Konchok Rabgias, 29, is impressive in neither stature nor demeanour. At 5’6”, and with a downcast gaze, he is hardly the prototype of an international-level ice hockey player. And yet, Rabgias is part of India’s first-ever ice-hockey team, set to go to Abu Dhabi for the Asian Challenge Cup later this week.
His story epitomises the triumph of the human spirit. “I remember playing my first game in 2002. We didn’t have proper equipment to practise with. So we made hockey sticks out of wood and plastic, and our wives used to sew padding onto our clothes,” he says. “We still don’t have good equipment but we managed to come second in the Shimla winter games last year.”
Much like the rest of the team, Rabgias comes from a small village in Ladakh, where ice hockey has become a passion not because of government encouragement or private support, but because of old-fashioned grit and enterprise.
“Few people know how popular ice hockey is in Ladakh,” says Akshay Kumar, general secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India. “Every village boy wants his own hockey stick. They will use shoe-polish boxes instead of pucks and use ropes to tie blades to their shoes,” says Kumar, who with the help of a Facebook group, has managed to raise funds and find a sponsor to send the team to its first international fixture.
With no artificial rinks, the game is played only during winter on frozen lakes.
The team will accompanied by Adam Sherlip, an American ex-NHL player who’s been coaching them free. “For the last nine years, the Canadian embassy has sent people to train us. We’ve also managed to get secondhand equipment from American junior team LA Kings,” says manager Gyal Wangyal.