Ladakh, a region with a population of approximately 3,00,000, has produced every member of the Indian women’s ice hockey team. Members train on natural frozen ponds that last for just two months. These natural rinks lack facilities needed to play the game – like dasher boards made of Aluminium extrusion, HDPE / Poly Carbonate and Acrylic, which form the fence around an ice rink. India’s only full-sized artificial international rink in Dehradun remains closed for want of support. The only option for players is to travel to Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia or countries like UAE to train on full-sized ice hockey rinks. These training expeditions could be possible only if funds are provided.
They use equipment borrowed from relatives and compete on a shoestring budget without no financial assistance from the state. So, it’s astonishing that these women not only managed to win two matches in 2017 at Asia’s most high-profile ice hockey tournament but also maintain a burning desire to compete.
When winter months arrive in Ladakh, ice hockey is the only game in town. Youngsters can’t play football or cricket. Instead, they take to ice hockey on surfaces like Gupuks, just outside Leh town, or Karzoo, where the pond freezes over the winter. According to the Ladakh Winter Sports Club, there are approximately 10,000–12,000 Ladakhi youth who play ice hockey in one form or another. Major tournaments like the IHAI (Ice Hockey Association of India) National Ice Hockey Championship are often held in January every year.
Ice hockey first made its way to Ladakh in the early 1970s when locals enlisted in the army discovered bladed shoes in an army storage facility. Rounding up some conventional field hockey sticks and balls, the first local tournaments were held in 1972. By 1980, however, teams made up of civilians began to emerge. None of these teams, however, knew much about protective gear or even the rules of professional ice hockey. In some instances, the goalkeeper would wear cricket batting pads as protective gear.
Only in 2006, local authorities made it mandatory to wear protective head-gear and proper pads. Women were initially restricted to the more “feminine” sport of figure skating, often performing during the interval between men’s matches. “I started as a figure skater. My late father had bought me skates. Initially, we had a female figure skater from New Zealand, who gave us a few lessons at the club which lasted a couple of years. During that period, we used to do figure skating during the intervals when men were playing ice hockey,” says Disket Angmo, who plays defence for the Indian women’s team, and also performs the role of official team spokesperson.
The Ladakhi women who play the sport for their country today owe a lot to the generations that preceded them. The women’s game in Ladakh only came up in the early nineties, when educational institutions like SECMOL roped in a foreign instructor and sourced skates from abroad. Making the transition from figure skating to ice hockey, it was their sheer passion for the sport which drove the local winter sports club towards introducing women into local competitions since 2008. But it took till 2013 before the Ice Hockey Association of India conducted its first National Championship for Women.
caption--Children at the first day of the Learn to Play and Learn to Skate training program organised by the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation in collaboration with IHAI. (Source: Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation)