Battling lack of funds & infrastructure, country’s national ice hockey sides yearn for brighter future with more awareness of sport
For about a couple of months towards the end of October, the sleepy region of Ladakh springs to life, notwithstanding the onset of the harsh winters.
Every year, a sizeable chunk from the tiny population of around 3,00,000 throngs the Karzo Rink in Leh the moment the pond freezes to either watch, play or fine-tune their ice hockey skills. And that includes members of the Indian national team.
Indian ice hockey team? You'd be forgiven for asking this question.
It's precisely this curiosity that gave birth to the idea of Fighting on Ice, a documentary that strives to spread awareness about the existence of ice hockey teams in the country.
"Before starting the film, I asked a few people whether they knew if India had an ice hockey team. Surprisingly, most of them said no," director by Mithun Bajaj says.
Ice hockey might be one of the most popular winter sports around the globe and at the Winter Olympics, yet its presence and popularity in India is miniscule.
There are varied reasons for that. The natural weather in most parts of the country does not suit the sport, while the cost of building an artificial international rink is too steep. Besides, the equipment used in the sport — the skates, head gear, protective body gear, sticks, and the like — can also burn a deep hole in the pocket.
"Our sport is very much dependent on infrastructure, especially in a place like India," Tsewang Gyaltson, captain of the Indian men's ice hockey team, says.
"We need artificial ice, and to build all that is very costly. Luckily, we have a place like Ladakh that has very cold weather, and also some other places like Himachal. Those place are helped by nature, and in these places we develop ourselves and try and make a mark," he adds.
Made a mark it sure has, both the men and the women teams.
While the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) has been part of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) since 1999, the national men's team made its international debut only in 2009, while the women had to wait longer till 2016.
Both the sides have been competing in the Challenge Cup of Asia — a continental championship organised by the IIHF — since then, with the men finishing second in Division I in 2017. The women, meanwhile, tasted their first international victory the same year.
These aren't headline-grabbing results but considering the odds stacked up against these handful of players representing the country, they are noteworthy.
Consider this: the women's team made it to the 2017 Women's Challenge Cup of Asia in Thailand only due to a crowdfunding initiative by the IHAI, where it managed to collect Rs 32 lakh in 10 days. The same initiative, however, failed to raise Rs 12 lakh for men's team.
"When it comes to competing against other teams, we fall very short," the 27-year-old Gyaltson says. "For that, we have to do in two months things we should be ideally doing for six-eight months."
The two months he is referring to is for the most crucial aspect in any sport — training.
With the only artificial international rink in India (in Dehradun) shut due to lack of funds and with training overseas being a rare luxury, the national players — most of which hail from Ladakh — have to wait till November for natural ice to form.
"There are a few villages higher up in the mountains where we get ice around one month earlier than in Leh city. We try and use that ice. We go to those places, start preparing the field, start playing with the ball and slowly pick up from there," the Leh-based Gyaltson says.
Problem is, that ice lasts for only a couple of months, and the limited time frame has to accommodate everything related to ice hockey in the country: local tournaments, IHAI national tournaments and selection trials for the national team.
"By the time all that finishes, the ice is already melting. If there are funds with our association, we try and go to other places to train. If there are no funds, we have only a week to train together as a national team in Leh itself before we go to competitions," Gyaltson says.
Bajaj went to Ladhak in Janaury 2017 to shoot parts of his documentary, and came back with a bigger desire of taking the subject to the masses.
"I went there to shoot with the players, and also travelled with them to a tournament thereafter. What I observed was that the players are so passionate about playing the sport, no matter the challenges they face," he says.
Gyaltson tries to make sense of that passion, a lot of which rubs off through the enthusiasm that the Ladakhis display during those two months of ice hockey carnival.
"The sport has something special," Gyaltson says.
"If you watch the sport as a spectator, you will be left thrilled. The game has a strong heart. That is something you can only come and see in this part of the country when we play here.
"People come out early in the morning in the cold winters to watch the game. The temperature would be -20 degrees and it might be freezing cold, but there is some energy that is making them come and watch this game.
"Imagine, someone who doesn't play at all has so much attraction towards the game. So, once you start playing, you feel all the more love as a player that you did as a spectator.
"If someone watches this game at least once, he/she will leave saying I want to watch this again and again. That's the key, I feel. Once people get to know about the sport, they will really want to watch this sport again.
"The example is right in front of you. The weather here in Ladhak is so harsh, the conditions so challenging but the game is so special that almost nothing can stop us," he adds.
Nothing indeed is stopping the Indian ice hockey teams. Not even the lack of popularity, not even the lack of funds, not even the lack of basic infrastructure and training facilities.
"That's how we have to manage. It's uncertain. It's difficult times," Gyaltson says.
"But at the same time, we look back at the past, and we see that things are improving, even though slowly. So, we take those positives and we move forward with the hope of a brighter future."