The state of ice hockey in Ladakh

Each winter people in Ladakh remove two things from their storeroom. The first is the traditional ‘Bukhari’ to stay warm and the other is a pair of ice skates to use on frozen ponds and lakes. Ghulam Mustafa, who started playing ice hockey in 2010 explained, “I saw my sister with a pair of skates for the first time when I was 12-years-old. She had received it from a Canadian woman. I remember using her skates secretly. When I put them on and blissfully glided on the ice, I forgot all my worries. It did not feel like I was skating for the first time. A year later my father got me my own skates.”

Ice hockey has emerged as one of the most popular sports among Ladakhi youth. This is evident in the recent victory of the Ladakhi women’s team in the ninth national ice hockey tournament held in Kaza, Himachal Pradesh from 15 to 20 January, 2022. Players from Ladakh have represented India at the international level since 2009 and 95% of India’s men’s team is from Ladakh. On the other hand, 100% of the Indian women’s ice hockey team is from Ladakh. They have been representing India in the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia Division-I since 2016. The men’s team has participated in Challenge Cup of Asia (Division 1) in Thailand 2015, Kyrgyzstan 2016, Kuwait 2017 (silver medal) and Malaysia 2018. The women’s team won bronze in the Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia 2019 (Abu Dhabi).

Ghulam Mustafa described his experiences at a development camp in Korea, “I was with players from around the world. It made me realise that a boy from a remote place can also compete with them. All we need is dedication and persistence. I later represented India as part of the U-20 team and hearing the national anthem was the proudest moment of my life.” This was echoed by Chamba Tsetan, who has also represented India. He said, “I am proud of being able to represent India. In addition, we have also been coaching children as part of the ‘Learn to Play’ programme for the last four years. We have been able to coach more than a thousand children.”

There have been a lot of changes with regard to ice hockey in the last few years. On 5 May, 2015, the Ice Hockey Association of India became an affiliated member of the Indian Olympic Association. In September 2020, ice hockey was included in the list of sports that qualify for appointment of meritorious sportspersons in government jobs. Thus, one can now play ice hockey for passion and as a career option!

The journey of ice hockey players has not been easy as there have been many challenges. While there has been some progress on addressing these challenges over the last few years, players are still facing many challenges. It was difficult to source equipment and generate financial resources as there was limited support from the government. In addition, the players struggled with the lack of an international standard stadium in Ladakh and the short playing season that prevented players from achieving excellence. Sonam Angmo, who has been part of the women’s team since 2016, said, “The biggest challenge we face is the lack of basic infrastructure, access to equipment and the lack of knowledge about the game.”  Chamba Tsetan, who has been a member of the men’s national team since 2015, added, “In addition, we need a rink where we can practice throughout the year as our playing season is far too short”

Former Indian ice hockey player and coach of UT Ladakh’s B team, Zia Ur Rehman Mir described the challenges they faced in playing ice hockey. “When we started playing ice hockey, there were no coaches, no equipment, and no infrastructure. The Himalayan Sports and Cultural Development Organisation in Drass started bringing international coaches who helped us access equipment and knowledge about building and maintaining rinks and play strategies.”

The first captain of the Indian ice hockey men’s team and the current Vice President of Ladakh Winter Sports Club, Tundup Namgial has witnessed these changes. He said, “The Canadian embassy team has been visiting Ladakh since 2002 to play the Indo-Canadian friendship cup in Leh every year. We have learnt so many things from them. Other well-wishers have sourced equipment and donated international standard sideboards for tournaments. We also organise village coaching camps and provide equipment to them.”

The Kargil Ice and Snow Sport Club has been doing similar work in Kargil district to promote the sport. General Secretary, Aman Ali Khan said, “There was limited awareness about ice hockey in Kargil till the early 2000s. Its popularity grew after 2004 after we formed Kargil Ice and Snow Sports Club to organise events and camps. In 2006-07, we approached the then CEC of LAHDC, Kargil, Asgar Ali Karbalai to support us to organise the CEC Ice Hockey Championship Cup in Kargil. Since then, we have been hosting this tournament every year. We also host a junior championship for young children with support from the police just as we organise the Sadbhavana Cup in collaboration with the Indian Army.”

Unfortunately, ice hockey remained male-centric in Ladakh through these early years. This changed with the creation of the Ladakh Women’s Ice Hockey Foundation (LWIHF) in 2015. Noor Jahan, the goalkeeper in the Indian women’s ice hockey team, General Secretary of LWIHF and Executive Council Member of the Ice Hockey Association of India spoke about the gender-related challenges faced by women players. She said, “In the past, a lot of people would come to Karzoo dZing and mock us. Now women players have gained respect and recognition. I remember my community opposing the idea of me pursuing this sport.”

The gender bias is still evident in Kargil district in various sports. However, parents have started encouraging their daughters to participate in sports. Different organisations are now actively encouraging and training girls in ice hockey. Imtiyaz Ali Khan of Downhill Kargil said they have been training girls in ice skating and ice hockey. “In 2021, our girls’ team participated in UT and block-level competitions,” he added. Zia Ur Rehman Mir also expressed happiness at the growing participation of girls in winter sports. He said, “Recently we organised a national-level ice hockey camp for women in Drass. We were surprised with the turnout. Through the camp. We selected 20 girls for advanced training in Kaza.”

The government too has increased support for sports and athletes since Ladakh became a UT in 2019. District Youth Services and Sports Officer, Leh, Tsering Tashi provided an overview of these initiatives. “Firstly, we are purchasing hockey equipment for players from UT Ladakh. We hope to provide players with a complete kit soon. This will encourage our teams to participate in national-level tournaments. We have also been supporting their participation in Khelo India Ice Hockey tournaments.” The department has been organising tournaments such as Khelo India Ladakh Winter Games Ice Hockey Championships, Zanskar Winter Games and Youth Festival, Lt Governor Cup Ice Hockey Championship, etc. It has also been developing ice hockey rinks in all sub divisions of Ladakh and constructing/repairing dZings in all blocks. It is unclear what designs are being used for these rinks as the department claims that they are building them as per requirements, which will gradually be upgraded in due course. When asked about the international level stadium, Tsering Tashi said, “Due to some technical problems, the department has not been able to complete the stadium. We have finished the tendering process for the roof of the stadium and work on the mechanical chilling plant will start soon. Hopefully the ice hockey rinks in Leh and Kargil will be completed by 2022-23.”  Youth and Sports Department, Kargil has also been providing equipment to players at the block level and constructing rinks. However, some like Aman Ali claimed that the 27 ice hockey rinks across Kargil district do not adhere to any approved design and technical specifications. He added, “We need to use a standardised design for such rinks.”

Zia Ur Rehman Mir stressed on the need for developing an indoor rink. He said, “Our rinks are seasonal and outdoor. In Kargil, we receive a lot of snowfall. We have to spend two to three days to clear snow from these rinks by which time there is more snowfall. As a result, our youth do not get time to play games. We enjoy natural advantage of improved stamina as we live in a high altitude region. However, we need more time to practice and hone our skills.”

He added, “Kargil has natural advantages that make it ideal for winter sports. When Ladakh was part of the erstwhile J&K state, Kashmir Sports Council had decided to develop a winter sports headquarter in Kargil. After Ladakh became a UT, we approached the Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh with this idea. If we invest in infrastructure, Ladakh can become a major winter sport destination while also generating income and employment. Winter sport athletes from India spend a lot of money travelling to Europe for practice. We could provide them with the same services in Ladakh.”

However, this will require investment in infrastructure at the grassroots along with a robust framework to manage these activities. For instance, Aman Ali proposed that Ladakh should have its own sport council so the sport clubs and organisations in the region could be affiliated with it. In addition, various stakeholders suggested that UT-level competitions should be held on a rotational basis between Leh and Kargil districts to facilitate all round development and cohesiveness and inclusiveness in the region.

By Karuna Chhimed and Manzoor Hussain

Karuna Chhimed is currently pursuing a master’s in linguistics from Delhi University.

Manzoor Hussain is currently pursuing a master’s in Hindi from IGNOU.

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