Playing Ice Hockey Against The Backdrop of The Himalyas

Experience ice hockey -25 degree temperature at 12000 feet.

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Ice Hockey is the national sport of Canada and countries like USA, Russia, Finland, Germany, Poland are the biggest ice hockey playing nations in the world. The land is ice-capped for several months at a stretch, and ice hockey can be played even without the use of artificial rinks. Still, some of these countries have had artificial rinks since 17th century.

Though ice hockey is unknown as a sporting event to most Indians, people from areas like Shimla, Kashmir andLadakh in India, which have traditionally cold climates, are slowly warming up to ice hockey since the past 2-3 decades, after the Indian Army posted in the high altitude border regions took up the game and popularized it by playing annual winter matches in Ladakh.

Ladakh Winter Sports Club organizes the National Ice Hockey Championship since 2001 in the last week of January – and it’s a big local event. The tournament takes place at Leh Karzoo Ice Hockey Rink, an open air ice rink situated 3,474 m above the sea level. The game is very demanding at this altitude. 

Many ex pats from the Canadian and Russian consulates in Mumbai and Delhi have been playing the game in Ladakh for the past few years. Playing in – 20 degree centigrade at the highest Ice Hockey rinks in the world  attracts and thrills them. They participate in matches at Leh with the locals. In the following video, the Montreal Canadians Ice Hockey coaches travel to the remote village of Domkhar in Ladakh to teach the mountain villagers the game of Ice Hockey.

The matches have caught the imagination of Ladakhi men and women, both young and old. But these aspirants  face many challenges: lack of money, lack of infrastructure, including equipments, warm clothing, skating boots, guards, etc. The only place in India where something minimal is available is Shimla, a small hill station in the northwestern part of India. 

The love for the new sports has driven the local Ladakhis to improvise with what is available. They get the ice skating blades from Shimla and nail them to the army ammunition boots, wearing several layers of socks inside. Security equipments like helmets or elbow and knee pads are not available to them. Instead of using the special equipments, roller skating and ordinary ground hockey sticks and pads are used. Thick rubber heels of the army boots are cut to a rounded shape and used as pucks. Minor accidents while learning and practicing are not unknown, but people shrug it as inevitable and carry on, regardless. Often, seeing the enthusiasm of these people, the visiting tourists from abroad gift some of their equipments when they go back.

The love of the Ladakhis for ice hockey has been immortalized in movies. For example, “Frozen” (2009) and “One more…” are feature films shot in Ladakh by Shivajee Chandrabhushan. The film “One More...”  traces the journey of an amateur, but passionate, ice hockey team from Ladakh to the ice rinks of Russia.

Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar has recently made an English-Punjabi, ice-hockey-themed film Break Away that showcases the struggles faced by South Asian immigrants.

Similarly, Thin ice is an internationally financed documentary about girls in Ladakh, who want to play Ice Hockey.The video that follows shows snippets from the film. Watch the video: I loved the verve and the enthusiasm of the girls. It’s infectious.

Dolkar, a young Buddhist woman from Ladakh and her friends wish to play ice hockey, and get equipment and coaching. When they want to participate in the annual Hockey tournament they face opposition. The men in charge, the board of the winter sport club prefer ice dance from the girls, not ice hockey. They travel over the mountain to the Muslim village Kargil and create a joint team. The Buddhist and Muslim girls have to fight for their rights both on the ice and off the rink.

Let’s hope that in the years to come, India becomes a formidable player on the global ice hockey scene.

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