Nestled in the snow-capped mountains of Himalayas, a group of girls are breaking the stereotype for a decade now. They practice at 11,500 ft (3500m) in Gupuks, Leh which is the world’s highest ice rink. A frozen lake now serves as the practice ground for them. In spite of the lack of funds to create artificial ice rink of international standards, girls have been preparing ice rink themselves for many years now. This is the story of India’s Women Ice Hockey Team.
Ignoring all the roadblocks, these brave and determined women are out every day battling the harsh climate of Himalayas and grim realities of life. Lack of funds and equipment adds to the problem. But they do not stop them from putting all out effort to uphold an unconventional sport and bring glory to the nation. With second-hand equipment, they represented India for the first time at the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Taipei last year. It was the first time they played on an artificial rink. The team is ready to represent India again this year in March in Thailand.
Breaking the ice
Ice hockey had been in Ladakh for over six decades but until recently all funds were restricted to men only. Around 2001-02, SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) alternative school took up the cause of promoting Women’s Ice Hockey. The SECMOL team devised a technique to create ice rink on any surface and not just reservoirs and ponds.
SECMOL alternative school started raising teams but needed more players in order to have a tournament. With donated skates from clubs in Sweden, Canada and USA soon they had four teams from different parts of Ladakh. They invited coaches and organised first ever women cup in Ladakhi tournament. In 2015, Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation was started by women team which would help them to improve status of women ice hockey. They organised basic skating coaching camp last year for around 30 kids and awarded them with certificates and prizes. This year they plan to focus mainly on girls. Their vision is to encourage the involvement of women in sports in their region and provide infrastructure and training for same.
Preparing the rink
To play, practice and train team needed a rink. It was not an easy task to create one on a flat ground. The team started with shovels to get water. Soon realising the great potential of these women, Public Health Engineering Department started helping them with 3000 litres of water every evening. Girls worked in groups of four and in shifts which started at 8 PM. They would pour water on the surface and wait till 10 o’clock for it to freeze. Around 10 o’clock, they would again pour water and take rest till 3 in morning. At 3 again they will repeat the process. It was more difficult than it looks as even a small amount of water on their clothes will freeze instantly.
The rink was prepared in front of SECMOL office with their help. The girls would sweep off all frozen ice from the rink in shifts so that it is well prepared for practice by morning. They will take rest in between and then will be up and running to train the little ones. In words of goaltender Noor Jahan, “We would almost freeze in cold but that did not kill our spirit. To keep our spirits high we would turn on some music, and continue the task”. Last year they trained 30 kids for ice skating, but it was a mix of both. This year they will focus only on girls as it is aligned with their mission and vision.
All of this for their passion for the sport and their dream of putting India on the World Ice Hockey map.
Battling hardships head-on
The team lacks funds, proper training and equipment. To receive funding from the government, the sport needs 75% affiliate member states which seems unbelievable at present. Also, an artificial rink in Dehradun lies neglected due to lack of care and maintenance. They borrow skates from men’s team which means they have to wait for their practice to be over. The climate of Leh allows them only one month of practice as there is no artificial rink in Leh. This is nothing compared to practice players of other countries get to do.
One of the players skipped her board exams to participate in international tournament and girls are constantly asked to focus on studies and household work and less on ice hockey. They face difficulties convincing their parents and family members that there is future in what they are doing. Despite adverse conditions on and off the rink, last year girls chipped in money from their own pockets and did a fundraising campaign to participate in tournaments. And they finally made it to the tournament last year being first women’s team to represent India at Ice Hockey tournament.
Fortune Favours the brave
Last year a fundraising campaign was set up by SECMOL through Milaap. Through that the team received amount enough to travel and participate in IIHF Asia challenge held in Taipei last year. People and clubs from across the planet jumped in to support and made it possible. History repeated this year.
The team needed money to participate in the tournament this year to be held in Thailand. 21-year filmmaker Batul Kapasi along with friend and sports journalist Shuvro Ghoshal flew to Leh and made a documentary to bring awareness about the sport and a crowd funding campaign was kick started by Ice Hockey Association of India to support the cause. With the tagline “Together, let’s make Indian women’s #IceHockeyPossible” in a matter of few days, it generated enough money to meet all their requirements.
This March, the 19 member team headed by Captain Rinchen Dolma is all set to represent India at IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia to be held in Bangkok, Thailand. The team will compete with six other countries and battle it out on the rink. We wish them luck and are sure they will bring glory to the nation and make us proud. The tournament is from March 7-15 and the first match is on 8th, in case you want to support them and see them perform.
What gully cricket is for rest of the country, Ice Hockey holds a similar place in their heart and the passion for sport runs in their veins. They practice on thin ice and the turf is hard as they battle climate, family, society and lack of funds, equipment and support. All they need is little support from our side and they will make sure India shines on World Ice Hockey map one day.