IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia

Indian National Ice Hockey Team: How it's Relevant

First Indian National Ice Hockey Team, New Delhi, 2009

First Indian National Ice Hockey Team, New Delhi, 2009

You may or may not be aware that along with being the founder, Head Coach and Executive Director of The Hockey Foundation, I'm also the Head Coach of the Indian national ice hockey team.  Yes...that's right...India has an ice hockey team.

Let's get a few things out of the way here...

While on the surface it may appear to be similar, no, it's not like Jamaican Bobsled (as depicted in the movie "Cool Runnings".  Whereas in Jamaica it was a group of men who trained for the Olympics in the US for a sport very much unfamiliar to their nation, in India, ice hockey has been around for about 100 years in the mountainous regions where the game can actually be played outdoors, and we do not compete at a level even close to the Olympics.  In fact, we're one of the lowest ranked teams in the world, and that's OK.

The players on my team are comprised of military and civilians.  They're respectful, hard-working, absolutely love ice hockey, and come from limited means.  Many do not own the equipment that they use, often borrowing from their friends that do not get the opportunity to represent their country in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, a developmental tournament for low/un-ranked Asian hockey nations.  Due to the lack of popularity and support for ice hockey in India at large (it's immensely popular in Ladakh, where 90+% of ice hockey in India takes place), the players have to pay their own way in order to play.  It's an unfortunate reality.  Until the team can garner some sponsors and/or government support (unlikely, considering the significant preference for cricket in India) the players will be expected to pay for themselves, which many can't do, ultimately creating a financial burden on their family and reducing the pool of players available to play for Team India.

It became clear to me a few years ago that coaching the Indian team is not an objective or of The Hockey Foundation, nor is it relevant to the mission.  By no means does that diminish the importance I place on having the responsibility to select, train and coach those players.  I am honored to have the opportunity to be the head coach of a national team, no matter our performance, and I care deeply for the success of the program and the players, coaches and officials that have been a part of it. 

Recently though, it's become clearer how The Hockey Foundation could and should support the Indian national ice hockey team.  Prior to and during last year's Challenge Cup of Asia, I had multiple budget meetings with the team, first as the bearer of bad news when I announced how much each player would be expected to contribute, then as the cheerleader, writing and sending letters to local officials to solicit support for their local athletes, then as banker, collecting funds, then again as the bearer of bad news, telling the players that they owe more money due to a handful of avoidable circumstances, and finally as possible ameliorator, coming up with some solution that could potentially help players reduce/recoup costs.  This is where The Hockey Foundation comes in...

First, I thought about all of the jerseys being worn by the players.  These jerseys would most likely sit in a room for 8 months before being worn again in the following winter by those players that got to wear their nation's colors.  But couldn't those jerseys be more beneficial if sold to collectors and/or supporters?  Not only would someone be able to acquire a truly rare and collectible piece of hockey memorabilia, but the proceeds would be divided between the players themselves and The Hockey Foundation, as facilitator and mediator in the process.  Many of the players wanted to retain some of their jerseys, so I was able to ensure that every player received another set of new jerseys upon their return to India from the Challenge Cup of Asia, which was hosted in Bangkok in March, 2013.  Everyone got to retain their memento for playing on Team India, and we all agreed that this was a great way to make back some of their significant financial burden.

But for those that can't afford a game-worn jersey, the Ice Hockey Association of India was able to have a handful of official Team India jerseys made before my departure from Delhi, with proceeds supporting The Hockey Foundation as a unique fundraising memento. 


A new plan of action for this upcoming season is to be proactive in the team's fundraising efforts.  To date, every player that has played on the Indian national ice hockey team is either from or lives in Ladakh.  They are a part of the community that The Hockey Foundation supports in our programming, and many have participated in our coaching clinics.  This year, all players have been notified, well in advance, of the expectations placed on them, including the incentive in driving enrollment in our coaching clinics, as we collect a nominal fee for the Ice Hockey Association of India to support the national association's growth and development.  The more we raise in India, the more money that can be allocated to the national team, and ultimately less is expected from each player/family.  This push for Ladakhis to take ownership over their own success is a major mission of The Hockey Foundation, as Ladakh has an issue with apathy, complacency and a reliance on outsiders to keep on giving money and equipment.  We've adjusted our methods for donating hockey equipment due to this realization, and have become more strategic, thoughtful, and collaborative in our distribution of equipment and the expectations associated with an organization receiving our support.  It's a constant work in progress, but one I'm happy to undertake and improve.

Although being the head coach of the team is not a part of The Hockey Foundation, I believe supporting the players, the team and the association are, and that support in turn helps The Hockey Foundation.  Our organization's are inextricably linked.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.






As you may or may not be aware, when I was in Ladakh, India, working on developing hockey in the region and writing about my experiences, my laptop completely crapped out on me.  I was able to get by in internet cafes, with spotty internet connections and virus-filled computers.  Then my camera broke…5 days before I coached India in their first international tournament at the 2009 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  

This made taking pictures difficult, but I pushed forward, collecting cameras and SD cards from the players and manager of the team, and put them onto my hard drive.  Well, that drive crashed with no explanation.  Every time I tried to access the drive, on any operating system, the computer would freeze, the drive would have a mini-seizure, and I would mumble under my breath that I will not let faulty technology prevent me from getting these pictures off of a little piece of magnetic film stuck under a bunch of circuits and transistors and whatnot.

I am VERY PLEASED to announce that I have cracked into the drive, accessed about 75% of the pictures, and uploaded them to my Flickr account.  Adam: 1, Technology: 9, down from 10.  Maybe I deserve another point for replacing my laptop.  2 it is.

Sorry for the big letters, but this is a big moment for me.  This was perseverence at its finest.  It validates the notion that we can overcome big obstacles with enough patience, knowledge, hard-work, and effort.  In every way, this is directly relevant in ice hockey, where these traits can not only translate into success on the ice, but success in our personal, interpersonal, and professional lives.

Please take a moment to check out the pictures on our Photo Gallery page, or head to the Flickr page located on the right side of the screen (OK, fine, you can also CLICK HERE).

Head Held High,


India Ice Hockey, Part 5: IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia

So, here we are, at last. Morning time, before puck drop. The tournament was organized in two divisions, A & B.


  • Thailand
  • Malaysia
  • Mongolia
  • India


  • United Arab Emirates
  • Hong Kong
  • Singapore
  • Macau

I assume the intention was to have the groups divided evenly in talent. I don’t know if that’s how it played out.


Our fate in this tournament was sealed long before we even set foot on the ice. There was going to be no Miracle. We weren’t going to pull together like Little Giants, Bad News Bears, or Mighty Ducks. We were going to get dominated. But we were going to do it gracefully.

If losing was inevitable (it was, there’s only so much determination that you can have, but if you’re over-matched, it’s that simple), we were going to make sure we skated hard every second of the game. We’d continue to huff and puff, and if we didn’t blow the house down, then we’d develop short-term memory loss and go out there and do it again.

If we get scored on and beat while playing our best hockey, doing everything we possibly could to win the game, constantly improving, then this would be an incredible achievement, and a great stepping stone for the India Ice Hockey program.

The first game of the tournament was India vs. Thailand. Being the first international game for the guys, there’s no denying the tension that they’d feel. I felt it in high school hockey playoffs; they’re representing their country (although at the lowest internationally sanctioned hockey tournament, but still). They had to play on a rink nearly twice the size of what they’re accustomed to, with a flat ice surface, boards, and an opposing team that is big, strong and talented.

The night before, as I was reviewing the IIHF Rule Book with the captain of the team (I had read through the whole book on the flight to Dubai & bus ride to Abu Dhabi), the captain gave me his opinion on which goalie should start. After watching them in practice, I felt otherwise, and started the other goalie. He played pretty well. The first period went much better than I expected. I definitely think it helped that Akshay had arrived from his Europe business travel and came onto the bench (I had no assistant coach, as the one I wanted to join the team from Ladakh didn’t get his passport processed in time), speaking to the team in Hindi, the 2nd language for many of them, especially since I speak faster as I get more riled about during the game (only natural). He was able to communicate what I wanted them to do, in a way that was a little more understandable, and was a much cheerleader on the bench! Nonetheless, 3-0 by the end of the first.

First intermission was about staying focused, skate hard, check some people (they were obviously physically intimidated, which really just amounts to emotional intimidation), and stay in their positions. This would become the theme message of the entire tournament.

They were clearly overwhelmed, intoxicated by the experience, and were playing like they were drunk, stumbling around the rink, getting nervous, not doing anything that we had practiced or discussed repeatedly. 7-0 at the end of the second.

For no good reason, the other goalie decided to put himself into the game. I let that go, as it didn’t hurt to give him some early experience, as we were already down by a large margin. Unfortunately, he didn’t hold up very well. Final score, 14-0.

We did a lot of things wrong in this game, skating around the ice like headless chickens. We discussed this during and after the game, with Akshay providing additional translation and support. More than anything, it was the mental mistakes that were holding us back. Sometimes thinking too much is no different than not thinking enough, and no matter if they were completely clueless, or thinking about every little thing, they were not focused on staying in their position, checking the player with the puck, skating hard at all times, making short passes, not letting players behind them on defense, making line changes properly, or even lining up for the face-off properly.

Some of these things are more complex than others, but not by much. It’s not like these were strategies even, they were just general points. I can understand a fast player skating by you sometimes, but when they are a half a zone away, and you are attacking the guy with the puck, it’s inevitable on the first, second or thirtieth time that this player will just chip it forward to the guy waiting at the other end of the rink, ready to score on a breakaway. The learning curve wasn’t sloping upwards. If I can recall my trigonometry and calculus, this would be equal to zero, or infinity. I don’t know. I cheated my way through most of 11th & 12th grade math (pre-calculus, College Calculus, A.P. Calculus)…seriously. Whatever the mathematical value, they didn’t improve within the 1st game, but maybe that was from their jitters. Hopefully game 2 would be better.

Just a few years ago, Mongolia was a struggling organization. They have definitely improved, but were by no means the best team in the tournament, more like bottom half. Their players had an air of cockiness though, which could be harnessed and make them better, or can get out of control, and hinder their growth.

The pre-game speech identified some of the keys to being successful on the ice, coming out like a group of gang-busters and skating as hard as they possible can, fore-checking the puck incessantly and maybe even use their shoulder pads a bit and throw a body check now and again.

I started our other goalie for this game (the one that forced his way onto the ice in the 3rd period of the 1st game). The guys came out like gangbusters, and skated hard throughout the game. They checked a decent amount, had a few scoring chances, and even changed lines much better. Overall, it was an incredible improvement in energy from them. If only they were able to manufacture a goal!

At one point, a reporter leaned over the glass to ask to do an interview, to which I responded, “How about after the game, I’m a bit busy coaching right now”.

Our goalie made some decent saves (and some weak ones), but when you are constantly being peppered with shots (picture Goldberg from The Mighty Ducks, when he’s tied to the posts and they fire shots at him endlessly…only to leave him tied to the net), you can’t help but let in a few. Or 10. Nonetheless, this was our best effort in the tournament. Final Score, 10-0.

Akshay helped with the translation again on the bench and in the locker room, and wished the team all the best, as he was heading back to India to take care of more business. He and I completed a couple of interviews with the press, and he was on his merry way. I wish he could’ve stayed throughout the tournament, because I definitely think the team responded well to him, especially since they understood what he was saying. His parting words (well, kind of), were to “speak slower”. In actuality, they were more like “good luck!”, but the speak slower was a key point in there, which I acknowledged, but in a manner typical of feedback, I had to give my side, which was totally legit: in my excitement of hockey, I lost focus on how to speak, and just said whatever came to mind, but I will definitely try to work on speed of speech.

The post-game speech was generally positive, lauding the hard work by the goal scorer, and the others that “threw the body” (checked people), but still addressing the need to stay focused, stay in position, and keep the shifts short and accurate. Minor details.

That night was unremarkable. The team stayed to watch the games, I went back to the hotel to do more work, and relax.

With 2 games under our belt, with a vast improvement between the two, I was confident that the team would come out like gangbusters the next morning, and really work hard on the ice. And you know what? They did! They were fired up, and knew that if they played flat hockey like they did in Game 1, there was no way they could succeed.

I started our first goalie for this game (the one I started in the 1st game), trying to give them equal playing time. The team came out working hard, and some players really rose to the challenge of skating hard. As promised, if they worked hard, they’d get more playing time, if they didn’t, they’d sit. There is no star on the team, unfortunately, but the difference was pretty big between the better players and the incredibly poor players, including a few that not only couldn’t skate, but apparently couldn’t think either. A bad combination, to say the least.

The hard work from the previous game and this one paid off! In the second period, while shorthanded, one of our better players fore-checked hard in the offensive zone, pressuring the goalie, who had come out of the net to play the puck - as his defense was a bit lazy getting back into their zone. Our guy rushed hard from the left side of the zone (if you were on the ice, attacking), and the goalie shot the puck into his chest, which fortuitously bounced into the empty net.

It was a great moment.

I had always wondered whether I would be emotional when I’m not the one playing. As it is, from the time I was a teenager through today, when I score goals, I don’t celebrate very often. I followed the Brett Hull mantra of put your head down and skate back to the face-off circle (although there have been a few rare occasions of celebrations, but nothing evoking Ovechkin’s 50th). In this situation, with the India goal, I definitely did a fist pump with a cheer, and was elated for the team. It was hard work that got the goal, and while it wasn’t pretty, it was well earned. 4-1, End of First Period.

The rest of the game was pretty unremarkable though. The guys weren’t able to sustain the pressure as tightly, and were running all over the place in the defensive zone, allowing players to stand alone in front of the net (I wonder what will happen when that happens?), chasing them around the defensive zone (picture chasing chickens in a pen), and letting players get behind them while “defending” the neutral zone (between the blue lines). This resulted in a handful of scoring opportunities, which Malaysia capitalized on. Final score, 10-1.

After the game against Malaysia, they invited me out to dinner with the team, which I graciously accepted. I had noticed from the onset that their coach (a Canadian) was a bit distant with me, which may have something to do with the email I sent to the organization to offer my coaching services.

About that…

  1. I had no idea what the coaching situation for the team was/is when I sent the email. Hence the inquiry email.
  2. I was not soliciting to become the coach of the national program. Quite the contrary, I was offering to coach at any level, especially the kids. I definitely don’t want to step on any toes.
  3. I don’t actually want to be the coach of any national team. The purpose of this program is to help anyone and everyone that is looking to grow their hockey program, imparting the values of the game and improving the lives of the players involved.

With that in mind, we went out and I tried my best to make conversation, showing that I’m not trying to steal his job. Naturally, we spoke about hockey. At one point, I was chatting with a group of his players, discussing some hockey from the tournament, in particular the game between Thailand and Malaysia from the evening before. This game was rough. Unnecessarily rough. When people don’t know hockey, the first question they inevitably ask is, “isn’t hockey violent?” My reaction is always the same, “No. Hockey’s physical, not violent,” which I view as a vital distinction. The point of checking is to get the puck, or to get someone off the puck and take them out of the play. Not to hit someone as hard as you can, which can cause injuries, and it did. That’s all I said. With the tag at the end, “…and you [pointing to an injured player] suffered because of it.”


Apparently I stepped over the line, because their coach got annoyed and responded with “I can coach my own team. The other guy got injured too.”

I don’t know about you, but in a moment of excitement of talking about hockey, and sharing sympathy for an injured player, I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I knew the other player got injured too, which was my initial point. There were multiple injuries, with players being taken off the ice by stretcher because of the unnecessary roughness. I also didn’t tell them how to play hockey, which I would define as coaching.

To add to that, this is a friendly tournament, with players that are nowhere near NHL careers, and a little bit of hockey sense can go a long way.

Whether I was right or wrong, I fought through the awkward moment at the dinner table, attempting to uphold the values I hold so dear to the sport (accountability, honesty, selflessness) and apologized. Twice. To no avail. He pretty much disregarded the apology both times, and we didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the tournament.

Sorry to sour the moment.

But in some ways, it doesn’t get much better.

Singapore is a good team with an interesting story. Their ice rink closed down, and although they got to practice once in the tiny rink that Malaysia uses inside a mall, they spent their whole time practicing inline hockey. And it worked!

Just a few years ago, they were also a struggling organization, but their coach/manager/president (an American) had improved their program, and they had some talented players, comparatively speaking, of course.

For India, this game was our low point. The first period was sloppy, in every way I’ve identified, and then some, and in the first intermission, I begged the team to focus, and listed to me (I was consciously speaking slower and clearer, with simpler words).

It is getting redundant to say this, and I wish I could give you better details, but this time they didn’t even come out hard, and got worse as the game progressed, making the same mistakes they had in the first three games: bad line changes , allowing forwards to stand alone in front of the net, not passing, not skating hard, letting forwards behind them, attacking the puck carrier when they are the “one” in a 2 or 3-on-1, and still didn’t line up in the right spot for face-offs.

In the second period, they continued to make terrible mistakes, at one point getting a too-many-men penalty because one of the players made the executive decision to go on the ice even though I told each line who was going out next, by calling out their line number, and patting them on the back, and reiterating it many times, all game long. He didn’t even come back when we (mostly I) started yelling.

I had one player skate a 3 minute shift, after I called him off multiple times when he was near the bench.

That was it for me. I’d had enough. Time for a new strategy.

It was only 5-0 at the end of the 2nd period, mostly because of our goalie, but also because of some missed opportunities for Singapore. I was sure they would score more in the 3rd, so I went into the locker room with a very different mentality.

This is practically verbatim:

“OK. Since you guys aren’t listening to anything I say, there’s no point in me talking and coaching. I am not saying a word next period. You figure out your lines, you figure out when to go out, since you already do it on your own. Good luck,” and walked out of the locker room.

I spent the whole period in the corner of the bench, watching the game, and what I saw was even more disheartening. Singapore let up.

They spent the 19 of the 20 minutes of the 3rd period (yes, I counted), passing the puck around in our defensive zone. They had multiple “scoring opportunities”, including break-aways, but didn’t take a single shot.

Within 30 seconds of the period starting, I even told the coach to keep it coming, because there was a lesson in humility and hard work that needed to be learned by Team India, but they didn’t shoot.

There are a couple of conflicting opinions about this. The selfish opinion (not for me or India) is that Singapore has very little opportunity to get a chance to be so dominant, and work on passing for such a long time. It’s actually a very good puck control and power-play drill (even though we were not short-handed if you count the players on the ice), and a great opportunity. I don’t believe that was the motivation, but I could be wrong.

On the other hand, I have always been of the belief - and from discussions, I know I’m not alone - that you play the game, no matter what. If you are better, then you score more goals. If you are worse, then you get scored on. That’s the spirit of the game. It’s more insulting to do anything to the contrary, as it shows a lack of respect for your competitor. To an educated fan, player, coach or official, it is dishonorable and says “I think so low of your ability that I’m just going to play around.”

I was upset that they did this, but it was just another teaching point for the team. A point that some comprehended, and others could never. Final (official) score, 5-0 (should’ve been 15-0).

I reported back to Akshay with the score, after he emailed me hearing a rumor that we won. When I told him that we won 5-0, I added the disclaimer that while it may be important for the public to see the improvement in score (buh-bye to that theory), he shouldn’t feel proud about it, due to the circumstances.

I had hope for this game, playing against the 2nd worst team in the tournament (no disrespect intended, but the scoreboard proved it). I thought we could at least score a few more goals and prevent a disaster. Unfortunately, that would not be the case. The team looked defeated the moment they went onto the ice. I tried a different strategy, not only returning to positive reinforcement, but once again appealing to their pride and determination.

That failed. We got shut out by the 2nd worst team. Final score, 8-0.

The Finals were UAE vs. Thailand, definitely a quality match. UAE went through Hong Kong to get there, but only because the rounds were structured in a way that prevented the higher ranking teams in the division to play the lower ranking teams, i.e. 1 played 2 and 3 played 4 in the first round for each division.

Thailand came out with the lead, but their poor passing and defense got the best of them. UAE, which had an abundance of passing, as well as a talented goalie, kept sustained pressure, and capitalized on mistakes, coming from behind with 2 quick goals in the middle of the 3rd period. With a massive crowd in attendance (and manufactured cheering, with officials in the stands leading chants), and an empty net goal to seal their fate, they defeated Thailand 5-3.

The Thai Ambassador to the UAE and a high ranking Sheikh of the UAE were both in attendance.


During the tournament, a few things became clear:

  • Abu Dhabi Tourism went above and beyond - possibly setting the gold standard - as the host. They provided buses, cars (mostly new Audi sedans), and the hotel (a 5 star***** Hilton) complementary. Their staff was pretty accommodating, although they had to be prodded a little bit to get your way (or maybe just my way), and outside of some communication issues, really did a great job.
  • The Abu Dhabi team had an unfair advantage of practicing every morning, while the other teams only had 1 practice. I know they were the host team, and it’s a (relatively) friendly tournament, but that’s a bit unfair.
  • The best teams were far and away better than their competition. Teams like Thailand, Hong Kong, UAE, and Malaysia (to an extent) were much better than Mongolia, Macau, Mongolia, and India.
  • It will be difficult to continue this tournament if the future organizers don’t meet the standards of the UAE. The costs that they covered were tremendous for developing organizations like India, and could leave out the teams trying to improve at the game.
  • There apparently was a meeting that discussed setting minimum competency to compete in this tournament. This is concerning on a few fronts. 1) I was never notified of the meeting, if it took place. 2) This tournament is developmental at best, with no official IIHF standing other than a stamp of recognition (more or less), until it is connected to the Div III championship. 3) It singles out teams like India, which is no different than the other teams in the tournament just a few years ago. Who knows if this actually happened, but if it did, it’s in poor taste all around.
  • If the Indian hockey system (at all participatory levels) stays at the current level, there will be no chance of India becoming competitive in hockey. That being said, if the government is more receptive to supporting the program, and the people that are currently on the front lines in Northwestern India change their attitudes and behaviors, there is potential for the program to greatly improve and succeed. Will it happen? I am trying to make it so, and I truly hope it does, but I need help, from within, and from everyone in the hockey community. I consider hockey to be the finest example of an international sport, and it will get better as the lower level teams improve, especially with the support of the better countries and hockey lovers around the world. Scratch that, you don’t need to love hockey, just love how important it is to the people involved in the game, and help share happiness through hockey!


IIHF Article on the Tournament


India Ice Hockey, Part 4: Even Closer to the Puck Drop

At this juncture in the journey, it’s worth restating the mission of “The Hockey Volunteer”: to share happiness through hockey and impart the values that the sport can impart onto others when fully understood, appreciated, and embraced.

That mission statement is not independent of hockey, though. In many ways, it is essential to becoming a better hockey player. If you play the game (now or in the past) at any competitive level, you have probably come across a player that just irks you when he (I’m going to use the masculine form, because I’m a guy, and that’s 98% of the players I play against) is on the ice, on the bench, or in the locker room. He exudes an attitude that makes you hate playing with or against him. What makes matters worse is that he has skills.

I’m not sure if I would like to believe that this only exists in my home region, Long Island, NY. On one side, I’d like to believe that the rest of North America has less entitlement issues, and teach better manners to their children, reinforcing that there’s hope elsewhere, and it’s just a small community of these types of players.

On the other side, I know that there are people all over that disrespect the game and those around them when they behave in ways that counter the sport: cockiness, overt aggression (especially in non-checking leagues), taunting, and selfish play. While we’d like to believe our habitat is either the best or worst place in the world (we are a people that think in extremes), this seems to be the case everywhere.

The reason I write about this now, is that what bothers me the most is that these players could’ve gone so much farther in the sport (even as professionals), if they just upheld the values of the game. Their skills on the ice become enhanced when those around them respect the player. They’ll pass more to the player (and expect some passes back), they’ll defend their teammate more (and expect that treatment back, too), and the opposition will end up playing more evenly against this player, not too aggressive, not too passive.

Case in point, Sean Avery. The guy has had more than enough troubles with his teams because of his character. Even before he got dumped by the Dallas Stars due to his “sloppy seconds” comment (I was hysterically laughing when I heard that, just so you are aware), he wasn’t resigned by the Rangers due to personality conflict. I can tell you that after some discussions I’ve had with some “tough-guy” NHL’ers is that even some of them were a bit wary of Avery. He’s the type of player that is crazy enough to make you play crazy around him, and it can easily result in someone getting severely injured. The guy is a fast and talented player, and as long as he can keep his cool (to a certain extent, he is an agitator, and a damn good one at that!); he can really thrive in the NHL.

I wanted to instill this in the Indian (Ladakhi) team as best I could. It is more important to play with high character, than to just go through the motions. It may sound simple, but you need to truly understand the game before you can truly succeed, and part of that success is having mental strength.

Without mental toughness, it’s easy to lose focus. When you get scored on, or you can’t score goals, you start to feel hopeless and overpowered. When you get checked hard, the inevitable bruises can feel like a muscle strains/ligament sprains (tears). Physical intimidation overwhelms your performance on the ice.

Since the Indian team had never played in an arena, or against international teams (the Canadian High Commission team DOES NOT count), or with real checking, I knew it was going to be more important than ever to strengthen their mental toughness.

But what about the technical skills? What about their familiarity with an international rink? What about reinforcing their team-play (i.e. passing, covering open areas in the rink, or power-play & penalty-kill situations). What do we focus on?

There was only so much time available to me for our one and only practice the day before the tournament began. Akshay requested that we receive 2 hours of practice time, as opposed to the 60-90 minutes that other teams received, and the organizers agreed due to our circumstances.

They also agreed to supply our team with some proper equipment, as many of the guys were missing elbow pads, among many other articles of equipment. 1-2 weeks prior to our arrival, I had a serious of email conversations with the organizers, after Akshay had gotten them to agree to provide equipment. When we arrived to our locker room, there were huge boxes filled with 10+ sets of used equipment that local players allowed us to borrow.

What an act of hospitality! This was the type of environment that I was excited to have the team participate in, more about camaraderie and support, than about raw, ruthless competition.

Wrongly, I assumed that the pro-shop in Abu Dhabi would be cheaper than the equipment available in India. It was more expensive! A basic wood stick cost the equivalent of US$100 ($30 in the U.S.), and an average, 2+ year old composite stick was $275 ($75-100 in the U.S.). I told the team to hold off buying any of the equipment there, until I could find a better alternative. What I did demand was that they sharpen skates, but as practice was starting in a few minutes, only a handful could do it before we stepped onto the ice, the rest would have to wait until afterwards.

It was the first time I had stepped onto an artificial surface in over 2 months, or any sheet of ice in over 1 month. But just like riding a bike, you get your senses back quickly. Hockey players can attest to this, your feet develop their own set of senses when you’re on the ice. Every minute detail is conveyed and stored through a 1 cm tall piece of steel, and some plastic, leather and cotton (if you’re fancy, include graphite, Kevlar, or other nifty synthetics).

This ice was not great, and neither was the skate sharpening I received. I pitched way too forward, more than I usually do, and cut into the ice way too easily. I can only imagine how this felt to guys only used to skating on the surfaces available in Ladakh, whether it is a rink with potholes, speed bumps, or shards of broken ice. As I gave a last inspection to their skates, I noticed that many of them had about 1/4 cm of steel left. What this translates to is that every time they will try to turn, the plastic of the blade holder will hit the ice, and they’ll lose their feet from beneath them.

Falling aside, I began practice with some casual skating around the whole rink. In between the blue lines (neutral zone) they’d skate at full speed, and skate normally in the attack zones. Apparently this was too complicated. Even though I had them follow me, players would skate in the wrong direction in the attack zone.

At that point, I knew we were going to have problems. I tried to do a few more full ice skating drills, just so they can get acquainted with the size of the surface, and the ways it feels, and even after a brief demonstration and translation, they still were making the simplest of mistakes.

Now I started to get annoyed.

As I have probably stated a few times, a player said to me on the very first day of training in Ladakh that, “we’re not basic.” While they didn’t fully convince me otherwise, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and increase the difficulty of the drills, if only mildly. This was in Ladakh, where I left without full confidence in their abilities, but left them with a practice plan nonetheless, hoping to see a noticeable improvement when we reconvened.

Now that we were back together, it was clear that while I was away, they didn’t practice as much as I had hoped, or they just weren’t learning the basics as fast as I had expected. This, combined with a major lack in critical thinking and the politicking that went into the team selection, as outlined in the prior post, were already proving to me that this was going to be a disaster on the ice.

Now, I know it’s important to exude confidence, trust, and belief in others, coupled with positive reinforcement. And believe me, I tried that. Many times. Even before the tournament started, I had many bouts of over-confidence, believing that the team was well capable of greatly improving. They were simple drills. Why couldn’t they do them?

Over time, the plan changed from positive reinforcement (“You’re representing your home, and I believe you can prove to everyone that your passion will succeed on the ice”) to frustration (“C on! This is easy. Kids can do these drills.”) to begging (“I need you to pay attention to me. If you can’t pay attention to me when I try to teach you, there’s no way you will be able to succeed in a game situation”).

There’s a point about the mental toughness that I think needs to be stated, as it’s been on my mind for quite some time now. I’ve had the opportunity (if you want to call it that) to take not only a stroll, but a sprint and a marathon (or a speed skate) down memory lane, in regards to my own life on and off the ice.

On the ice, there were many times that I lacked the mental toughness to take me farther in the game. I’d like to believe that wasn’t the case, but I’d just be lying to myself, and to you by extension. I can recall training sessions where I’d get a migraine, which I’m sure was in my head (literally and figuratively). I had coaches that in retrospect were trying to make me tougher, and I balked at the occasion. I didn’t even like to compete against other players, when I probably had as much talent as them.

This begs a few questions. First and foremost, have I grown? Have I changed? Am I mentally strong now? I guess I can’t really answer that; I can only analyze it years down the road or get outside consulting. I’d like to believe I am. I know I’m more aware, but to what extent?

Also, more relevant to the team, am I just passing along my past (repressed?) frustrations out them? Am I actually doing things that make them tougher mentally, or am I just giving them a hard time? On this point, it’s an emphatic: NO. I am not taking out my frustrations on them. In all of my pre-tournament practices and off-ice sessions, I utilized many different strategies. I made it a point early on, to suffer if they suffered. I spoke frankly, and honestly, but I also pleaded for the most out of them, and explained everything I could. I was diplomatic with them, begging for their feedback, especially from their leaders, and tried to act with as much humility as I could. They are the team, not me. I argued with anyone that tried to say I was more important (it happened), because at the end of the day, I will be on the bench, the rest of them will be on the ice, and there’s no paycheck or contract to even prove I did anything. And I tried to remind the team of that. Even as the tournament progresses, you’ll find that I try to change my strategy as much as possible, as I find that what I’m doing didn’t work.

Practice continued difficultly. We ended up doing some basic drills, with the plan of moving through each drill every 10-15 minutes, at most. At one point, I attempted to explain to the team how to do a basic 3-on-0 drill, skating down the rink, passing to one another. I have been told that I speak fast, and it’s an acknowledged fault (not really a fault, but for a team that barely speaks English, I can see how that would be tough), but I’ve still tried to use simple words. In particular, before the drill even started, I instructed the team to line up in three lines; one in the middle, and one in each corner. I pointed, spoke with simple words “Line up here, here and here,” and then had it translated. Apparently this was way too complicated, and by the time 30 seconds had passed and they were standing around, fuddling, I lined them up to do a skating drill. This time around, it was their own fault, and I wasn’t skating for their lack of attention. They may have had altitude to their advantage, but there’s nothing more tiring than skating up and down an ice rink, over and over again. Either way, they needed it, as it was another reminder of just how big the rink is. Again, I pleaded with them to pay attention and work hard (a common theme in this practice) and after a dismal failure in the 3-on-0 drill, we proceeded into our breakout-fore-check drill.

The drill was a combination of two drills we had already done incessantly in Ladakh. In the breakout drill, the center dumps the puck into the corner. The defense retrieves the puck (or the goalie saves it, if he’s not paying attention and the shot comes on net), and then make a pass behind the net. This pass is not something I wanted set in stone, but they ended up doing it that way almost every time. The purpose of the pass to the defensive partner was to get used to using your teammate and also familiarize the players with getting into positions that would support each other.

As that was going on, the forwards would come into the zone, and get ready for the pass from the defense. The wingers would come to the face-off circles along the boards, and the center would come down low, near his net. Depending on which way the puck would go, the center would criss-cross with the strong side winger. This is not necessarily what every team would do in hockey, but it was simple enough for them to do, and was just advanced enough to help them get the puck out of the zone effectively.

The pass could go to any player, but preferably the center on the strong side, as he will be in the least vulnerable position. He’d make a short pass to his teammate, follow his pass, and the puck carrier would go to his proper wing. Now begins the fore-check.

The moment the puck carrier crossed the red line (center line), they were instructed to dump the puck into the opposite corner (the zone they are attacking). This is called “dump and chase”. The premise is quite simple, dump the puck in the corner in two ways, 1) shoot it lightly behind the goal line, but in a spot where the puck dies, and sits right by where you shot it, or 2) shoot it a bit harder along the side boards so that it rings around the rink, just hard enough to make it to the other side without the goalie stopping it in the process. From there, you chase after the puck like you are running from the police, hence the phrase. If you weren’t huffing and puffing after the drill, you weren’t skating hard enough.

I’m not the biggest fan of a dump and chase strategy, but there was a method to the madness. When the team did their SWOT Analysis is Ladakh, we agreed that their stamina would be a major strength, as their lungs were used to the lack of oxygen (about that…didn’t help so much!), and I had hoped their training would make them even more prepared for intense skating. Also, since they weren’t great puck-handlers or passers, the only option left to get any offensive pressure was to shoot the puck in, and then skate after it hard.

One forward would go after the player with the puck, the 2nd forward would go after the puck itself, and the 3rd player would hover around the top of the offensive zone, analyzing the situation and going where he thinks the puck is about to go, or attacking the moment the puck gets there. If the puck does move to another player on the opposing team, then the 3rd & 2nd players would apply the pressure, and the 1st would drop back.

This can be highly effective, especially if you play at a level where players aren’t used to such intense pressure. It was our own “shock and awe” strategy.

Picture how this goes. I shoot the puck into my defensive zone, my defense retrieves it, exchanges it, passes back to me. I pass to my winger, who dumps it into the corner. He and the other winger go after the puck, as I stay high watching the play carefully. It’s not only the 3 of us vs. the 2 defenders; our defenders that passed the puck out of our zone have now joined us. It’s 5-on-2.

This is an impossible situation, as the minimum number of skaters allowed on the ice for any given team is 3, even if you get 10 players in the penalty box. That means that the offensive team should have no difficulty scoring, let alone retrieving the puck from the defense. It should be the type of scenario where the defensive team is so over-matched, that they just want to start hitting people out of frustration.

That wasn’t the case for us. For the first 5-10 attempts, the defense cleared the puck successfully, and that’s when we got the puck into the zone properly. What this signified was that they weren’t skating hard. They weren’t giving 100% of their energy and effort, because if they were, that puck would be taken away within seconds of it going into the zone.

We ended up doing this drill for over 45 minutes, executing it properly less than 5 times in total. For a bunch of guys that weren’t basic, they sure weren’t understanding or executing an essential component to the game, breaking out of the defensive zone, and attacking the offensive zone.

At this point, I was traveling independently of the team. I had arrived to the rink earlier than the team to watch some of the other teams practice, which proved to be irrelevant, as scouting the opposition wouldn’t help us in any way. I spoke with the guys, and then let them go on their merry way.

For me, I had to stay at the rink for a meeting with all of the team officials. It was actually pretty interesting, as we reviewed the basic rules of the tournament, discussed some jersey colors, and checked the passports to make sure all players were proper citizens of their respective teams. I had to check Thailand, which if you didn’t know, they have one of the most complex languages in the world, and one of the hardest to pronunciate, especially for language-stunted Americans.

Some Examples (these are not any of the players’ last names): Nathabhakdi, Punyaratabandhu, Sadhanabongse, Simnkim

$5 to anyone that pronounces all of these properly and submits them to me through email

Interesting fact: Thais do not have the same last name, the way Americans/Canadians/British have Smith, Brown, Jones; Chinese have Wang, Li, Yi; the Indians have Kumar, Patel, Gandhi. It is actually part of recent Thai law (1913, I believe), that each family must have a unique surname, which can be registered with a bureaucracy that handles allocation. The newer immigrants tend to have longer names, as the shorter ones have already been claimed.

Snap back to reality.

The most interesting point came from the gentleman (originally from New Jersey) running/coaching/managing the Singapore association (their ice rink closed, the team had to practice through inline hockey), requesting that the Challenge Cup of Asia become a qualifying tournament for IIHF Division III (lowest level) World Championships. As of now, it’s nothing more than a development tournament, and this would increase legitimacy to the tournament, and provide it with greater strength for future success. I thought it was a great idea, and I hope it gets ratified.

Once the meeting was over, I left for the hotel on my own, leaving the manager in charge of the team. There were cars available for officials and coaches, and buses for the teams, and staying consistent with my philosophy, I wanted the team to be independent minded.

Still, later that evening in the hotel, the players asked me if they could go out to dinner that night. “You’re adults,” I responded with a chuckle, “of course you can, do whatever you want!”

“Make sure you’re all up early for breakfast, we have the first game tomorrow.”

There is no more that I can talk about leading up to the puck drop, so I guarantee you, the next post will be about the games!

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.