Hockey in the Himalayas?

(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!


Dealing with Adversity

It's said all the time, but founding and growing a non-profit is not easy work.  Even when things are done properly, there are many challenges.  One of the key principles of The Hockey Foundation is to teach all of the children we coach that they must work through adversity.  Hockey is a challenging sport that requires discipline in mind and body, and learning to conquer those challenges on the ice directly leads to learning to deal with adversity off the ice.  This is fundamental to all sports, but as hockey lovers, I'm sure we're all together in believing that hockey is the premier sport for challenging players to work through adversity.

2013 began on a high note for The Hockey Foundation!

Shortly before departing on another trip to India to coach hockey throughout Northern India (Delhi, Shimla, Ladakh, Kargil) - something I'll write about in future posts - we took in a large quantity of donations & completed form 1023, the application for tax-exempt status from the IRS (US Government).  Prior to this, The Hockey Foundation was (and is) incorporated as a tax-exempt organization in New York State, where we are based out of.  This was a necessary and incredibly important step in the development of The Hockey Foundation, since form 1023 is required to obtain the coveted 501(c)(3) status.  

The application took many months to prepare.  Being a small organization with limited resources, I wrote most of the content, with help from the law firm that represents The Hockey Foundation, Proskauer Rose LLP, and some financial reporting support from a friend.  Together, we edited the application over and over again, making sure every detail was covered.  Altogether, after completing a long application unto itself, the Appendices of form 1023 was over 7,000 words!

I also worked to ensure that all state filings were current and accurate, and that the organization moved it's office of incorporation from Long Island to New York City (there's more support available within the city than in the suburbs, as one can probably imagine).  

It took a lot of work, but ultimately, everything was completed, and just a few short days before returning to Ladakh, India in January, I mailed out the form to the IRS.  Of course I didn't expect to get a response within a couple of weeks.  But I did expect to get a response within 90 days, as we worked so hard and diligently on being thorough.

I routinely checked the IRS website to see if The Hockey Foundation had been added to their tax-exempt organization database, even when I was actively fulfilling the organization's mission in India.  Nothing.

In the middle of this programming, I stumbled across a grant that seemed tailor-made for The Hockey Foundation.  The deadline for submission was smack in the middle of Ladakh programming.  There was a night where all of my assistants, volunteers and primary partners in India were sitting in a hotel lounge together, enjoying some late night snacks and drinks.  I was obsessing over this grant and the support it could provide to The Hockey Foundation.  It was decided that night that I would leave Ladakh for Delhi, meet with representatives at the U.S. Embassy, and dedicate my time and energy on completing this application.  The assumption was that the IRS should be approving the 501(c)(3) status at any moment, and I had some volunteer coaches I entrusted with continuing the mission in my absence.  This was not what I envisioned for 2013, but sometimes challenges present themselves that need to be met head-on. 

The meetings with the staff at the American Center and Embassy offered some great perspective and promise, and so I tried to utilize what I learned while filling out the grant application.   Additionally, the volunteer coaches seemed to be holding their own in Kargil District, and provided me with the reassurance that as The Hockey Foundation grows around the world and starts to have overlapping schedules, the mission can be fulfilled by people other than myself, which is a concern of mine, being the founder and Executive Director of this organization.

If there's anything I've learned in my travels and experiences, it's not to get too comfortable when things are going well (conversely, don't sweat the small stuff when times are tough).  The 501(c)(3) status never came, a mandatory requirement for the grant, and as a result, the deadline was passed without submission. 

With the grant application behind me (at least for this year), I started to press on why  the 501(c)(3) status hasn't been granted.  In so much of life, timing is everything, and for The Hockey Foundation, timing has been one of our greatest challenges.

The past 12 months have been particularly challenging for the IRS as well.  First came a U.S. government sequester, which reduced all government spending by 10%, impacting staff resources.  Shortly thereafter, a scandal at the IRS based on the determination of tax-exempt 501(c)(4) political organizations erupted.  The office that determines the status of 501(c)(4) exemption is located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the same one that determines exemption for 501(c)(3) organizations.  Scandals typically force organizations to reallocate resources in order to address the issue at hand.  While I am not privy to the inner workings of the IRS, it's hard to imagine them being exempt from this organizational behavior.

Finally, and most importantly, there seems to be a few clarifications needed on our application, due to either a misfiling by the IRS or an oversight by the applicant, in the case, me.  We've been waiting for 6 months to be told what clarifications are requested and required, but have yet to hear from our venerable Internal Revenue Service.  Surprisingly, for an organization that knows so much about the population it collects from, they're incredibly difficult to contact, especially in the case of non-profit exemption determination (the other E.D.) 

So what does this all mean? 

Well, quite a bit, and very little good. 

When an organization applies for 501(c)(3) status, they are legally able to operate as a federally tax-exempt non-profit, so in this regards, The Hockey Foundation is doing so.  Unfortunately, no database can verify that, since the determination isn't finalized, so there are many services The Hockey Foundation is not eligible to receive or utilize (too many to list) and more importantly, it prevents The Hockey Foundation from applying for and receiving foundation grants, governmental grants, corporate charitable giving, and large-scale donations (even though it shouldn't).  This has slowed the progress of growth for The Hockey Foundation, and in case you can't tell, has been frustrating to deal with.

That being said, dealing with adversity is a key principle of The Hockey Foundation, and if I and the organization I founded can't handle a few setbacks, then we shouldn't be doing what we do.  We're looking for more ways to get in touch with the IRS to figure out how to resolve this issue, we're partnering with organizations that are more concerned with supporting a great cause then just getting a tax benefit, and have already facilitated a major donation of equipment that was sent ahead of me so that when I arrive in India this winter, we'll once again set organizational records for equipment donations around the region.  We're still able to operate as a non-profit and collect donations, so please consider contributing to ensure we can keep fighting the good fight!

More to come... 


Ice Hockey in Ladakh, Part 2: Kargil Tournament

As if the trek to Chiktan/Kargil wasn’t enough, day one of the Kargil Open: Ice Hockey and Skating Championship began with confusion. There are some things I’m finding consistent in my travels through Asia. One: There are procedures that must be observed because that is the way things are; two: “Saving Face” and respecting elders/leaders is always expected.


This is important to remember as you learn more about what goes on with hockey in Ladakh, starting with Chiktan.



The morning the tournament was supposed to start, we were notified that a village elder had died. Obviously tragic, the tournament was to be delayed until after observances, which included the “chief guest”, otherwise known as the highest ranking official that could be dragged out in the middle of the winter to speak, be recognized, and then berated with requests for support from the organizers.

A team of foreigners was registered before I even arrived in Ladakh, something I was notified about the day I arrived at SECMOL.


The conversation went something like:

“So, uh, yeah, there’s a tournament coming up in a few days in Chiktan.”

Me: “Cool, is that far and am I coming?”

“It’s about 200 kilometers and you’re on the American team that is in the tournament.”

Me (sarcastically): “Ah. Good thing I brought full equipment.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll scrap some equipment together for you.”


That never happened. I ended up playing the whole tournament with just my stick, gloves, and skates. Oh, and a cup. As a side note, 200 km = 124 miles, since 10 km = 6.2 miles.


Anyway…we spent most of the day sitting in a room huddled around a kerosene stove, keeping ourselves and our skates warm (nothing worse than putting your feet in to a pair of ice skates…other than putting on some frozen wet undergarments. If you just pictured that…you’re welcome).


When we were finally notified a few hours later that the game was on, we were a bit cold, mostly cranky, and unaware that we had to stand on the ice in our skates THE WHOLE TIME, while everyone made speeches about how great hockey is (I presume). I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have a hard time just skating on ice when there is no stick and puck involved. My feet tend to hurt quickly and I get anxious. Now make it 10 degrees outside, snowing, in light gear, and tell me to stand still for 30 minutes. Yeah, you guessed it…I was day-dreaming about which speaker to shoot a puck at first.


As the game was starting, we discovered it was just a preliminary match. Apparently the torture of waiting all day was all for naught, not that I cared. As far as I’m concerned, tell me what color to wear and which way to shoot, and I’m good to go.


Our team, “Vermont, USA” (I protested the team name and recommended “Maple Syrup” instead, since although most of the team was from Vermont, I am obviously not, and neither were the 3 Ladakhi’s called up to the show), was in white, possibly the worst color to wear when playing outside in snow. The rink was about the size of a tennis court, but instead of a smooth, playable surface, the ice was more reminiscent of a floor of a bar after a fight: broken glass everywhere. There were danger zones around the rink, notably the entire far side of the rink (1/3 the surface) - which didn’t affect me in the first half (don’t get me started on the fact that they had halves in hockey), as I have a left-side deficiency, the center face-off circle – that made taking face-offs a bit tough for me, and then a couple of paths shooting down the rink. Anybody that fell in these zones was guaranteed major ass-bruises, scrapes, or bloody noses. As a result, these were called “walk, don’t run or skate, zones”…if you dared enter this no-man’s land.


That being said, competition was not exactly tough, and although the home team had an advantage of being acclimated to the altitude, used to playing on a small rink, being trained in the art of ice-walking-hockey, and our Ladakhi goalie, team “Vermont, USA” came out passing and won the game 10-2. In case you were wondering: 2 goals (I think), including a “pass” out of the defensive zone that bounced into the opponent’s net.


After the debacle from the first night in Chiktan (See Part 1), I was quick to accept the invite of the VIS (Vermont Intercultural Semesters) group to stay with the family of Tashi Angchok, a Ladakhi employee of VIS. What an upgrade! The house was of traditional Ladakhi design, with stone walls, wood/straw/mud roofs, no running water, no central heating, and no western toilets. Since this is Ladakh, and we are already well aware of the Things We Take For Granted, it was an amazing time staying there with such a warm and inviting family! We spent most of our time in the winter kitchen, just sitting around a stove, reading, writing, drawing, chatting, laughing, playing cards, drinking tea & eating. At that moment in time, the warmth of the room and the warmth of Tashi’s family made us easily forget that it was around 10 degrees outside, and we were in the middle of the mountains. The kitchen was safe haven.


Ladakh is split between Buddhists and Muslims, and while many people in Leh are Buddhist, most of the population in Chiktan/Kargil is Muslim, except Tashi’s family. Historically, the local healer was a Buddhist, so as the village became Islamic over time, Tashi’s ancestors were to remain Buddhist so they can heal the population. The family house is across from a mosque, on a small stream, and while I was told of rumors that prayers were done on the loud speaker at 4 am, it never happened while I was in residence. Apparently it was too cold to pray.


This is not a statement about religion, since everybody is incredibly friendly and inviting. Best of all, they all love hockey! That’s all that matters at this point in time.


The next day, we made sure we waited at Tashi’s house before departing for the rink. Understanding the looseness of Ladakhi scheduling, we didn’t want to sit in the cold for hours waiting to play in frozen equipment. When we received our phone call to leave, we rushed into the packed van, drove 10 minutes on a snowy, winding road (have you detected a theme with the roads?), and rushed to get dressed.


We still had to wait.


Once again, by the time we made it onto the ice, we were in “walk, don’t skate” mode. I requested that the ice be swept up (they use brooms and plywood boards to clean the ice), which was denied. Regardless of ice conditions, Vermont, USA won the game 9-1, again as a result of dominant passing. For those of you keeping track at home, 3 goals.


That day, a goal dispute had to be broken up by the local police. Apparently a team felt they had scored a goal, which was called off, and the team protested the game, which never finished. As you will see in future posts, there is a pattern with disputes and discipline in hockey in Ladakh. This dispute lasted for a full 24 hours, requiring mediation from local officials. The dispute was resolved the following day - before our final match - with the goal being disallowed and the teams playing less than 5 minutes to resolve their match. The mini-game ended with no score, and the game ended the way the dispute began. The team that had been complaining refused to pay their entry fee as a result. They had lost to our team, and were not in the finals. Why waste your money if you aren’t going to win, right?


Originally, we were going to play SECMOL boys in the “Men’s” final (we had 1 woman on our team), even though they hadn’t played a single game in the tournament. After the disputed game was resolved, we played the winner of this game after hours of delay. A few of my comrades were itching to leave as early as possible to make it back before sundown, and were getting particularly frustrated with the loose Ladakhi schedule. I personally didn’t care much, as long as nobody jumped on me at 5 am. The game we requested begin before 11 am started around 1:30 pm, and there was a brief ceremony to start the match where the “chief guest” placed a traditional pashmina scarf around each of our necks. Not knowing what to do about this, we decided it be best to play hockey with the scarves still around our necks, trying our hardest not to rip the delicate and beautiful piece of Ladakhi culture, let alone choke ourselves.


After winning this game 9-0 (3 goals with a blinding migraine), we had to participate in a much longer, and somewhat confusing, awards ceremony. Let’s blame the confusion on my headache.


With all of the Chiktan/Kargil drama over, we were able to be on the road back to Leh by 3 pm. I could not be more appreciative of being able to play hockey in a remote, gorgeous area surrounded by mountains and running streams, with incredibly friendly and enthusiastic people. There are already tentative plans for me to return to Kargil next year to host a coaching/hockey clinic to support development of the game in a region of Ladakh slightly ignored by the wealthy population in Leh, the main city of the region.


The love of hockey in the Kargil area is just as strong as in Leh, and I want to do everything I can to help them grow with the game!


Here are a few pictures I love, but so many more are already posted on Flickr.


All the best,


Tashi’s nephew holding skates and a water bottle in front of the mosque.

Me walking with my gear and my head down while there was a soldier/guard walking with his gun.

Your’s truly. I never did bend my knees enough.

Yes, that’s a cow, in front of a crowd at an ice rink. I waited for the cow to return to take this picture, and just when I did, it turned to face me. =)