India Women's Ice Hockey Team plays for passion as scant support from government, corporates shadows future
The India women's side is faced with constraints such as lack of infrastructure which mean that the players can only train during the winter months over frozen lakes in Ladakh
The India Women's Ice Hockey Team played its first international match in 2016 during the Challenge Cup of Asia
In 2017, the women's side won their first international match against the Philippines 4-3 before beating Malaysia in the same tournament
The Ice Hockey Association of India hasn't been recognised as a National Sports Federation
The state of ice hockey in India can be gauged from a cursory glance at the website of the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI). The home page itself has a letter from Harjinder Singh, the general secretary of the association, inviting private players to do their bit for the team as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
That letter is flanked by graphics on both sides, inviting sponsors and donors alike. The sport and the association are pressed for funds.
Disappointingly, an acute lack of infrastructure – India’s only international-sized ice rink in Dehradun is lying shut since 2012 – forces the players to train during the winter months over frozen lakes in Ladakh, and during the summers at iSKATE, a smaller sized ice rink built in Ambience Mall, Gurugram.
It is in Gurugram where the Indian Women’s Ice Hockey Team assembled as part of an event organised by global sportswear giant Under Armour to showcase inspiring stories of Indian athletes.
The Indian women’s team fit the bill for the event perfectly. While the men’s side has plenty of seasoned players – employed with the Indian Army – who’ve been playing for long and first represented India in 2009, most of the players in the women's side are fresh-faced, with dreams and ambitions, not all of which are to do with the sport.
As the players — all from Ladakh — posed for a group photograph on the stage, it seemed like a class photograph taken at the end of a semester. Most of them are still in college. Those who have graduated are preparing for further examinations.
In between, they carve out time to stay fit for what is, arguably, the fastest sport on the planet. For an ice hockey player maintaining fitness at the top level is a year-round effort.
“Our coaches are always in touch with us. They ask us to send videos of our fitness drills and what we are doing to remain in shape for the upcoming season,” says Noor Jahan, the 28-year-old goalkeeper of the Indian women’s side.
When she isn’t busy tending the goal, Jahan works as an art conservator, while also pursuing her PhD from the National Museum Institute in the capital.
Jahan is one of the senior-most members of her side. That shows in what she has to say. Having been around since the team’s inception in 2016, Jahan recounts some of their finest moments at the rink.
“Our first international win, it was the third and final period and the game was see-sawing,” she remembers. “Our coaches were shouting instructions and all of us were trying to stay calm but finding it hard to do so. That is when Harjinder sir walks in and says, ‘girls, do or die’. That was our Chak De moment,” she quips.
Jahan was talking about the team’s first international win against the Philippines which came at the 2017 Challenge Cup of Asia in the second division.
That cricket hogs a lion’s share of every publication's sports coverage is a known fact. However, what comes with the same is abject neglect of Olympic sports, those who are representing the country in newfound frontiers, where the tricolour was never raised, where India never won since it never played.
Some of that was about to change. While television coverage remained negligible, the Indian Women's Ice Hockey Team's first international win got a fair amount of coverage on social media.
Netizens warmed up to the story of a young bunch of Ladakhi girls who had honed their ice hockey skills while wearing their brothers’ oversized cricket pads, using them as protective gear essential to the sport.
The Indian women’s side wasn’t content with just one consolation win. In their final match of the tournament, they beat Malaysia 5-4 in another nail-biter.
Soon enough, the women’s side went to Canada on an invitation from Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic ice hockey gold medallist, to take part in WickFest, a women’s ice hockey festival.
The team’s success is as much theirs as that of the IHAI and its enterprising general secretary Harjinder Singh, who exhibits an unflinching dedication to what seems a lost cause to many.
Singh was an event manager tasked with organising the IHAI’s National Ice Hockey Championships. Thereon, he was roped in by the association to popularise the sport beyond the mountainous confines of Ladakh.
Today, the women’s national championships have grown from four locally based teams to one where teams from Delhi, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Shimla are contesting too. There has also been a visible improvement in the performances of the national team.
From making their Challenge Cup of Asia debut in 2016 and being trounced in all four matches, to winning a couple of nail-biters in 2017, to this year, when the team won bronze in the second division, beating Kuwait for the medal, the journey reads like a movie script.
However, the challenges remain and there aren’t many solutions in sight, feels Singh. “It was only our first year where we got a lot of support from our crowdfunding campaigns. Someone tweeted to Anand Mahindra and he pledged his support, the Gautam Gambhir foundation also came on board and we were able to raise an adequate amount,” he recounts.
“But since then, none of the organisations have renewed their interest. Currently, it’s all our out-of-pocket expenditure.”
Ask Singh who’s bearing the players’ lodging expenses while training in Delhi and he says rather nonchalantly that he’s making all the arrangements himself. Moreover, he’s also raising money from relatives and friends for the team’s travel costs.
The players can’t thank him enough for being a guiding light. “Harjinder sir is like a second father to all the girls on the team,” says Diskit Angmo who plays defence in the team.
However, Singh's one-man effort is falling short of getting the team to where they ought to reach.
“There are lots of tournaments where we were eligible to play but couldn’t because of lack of funds,” says Jahan. “There are invitational tournaments happening all year round. We could register for just one which is in Chinese Taipei and we are training for that now.”
There are several issues which the team and the association are tackling on the administrative front. “The Ice Hockey Association of India is doing everything in its power to help us. However, it has been enlisted as a National Sports Promotion Organisation,” says Diskit, a graduate from Delhi University’s Daulat Ram College.
“We are playing for the pure passion of ice hockey as there is no money for us in it. It is only when they recognise us as a National Sports Federation (NSF) that funds from the government will start coming in.”
That seems a distant dream. Government of India’s National Sports Code states that NSFs seeking recognition from the government will be judged on parameters including but not limited to, the sport, and the federation’s activities being spread all over India.
In contrast, the IHAI has only 11 member affiliates, most of them being clubs from Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Although the IHAI’s activities have grown and they’ve managed to popularise the sport with their ‘Learn to Play’ programs, the sport’s seasonal nature and the dearth of all-weather artificial ice rinks in the country will remain a hindrance.
In June this year, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, while addressing a gathering, assured that the IHAI will soon get the status of a National Sports Federation. That promise is yet to be fulfilled.
As of now, the future of the national women's side is uncertain. Preparations all-year-round are for the Challenge Cup of Asia, the only major tournament which the team participates in.
The players take it one season at a time. As the winters subside, the team disbands for players to get on with their lives beyond the rink.
It is only when they train together at the rink in Ambience Mall, Gurugram that they experience some measure of fame that other athletes are so accustomed to. “Sometimes, when we walk around the mall in our ‘Team India’ jerseys, people notice and some come up to us asking for a photo,” Noor signs off.
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