...one thing that has been clear for a long time: the program would have to adapt. Things were and are going to change...
(question mark intentional)
So many people seem stunned when I tell them about ice hockey in India. Adding in the explanation that it takes place in the Himalayas makes it both more logical and more alluring, all at the same time.
The most common comparison people make is to Jamaican bobsled (popularly portrayed in Cool Runnings), and on the surface it's easy to understand why, as both countries are primarily tropical and the associated sports are not native, and not easily performed, within the respective nations.
But that's about it.
While bobsled was a sport that a handful of Jamaicans were able to undertake and compete in, ice hockey is growing in popularity in India, especially in Ladakh, a remote region in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, which is sandwiched between Pakistan and Tibet (China). It's also being played in Shimla, in the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh, on and off in Dehra Dun, the capital of the state south of Himachal, Uttarakhand, and even at a small indoor facility on the border of New Delhi and Gurgaon (Gurgaon is kind of like the Bangalore of North India...corporate parks, call centers, suburbia, middle class & upper class boom, trendy clubs, Western restaurants, and many many malls).
Hockey has been played in India since the British introduced it in the early 1900s (in Shimla), and has been growing in popularity in Ladakh since the Indian military brought it with them in the 70s. Today, hundreds of Ladakhi children and adults play hockey for 2-3 months every winter, when temperatures in the region are consistently below freezing. Schools are off during the winter, and tourism is low (other than people trekking the Zanskar River), so hockey has become the literal pastime, the sport that passes time. But it's become more than that. It's become a way of life, as so many Americans, Canadians, Swedes, Czechs, Russians and more can understand.
We've interviewed children (boys and girls) and adults about what hockey means to them, and the answers are wonderful. So many of them remark that hockey has given them confidence, it's allowed them to work together better as a team, it makes them happy, it keeps them healthy. One women, in particular, said she's happily married to hockey.
This love of the game can't be tought, it can only be noursihed. The Hockey Foundation strives to not only nourish that love, but to focus the understanding of the game, and to reinforce many of these qualities that so many intrinsically understand once the game captures their hearts and minds.
We strive to teach not only the young players, but the organizations that ultimately interact with them every day, that they need to work together (organizationally, regionally, nationally), that they need to be accountable for their actions on and off the ice, responsible for their own success, that they need to be resepectful, humble, yet confident, that they need to be tough when necessary, but gentle otherwise, and that they need to have fun!
It's not easy to survive a winter in Ladakh. There's very little indoor heating and running hot water. It's cold, all the time, everywhere. You see your breath when you sleep, you have to use buckets for showers, and bathrooms are either outside or the ones inside don't flush. There are very few options for food, and not much in the way of entertainment, but there is hockey in one of the most beautiful mountainous regions of the world, with a vibrant history.
Resources are limited though. Coaches are few and far and getting equipment is both difficult and expensive. The Hockey Foundation's coaches go with great expense to themselves, not only to travel to Ladakh, but the time away from home not taking in income. It's a burden in many ways, but one we all feel a calling to undertake. We also bring as much equipment as we can transport with us, in addition to any equipment we ship to India through the year (more on that in another post). In the past 5 years, The Hockey Foundation has donated 300+ pieces of equipment throughout Ladakh (Leh and Kargil Districts) and we've coached over 500 children and adults. This year is looking to be another record-setting year in all measurable categories, and it's with your support that this is possible, so thank you to all that have donated, and to those that have helped in countless ways!
It only took five days longer than expected, due to snow storms, but eventually we made it to Bodhkharboo. Only problem: more snow was forecasted throughout the region, from Kargil to Leh (Bodhkharboo is in between them), so the decision to stay was long and arduous, with multiple incarnations of stay and go proposed.
Ultimately, at the request of the General Secretary/President of the Kargil Ice and Snow Sports (KISS) I agreed to stay for two days, as he guaranteed that the weather would hold to get me back to Leh in time to continue my adventure. He is a very determined man, so it doesn’t surprise me that he would promise something he can’t control.
The next morning, the rest of my group agreed to stay as well, which included Paul and the two girls from mainland India that were also volunteers at SECMOL and had the fortunate/unfortunate (depending on point of view) opportunity to be my stand-in translators. Alex had made it out of Drass just before the storm hit, so he could not join us in Bodhkharboo. His support on the ice and behind the camera was invaluable. I look forward to sharing more experiences like this with him in the future.
From the outset, there were supposed to be seven days in Bodhkharboo. At the conclusion of that camp, I was debating heading to Dhomkhar, but scrapped that plan when it became apparent that 1) the “Under-16” players from Dhomkhar were not actually under 16 (it has since been learned that they are reasonably open about the fact that they cheated, although I’m not sure they consider what they did cheating), and 2) they won the Under-16 tournament in Leh. My goal in Ladakh is to help the players that need it most, but also reward the players that show integrity in their actions. Our tour around Ladakh was decently publicized in newspapers and radio around the region, so I hope the players in Dhomkhar are aware that they were purposefully ignored in our hockey clinics this winter. When it gets announced next year that we are returning, I hope that they request our support so we can explain why we didn’t give it this winter.
After the scheduled hockey camp in Bodhkharboo, the region quickly warms up to the point where it’s nearly impossible to skate. Bodhkharboo is close to Chiktan, where I participated in a tournament two years prior. I loved the scenery and the people in this town, but the ice quality was terrible two years ago (it was like walking on broken glass in ice skates), and was even worse this winter. As a result, the camp was hosted in a town that had never played ice hockey before.
Before our arrival in Bodhkharboo the Kargil Ice & Snow Sports Club hosted a learn to skate program that was run by Stanzin Dolkar, a Ladakhi woman that was featured in a documentary Thin Ice, that focused on a particular controversy surrounding women’s hockey in Ladakh, and the girls at SECMOL. Having spent enough time around people involved in this controversy, I will spare you any more details and depositions and let you see the documentary on your own and go from there.
Stanzin Dolkar has had a particularly unique life for a Ladakhi. She’s well-traveled, having gone to Sweden for the documentary, Finland for an IIHF training on behalf of India, and Malaysia to participate in hockey training on behalf of India as well. She’s got a firey personality, is quick on the sarcasm, and has a big laugh that can make anybody with half a heart smile. She’s got a toughness that many Ladakhis, let alone Ladakhi women, lack. As a core ideal of The Hockey Foundation, toughness is a quality that’s important on the ice and in life, and to see someone like Stanzin Dolkar have that quality is refreshing and gives me hope that we can continue to make progress with the rest of Ladakh. The goal isn’t to tell them how to live their lives, nor is it to change their culture. On the contrary. The goal is to help them strengthen their culture and quality of living, on their terms. Ladakh was closed off from the world for most of their history, and the recent modernization has started to eat away at Ladakhi culture, not just Ladakhi tradition. Local politicians have started saying the same thing, that Ladakh is losing its tradition on its own. The foreigners that come to Ladakh come because it has a deep tradition that has remained consistent for centuries, if not 1000 years. They don’t come to modernize Ladakh. It’s the ruggedness and tradition that is appealing, and although Ladakh is moderning, it is far from modern.
Stanzin Dolkar hasn’t been involved in hockey in Leh as a result of the Thin Ice controversy. The opportunities in hockey have been given to her by the Ice Hockey Association of India and the Kargil Ice and Snow Sports Club. It’s unfortunate. She has so much to offer the hockey players around Leh. Hopefully things can progress to a point where bygones are bygones and everybody can get back to focusing on the improvement of hockey and the betterment of the children.
Stanzin Dolkar - I refer to her by her full name because Ladakhis don’t always go by the first name, nor do they always go by the last name. It seems to be a random application of the names, more so than in the West. Since there are as many Dolkar Stanzins as there are Stanzin Dolkars, I prefer to follow the other form of the acronym: “KISS”, Keep it Simple Stupid - had to hold learn-to-skate lessons for extra days due to us being stranded in Drass. When we arrived, the first thing we did was check out the ice rink that was claimed to be to international standards. They were not (no surprise there). The rink was a fraction of the size that was claimed by the head of KISS, there were no boards, the ice was beyond choppy, and oh yeah, there were no goals. You know…minor details.
Another problem facing the players in Bodhkharboo: poor skates. This has been a problem throughout Ladakh. We thought it was bad in Drass. It was much worse in Bodhkharboo. Children were wearing enormous skates with dull edges on poor ice. We weren’t able to coach more than 20-25 people at a time, and even though that’s ideal in North America, we can usually accommodate a few more in Asia. Overnight they built some hockey goals for us to run a learn-to-play program, as intended. Unfortunately, since nobody in Bodhkharboo had ice skated previously, this was just a continuation of the learn-to-skate program that Stanzin Dolkar ran before our arrival.
We did end up running some passing drills to at least make it appear that it was a hockey clinic, but these drills were performed with incredible difficulty in comprehension and execution. The concept: pass to the player across from you, then skate to where they were standing. They will do the same to the next person in line, and so on. Got it? We had to do this drill for two days, and it still wasn’t close to done well.
Separate from the educational limits, there was only 1 player on the ice other than myself and Paul that had a hockey stick that would be considered adequate. Some players had sticks that were 2 feet shorter than they were. Other players had sticks that were heavily taped together to keep it in one piece. Some players had hockey sticks constructed with local wood. They were not tempered, so had lots of flex and minimal support, and the blade was rarely curved more than 1 cm, and to make matters worse, was a separate piece of wood that was usually nailed and wrapped with twine. This is arguably the most important part of the whole stick, the base of the shaft near the heal of the blade, as most sticks break here due to the shock and vibration when passing and shooting (or slashing in some cases). These days, wood sticks are usually fused together by blending with plastics and composite materials and are tempered to the point where it becomes one piece. If the shaft and blade are in two pieces, all the vibration in the blade will stop at the nails and twine, limiting the stress the hockey stick can handle. I tried to explain this to the guy making these sticks. He responded with a blank stare.
The biggest problem during the passing & skating drill was that most of the passes were significantly off. Usually the passes were 10 feet wide, which is where another player in line was standing. I would not accept that their shotty sticks were the culprit, so I traded sticks with a player and showed them that even a local stick can give and receive accurately, and that their local sticks are sufficient to execute a drill properly. They still couldn’t control their passing, so I gave each group an ultimatum: 3 large mistakes as a group and the next one goes. Keep doing it right, keep practicing. This was a pretty effective shift, instead of just letting each group go for a set time. It motivated them to pay better attention, try harder and assist the players that were struggling.
Since our time was limited, I ran a classroom session after the 1st practice. I spent an hour, translating through Stanzin Dolkar, explaining the rules, penalties and basic concepts of the game. Some of the kids were great, asking detailed questions about scenarios, while others laughed and dozed off. They got one warning, then they were kicked out. 30 minutes in, I gave them an opportunity to leave as a group, so the youngest took that opportunity, which is sad in one aspect, but considering it’s the older ones that will teach the younger ones, it’s fine by me.
Ultimately, it’s unfortunate that we weren’t able so spend more time in Bodhkharboo, but there’s also a frustration, considering we were promised a particular scenario about the condition of hockey in the area that was not true at all. The clinic was not for beginners, it was for children that never set foot on the ice. It’s the beginning of being beginners. Hopefully though, this was enough for them to take notice and start playing every Winter. Considering the fact that Bodhkharboo is pretty remote from the major cities of Ladakh (Leh is 5 hours, Kargil is 2), it’s definitely something for them to do in the harsh Ladakhi Winter. This was also an incredibly beautiful area, with mountains practically on top of the rink, which was a 3 minute walk from some pretty steep cliffs. It was also one of the last Buddhist towns heading towards Kargil, even though it’s in Kargil district, which is predominantly Muslim, which makes it quite unique for the region. There’s a feeling of being at the crossroads of Ladakh.
I look forward to spending a proper amount of time there next Winter.