Saturday, October 19, 2019

Posted at: Dec 2, 2018, 1:55 AM; last updated: Dec 2, 2018, 1:55 AM (IST)

The puck stops here

The Indian women's ice hockey team recently participated in the Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival. Will this give a much-needed boost to the game?

Gaurav Kanthwal

In the dead of winter nights in Leh, a few schoolgirls would venture out of their cosy homes to fashion their dream ... out of buckets full of water. They carried loaded pails which they poured on a playfield. They would continue doing so till a pale dawn broke out. The outcome of this night-long hard work in freezing temperatures was an ice hockey rink. 

Ten years, 12,500 km and many a hurdle — sociological and geographical — down the line, many of these gutsy girls have been instrumental in forming India’s ice hockey team. 

A journey that started from a self-constructed rink in Leh culminated at Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival (November 15-18 and November 22-25) in Calgary, Canada. The girls, along with their coach Abdul Hakim, had been invited to participate in the prestigious tournament. During their fortnight-long trip, the Indian puckers mingled with more than 2,500 players. The Indian girls played an exhibition game and four other matches, even managing to eke out a win against Rocky View Rockies 5-1.

The team terms the tournament a rewarding experience, for it has helped them learn finer nuances of the game — new footwork drills and core exercises for hockey. “Something we would have missed out on if we hadn’t got this opportunity and exposure. These drills will help us increase our pace and improve the accuracy of our shots,” says Tsewang Chuskit, captain of the team. 

Tsewang, besides doing what she is best at, has also adeptly handled the most frequently asked question in Canada, “In the land of cricket, how did you take to the so-American-a-game, ice hockey?” It is not just passion for this game but a matter of practicality that has to do with region’s topography and weather. “No other game can be played at -15°C, when the ground is covered under a thick blanket of snow. We usually play on frozen lakes and ponds. This is the only option we have and the aim is to make the most out of it,” says the young captain, who plays forward. 

The game, however, isn’t new to the region. In the Army’s record books, there are entries about inter-brigade ice hockey matches along the China border as far back as 1968. Even in those times that is how ice hockey rinks were created — by pouring water over frozen lakes and ponds. 

Similarly, at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in Leh, schoolgirls would wake up at midnight and start the drill of pouring water that would continue till 3 am. In the morning, a makeshift ice hockey rink would be ready. The game survives due to equipment and expertise provided by visiting foreigners, who respect the Ladakhi youth’s love for the game. 

It was this love for the game that made Kuznes Angmo, a member of the Indian hockey team, take to ice hockey. The ambition came much later. As Kuznes says, “When we started playing ice hockey we had no idea that we would play for India or would be watching National Hockey League (NHL) live in Canada. Back then, we played just for fun — and for the love of the game.” On November 21, when the team walked in to watch the game between Calgary Flames vs Winnipeg Jets, they were given tickets that had India’s Women’s Ice Hockey Team printed on it. “I could not believe that people in Canada knew about India’s ice hockey team. It is a moment that my team and I will always cherish,” beams Kuznes.

Ladakh now boasts of many ice hockey rinks and one can easily catch sight of youngsters playing the sport. The Karzoo Ice Hockey Rink in Leh is the most accessible playfield for budding players from the region. Last year, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP) got a rink conforming to international standards on its campus.

Ladakh’s Changtang region and Gupuk Lake are other popular venues. Several other rinks in the region, which aren’t as popular, enjoy the presence of 5,000 youngsters during winter, trying their hand at the game. However, there is not a single all-weather indoor skating rink in the country. “We can’t practice round the year. This means that we can’t compete with as much skill and confidence with international teams who have access to the basic facility of an ice-hockey rink all year round.” 

In such a scenario, participation in Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival has come as a big boost for the Indian ice hockey. Realising the hardships the girls have to face in pursuance of the sport, the Indian community in Canada pitched in to sponsor the team’s trip. 

Diskit Chonzom Angmo, a defender in the team, says, “We were not worried about results but wanted to play competitive hockey. The trip helped us with that.” The Indian team also met ice hockey’s greatest players Wayne Gretzky and Jujhar Khaira, an Indo-Canadian professional ice hockey centre player, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL.

The players are grateful to the Indian expatriates in Canada. Harjinder Jindi, general secretary, Ice Hockey Association of India, says, “If it wasn’t for the help given by the Indian community in Canada, the team would have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime. The girls have struggled enough, it’s time they got their due — for their hard work, passion, courage and most importantly, love for the game.”

How men play

The men’s team started to represent India in international events in 2008 and the women’s team in 2016. The men’s team finished second in the Challenge Cup of Asia in Kuwait in 2017. The same year, girls finished fourth, beating Philippines and Malaysia in the Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia in Bangkok. In January this year, former Canadian women’s ice hockey captain, Hayley Wickenheiser, four-time Olympics gold medallist, and the Ice Hockey Players’ Association pitched in with donations and 70 bags of equipment.  

Indian connection

Punjabi-origin player Jujhar Khaira, 24, is part of the Edmonton Oilers team in the National Hockey League (NHL). The 6’4” tall Surrey-born plays as a left winger.  He has played 94 games and scored 12 goals with equal number of assists. He is only the third Punjab-origin player — after Robin Bawa (61 games) and Manny Malhotra (991 games) — to play in the NHL. NHL is a professional ice hockey league in North America with 31 teams, 24 in the United States and seven in Canada.


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