By Dr Nordan Otzer, Stawa 03-20
First group of ice hockey trainees in Nubra, Ladakh
Life comes to a standstill when winter arrives in Ladakh. There is little to do. Most children prefer to spend their time inside the house playing board games and helping parents with household chores. Most households receive three hours of electricity each day and everyone waits to sit with the family around the fireplace to watch the local news bulletin at 6.30 PM. Besides news on politics, society and the economy, in winter there is news on ice hockey tournaments in Leh.
In the neighbouring Nubra Valley, every child dreams of playing ice hockey or owning a pair of skates. Each day, they talk about ice hockey, different teams, who won the last match, who will win the next one and so on. Whenever they visit Leh town in the winter months, they always make it a point to attend an ice hockey match.
On a tour of Nubra Valley in the winter of 2017, I met my classmate Tashi after 20 years. He is a school teacher now and a father of three children-a girl and two boys. We spoke about our school days and the conversation veered towards his youngest child, Stanzin Jigmet, who is a big ice hockey fan. Jigmet would often beg his father to take him to Leh to watch an ice hockey match. Like Jigmet, there were many children in Nubra with similar dream. Tashi asked me to find someone to create ice hockey facilities in Nubra and to coach children like Jigmet. I really liked the idea, but I didn't know how to pursue it. I had heard that equipment is very costly and the challenges of finding funds.
A few months later, I was invited by Future Earth, an international climate change research programme, to attend a training session in Sweden. In March 2018, I landed in Stockholm with my friend Dawa. A day after we landed we went for a walk. Along the way, we came across a stadium called Zinkensdamms Idrottsplats, where we saw people playing ice hockey. We went inside and watched them playing for quite some time. Looking at them play, my mind went back to the conversation I had with Tashi a few months earlier.
That day, Mrs Maud Gyberg, Director of the Sewdish non-profit called Friends of Ladakh (FoL), came to meet us and I spoke to her about ice hockey. I asked if she could help us find second-hand ice hockey equipment for children in Nubra.
After we finished the training session, we met other members of FoL for lunch. Here I spoke with Magnus Geber, a member of FoL, about ice hockey as we walked to Skansen. That evening, Maud took us to a shopping centre where I bought a pair of skates. Maud assured us that she will try to arrange for ice skating equipment for the children of Nubra valley. We were really excited at this development!
I shared this news with Tashi, who was overjoyed. Everyone in Nubra refused to believe that it was possible. We eagerly waited for confirmation from Sweden. Winter came and went but there was no message. In this period, Stanzin Jigmet called me twice asking about the equipment. Finally, on 20 February, 2019, I received a message from Natalia Michalak (who volunteers at FoL) that they had managed to arrange for the equipment. I passed the message to Tashi.
The next obstacle was to get the equipment through customs at New Delhi airport. We were warned that it was not easy to release international parcels. Some people suggested that we should approach the Indian Embassy in Stockholm for help. I wrote a series of requisition letters to diplomats asking for assistance but received no reply. The weeks turned to months and transporting the equipment seemed impossible. Winter was approaching fast and I did not want to disappoint the children of Nubra. I gathered the courage and asked Maud to send the equipment by air. Customs was my next challenge.
In the meantime, we had a series of meetings in Jigmet's village, Panamik. We discussed the need to build an ice hockey rink, manage equipment and develop a long term plan. We formed a group called the Nubra Sport and Adventure Club (NSAC). Our first task was to build the rink. We requested the villagers for a piece of land on the banks of the Siachen River and they gave it to us right away. We then approached the local Councillor and Deputy Chief Executive Councillor in Leh Hill Council, Tsering Sangdup for funds to build the rink. He responded positively and we were able to build a temporary ice hockey rink in 15 days.
Meanwhile, the equipment arrived at New Delhi airport. A boy from Panamik village was assigned to collect it from the airport. We got a recommendation letter from Tsering Sangdup informing custom officials that the equipment was meant for a social cause. It took us two days to get the equipment released. Our next task was to transport it to Leh. It was the second week of December and the roads to Ladakh were closed. Air cargo was the only option available. Unfortunately, the airlines refused to accept cargo due to the unavailability of aviation fuel at Leh airport. Our equipment remained in Delhi for the next three weeks. It was already the first week of January and winter was starting to slip away once again. The children in Nubra were losing hope. Desperate, I approached some acquaintances in the Indian Air Force for help.
On 12 January, the equipment arrived in Leh on an Indian Air Force C130 Hercules aircraft. The next task was to transport everything to Nubra over Khardung La, which took us four days more as the road was closed due to snowfall.
The equipment finally reached Nubra on 16 January, 2020. Jigmet and his friends were waited all day in anticipation. Jigmet's joy knew no bounds when he saw the pick-up truck approach the village. All the children jumped up and shouted in excitement as they ran towards the truck. Their dream had finally come true! They couldn't believe their eyes when they saw ice hockey equipment in their hands.
On 20 January, 2020, we started the first ice hockey training session in Nubra. The news spread like wildfire and was trending on social media. Jigmet and his friend joined the first group of trainees with a coach from the Indian Army. The training continued for 10 days.
Jigmet and 15 other children from the village learnt skating in a short span of time. His father told me that Jigmet barely slept and would be ready at the crack of dawn for ice hockey practice. Jigmet proclaimed, "One day I will lead the ice hockey team from Nubra valley." He and his friends are grateful to everyone, especially FoL, who helped them realise this dream. I am confident that we will develop a team soon. Just as the Indian national women's ice hockey team was born in SECMOL with support from the FoL I am sure history will repeat itself.