number of the players I've coached since 2009 are becoming the next generation of hockey leaders in India: coaches, officials, referees, etc.
But one thing that has been clear for a long time: the program would have to adapt. Things were and are going to change.
As the core group of myself, Alex and Antoine get into our advanced years (none of us are 35 yet), we all have to spend time focusing on our lives at home, which have often been sacrificed for the benefit of The Hockey Foundation and the communities we support.
For myself, I was married just over a year ago and am settling in a new home in a new city (in a new country). Alex is about to have his first child. Antoine has just moved in to a new home and has an infant to take care of as well. In short, we all have personal lives outside of THF that require our attention, and this is providing a great opportunity for The Hockey Foundation to continue to adapt as it grows.
While we will not have 10 coaches scattered around India like we did in January-February of 2016, we will have two great representatives of THF on the ground for about a month, with a handful of folks joining them during that time.
- Alexis Daudelin (from Montreal), whom we met last season while in the Himalayas, will be returning to Ladakh for a 2nd time to coach
- Corey Adams (from Long Island), whom was the hard-working editor that produced the "How Hockey Helps" video will be on the ice and behind the camera
We'll share a bit more about their plans and the group that will be joining them in a future post (this one's long enough as it is). Antoine and I are (and will be) managing the India program from North America, collaborating and planning with our partners in India to ensure that Alexis and Corey are well looked after and set up to succeed. They will of course donate hockey equipment to in-need communities/programs, as well as donate boxes of books to different schools around Ladakh, in collaboration with ILSC (again, more details in subsequent posts).
Beyond the real-life circumstances that require this adaptation on behalf of our dedicated team, it also allows us to develop a process that enables The Hockey Foundation to support more countries simultaneously, if we can manage programs remotely. This in turn can help us keep costs low, which allows more programs to be funded. Fundraising is the toughest part of what we do, and we're making every effort to alleviate expenses wherever possible.
Of course, nothing is free, and our programming still does have costs associated with them in order to keep running.
So, I'll close with a simple request to help us ensure that Corey and Alexis have a smooth trip.
If you're willing and able to donate during this season of giving, please head to our donation page. No amount is too big or small. Please help us continue changing lives via hockey...one puck at a time.
Warmest regards, happy holidays & happy new year!
Executive Director & Founder