June 2009.

Ladakh couldn’t comprehend its mixed fortunes in ice hockey.

In India, the game was first played in Shimla during the British times.

But it fizzled out.

Ice hockey in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Chozang Namgial)

Ice hockey in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Chozang Namgial)

Then in the 1980s, some say earlier, the Indian Army started playing ice hockey at its remote, cold postings in Ladakh.

The Ladakh region has a severe winter. Dras, often cited as the coldest inhabited place in the country with altitude induced sub-Arctic temperatures sometimes plummeting to minus 45 degrees, lay in the adjacent Kargil district. Even today, a winter in Ladakh entails being cut off for months as regards access by road.  Water bodies freeze, the most famous and touristy of which is the annual freezing of the Zanskar River that makes the winter trek on it much sought after. In towns and villages, people live off stocks of food they carefully accumulated during the summer. Families gather around large decorated stoves which serve to both cook food and heat a room. The choice then looms of either restricting yourself to such life or getting out and doing something more active.

That’s where ice hockey fitted in.

When the army started the trend in Ladakh, ice hockey sticks were made from willow wood. The skates were locally fabricated and fixed to the soles of military issue shoes, tin cans were used for pucks.

It soon spread to other parts.

In Leh the game has been played for years on a frozen irrigation pond. The Ladakh Winter Sports Club (LWSC) was formed in 1985. It offered coaching and organized tournaments, slowly moving the game away from the army’s clutch and into civilian ownership. At present the military / paramilitary forces don’t anymore run the game but send their best teams to compete with that of the state and local clubs.

Equipment was a huge hurdle to cross for it had to come from abroad and was required in good quantities if the sport was to penetrate the remote hinterlands. Luckily with ice hockey’s ascent, it caught the eye of diplomats and expatriates staying in Delhi and Mumbai. Among them were Canadians. Through them Ladakh got the first real sets of ice hockey gear and several more of used equipment for dispersal to the interiors. “ Those days, it was difficult getting the gear cleared at customs. We lost one set,’’ Chewang Motup Goba, founder of Rimo Club, national champions in the sport, recalled.  He was also Vice President of the LWSC at the time I was writing this story. The game had state and national level competitions with an administering body – Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) – based in Delhi.

In March 2009, the national ice hockey team made its debut at the international level.

Ice hockey in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Chozang Namgial)

Ice hockey in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Chozang Namgial)

The team was wholly from Ladakh.

Shimla hadn’t been getting good ice for the previous 3-4 years and that led to its players being left out.

When Tundup Namgial turned up at the Leh View Restaurant for a chat, he was absolutely different from the typical skipper of an Indian team. He spoke to the point with a reluctance that hinted he would rather play or be lost in the folds of his Ladakhi landscape. At experiential education courses, my thoughtful journalistic persona has often found itself in spaces identified with the analytical, procrastinating, human company-loving type. Tundup Namgial reminded me of the active sort, which struggle to find the correct words because the active life is their equivalent of thought and conversation.

Some in Leh felt he should have spoken up at a certain press conference in Delhi when the national team was sent to Abu Dhabi to play in the Asia Challenge Cup. From the administrators of the sport they got team T-shirts. That was all. The team had no doctor; equipment kits were pieced together from the inventories of the army, Rimo Club and J&K Tourism. Stay and accommodation was courtesy the organizers. Travel cost would have been entirely the team’s onus had not the Jammu & Kashmir Bank agreed to sponsor tickets, reportedly at the behest of state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

At Abu Dhabi, the team featured in the opening game of the tournament. It was routed owing to lack of international experience and more significantly, the absence of an artificial rink back home. “ Nobody plays competitive ice hockey these days on frozen ponds,’’ Namgial said ruefully. Abu Dhabi in the desert underscored it and the behavior of puck on the ice of artificial rink was dramatically different from the way it slid on Leh’s frozen irrigation pond. Yet the tough lads improved with each fixture and exited the tournament earning the respect of other national teams. UAE won the championship that year.

The IHAI attributed the limited support it gave the team to both the niche stature of the sport in India and its own early days as an association. It hoped to get funding from the International Ice Hockey Federation. Both J&K Bank and Volvo, companies that sponsored the national team that went to Abu Dhabi, were expected to continue supporting for the next five years. “ We are also getting a coach from the ice hockey school in Finland to visit India this winter,’’ Mr Akshay Kumar, Secretary, IHAI, had said then.

Ice hockey in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Chozang Namgial)

Ice hockey in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Chozang Namgial)

Ladakhis love ice hockey.

Their women fought for equality in the game.

“ Our youth have nothing to do in winter but play ice hockey,’’ P.T. Kunzen, President then of the LWSC, said.

A national team and aspirants for it must train year round.

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) was installing a second rink, a natural one again with hopefully an extended period of frozen existence as grace. That may increase the playing calendar by a month or two.

But where was the artificial rink that Ladakh badly needed for all it had contributed to the sport?

In 2009, thanks to an Uttarakhand initiative with central funding – a proper rink was coming up at Dehradun, in time for the South Asian Federation Winter Games. Teams from Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Uttarakhand would thus find a rink close at hand. Meanwhile with the growth of shopping malls and such, recreational rinks have opened up or been announced as curiosity in several Indian cities. Late 2012, I would find a giant hoarding outside the Mumbai airport announcing that winter’s ice hockey tournament in Leh, sponsored by a leading hotel chain; months later in Kochi I would see a newspaper article about an artificial ice skating rick at a huge mall. In new India with no shortage of people and people packaged as market, there is no dearth of marketing to attract crowds. What is amiss is an understanding of sport and meaningful investment in it. Growing something patiently, organically – that is an art lost in these days of design by disruptive growth and utter impatience to reach where the Joneses have.

Thus in yet another one of the ironies of sport in India that artificial rink went many places, except where there is a readymade culture for using it.

Kunzen, Chewang Motup and Namgial were all at a loss to explain this situation.

They were sure Ladakhi players would travel to Dehradun for practice. Still the bad luck rankled. Against the backdrop of 60 per cent central funding for sporting proposals from the states, the IHAI felt Ladakh can get its rink if the state pushed for it. But the time I was in Leh, it didn’t seem simple. Gulmarg in the Kashmir Valley is a favored spot for the national winter games and all states humor Delhi to merit their share of opportunity. The question being posed in 2009 was – will the state risk Gulmarg’s fortunes for the sake of an artificial rink in Ladakh?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The only other alternative was to encourage in-line hockey – similar to using roller blades – during the summer and keep Ladakh’s talent engaged. Chewang Motup saw one silver lining. He said that the then union minister for sports was aware of Ladakh’s concerns. But today as I brush up the article for this blog, it is many months since the said union minister was shifted out from sports. In India, you can’t trust politics. Its notion of time – swiftly ending through human intrigue sometimes and carrying on eternally at other times – follows laws that are apart from the natural laws of physics.

Unlike in politics, a more natural form of time runs out on the playing field.

Namgial knew his time was up.

“ Another two or three years of playing, after that I plan to coach youngsters,’’ the captain of the Indian team said.

Hopefully by then, Leh should have an artificial rink.

Namgial is the only captain of an Indian team I was privileged to have tea with.

I met him a couple of times after this visit.

One of those meet-ups was memorable.

We were a group of journalists who had just landed in Leh to cover the Hemis Festival and write about a school run by the Drukpa Lineage. I ambled out from the airport to locate the vehicle assigned to pick us up. A large number of people stood waiting outside the building, most of them taxi drivers and chauffeurs of hotel owned-vehicles or lodge and home stay-owners come to collect their clients. In the crowd was a face that struck me as familiar. Eventually Tundup Namgial and I recognized each other. We shook hands, exchanged greetings. Later, we met for a chat on ice hockey at his house now sporting additional rooms for lodging tourists.

It is now August, 2013. I spoke to a friend in Ladakh few days ago. At the one place in India where ice hockey grew so much, an artificial rink wasn’t functioning yet.

Ladakh waits.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was originally published in a shorter version in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in September 2009. It has since been tweaked a bit to reflect the times.)


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