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Passing the puck

India’s first official ice hockey team has an unusual band of supporters. Why then is the sport still skating on thin ice? Namita Kohli elaborates.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2009 23:02 IST
Namita Kohli

For the captain of India’s ice-hockey team, Tundup Namgyal runs an unusual business — when he is not playing the puck, (a rubber disc with which ice hockey is played) Namgyal is fixing the central heating systems at tony hotels in Leh. And the modest 39-year-old would have you believe that leading the country’s first official ice hockey team at the IIHF Asia Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi in March this year is, at best, incidental to his career.

“I don’t even remember when I started playing; it must have been in 1999,” he says, standing only a few meters away from the Karzoo pond in Leh, where the game is played every season. At this time of the year though, it’s hard to imagine that this tiny pond full of weeds could serve as the ‘rink’ (the enclosure where ice hockey is played) for the one of the most physically intensive, and rough sports.

In Leh though, the story of ice hockey — and its patrons — is full of such surprises. Played at 11,500 feet, in bone chilling temperatures of minus 20 degrees, it’s one of the very few winter pastimes that the snow-bound and electricity-starved region can afford.

“It gained popularity after the the Indian Army and ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) started playing it in the 70s. Today, it’s only played here, as there’s no ice left in Simla,” says P.T. Kunzang, president of the 23-year-old Ladakh Winter Sports Club (LWSC), one of the game’s major promoters.

The club was started by an unlikely group of Ladakhis — primarily Kunzang; David Sonam, a hotelier; and N.A. Gyapo, ‘prince’ of Mathoo, a village about 22 kms from Leh. Unlikely, since none of them has ever played ice hockey.

However, as Namgyal points out, it was only about a decade ago, when the ‘Sacred Bulls’ — the team comprising members of the Canadian High Commission in Delhi — arrived in Leh for a “friendly match”, that the game really took off in the region. For the uninitiated, ice hockey is the national sport of Canada.

“They came to play here, donated some of their old equipment and even lost a few matches against us,” laughs Namgyal. So even as the high altitude and thin air left the Canadians “huffing and puffing”, the local team — that until now was making do with football shin guards, homemade padding and wooden sticks — flourished.

Today, after winning, and losing, a few matches against the Canadians, encouragement from tourists and the National Hockey League Players’ Association of Canada, ice hockey has turned into a fairly popular game in Leh, and as Sonam says, is on the brink of “replacing polo in this region”.

But then, in many ways, ice hockey is still skating on thin ice. There’re no artificial rinks, so players have to make to make the best of natural rinks in the short winter from November to February. “We didn’t even have proper shoes for the match in Abu Dhabi,” says Namgyal, adding that even the money spent on traveling has still not been reimbursed.

Agrees Akshay Kumar, general secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India, “Since the sport is played only in Ladakh, funding is always an issue. We are trying to get Volvo, which sponsored the event this year, as a long-term sponsor.”

Things might improve with the artificial rink coming up in Dehradun — but then, as Kumar insists, it’s important not just to build facilities, but also to maintain them. “It’s a new sport and things will take time,” he says.

But India’s ice hockey captain can’t wait so long. “Two of my boys are learning. But the future isn’t like cricket; so what’s the point of encouraging them?” As of now, it pays more to fix the central heating systems in Leh hotels.