By Kunzes Dolma, Stawa 11-18
Women's ice hockey in Ladakh
The sport of ice hockey is the fastest team sport on the planet. It is played on ice between two teams, with six players-a-side, including a goal tender. The main purpose of the game is to use an ice hockey stick to hit a small puck into the opposing side's goal. It is very popular in France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, USA, Canada, and Switzerland. It is also being played in Japan, Russia, Thailand, New Zealand, Chinese Taipei, UAE, Malaysia, The Philippines, and India.
In India, ice hockey was introduced in the Himalayan region by the Indian Army. In time, civilians have also adopted the game and Ladakh has now emerged as a vibrant hub for ice hockey in India. Ice hockey in Ladakh is generally played on frozen ponds and reservoirs during the winter months from November to mid-February. Due to lack of an indoor ice hockey rink, the ice hockey season in Ladakh is restricted to the winter months.
Since ice hockey is rough and fast, many people consider it to be a male sport. However, women have played ice hockey for over 100 years. Women in Ladakh initially started learning ice skating and then graduated to ice hockey in 2002 with support from friends and family. In 2003, women's teams were not allowed to participate in local tournaments. This resulted in a protest by female players, especially those representing the NGO, Student Educational Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), which has pioneered women's ice hockey in Ladakh. Since then, women's teams have been participating in local tournaments organised by Ladakh Winter Sports Club (LWSC) and national tournaments organised by Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI). In the last few years, this sport has grown in popularity and since 2016, women ice hockey players from Ladakh have started representing India in international tournaments.
In 2016, the Indian women's ice hockey team participated in the International Ice Hockey Federation's (IIHF) Ice Hockey Women Challenge Cup of Asia (IHWCCOA) Division-I in Chinese Taipei. It was the first time that the team was participating in an international tournament. Indian player, Diskit C Angmo, said, "It was difficult for us to play on an international-size artificial rink for the first time." While the team failed to win a single game, the players gained a lot in terms of skills and exposure. In fact, India's goal-tender, Noor Jahan received the award for the tournament's best goal tender and Deachen Dolker was recognised as India's best player.
In March 2017, the team participated in 2017 IIHF IHWCCOA Division-I in Bangkok, Thailand. In this tournament, the Indian team won their games against The Philippines and Malaysia. Former Indian Captain, Rinchen Dolma said, "After these wins, we realised that if the team was able to win two matches with 20 days of pre-tournament preparation, then we could win the championship with proper infrastructure and support." At this tournament, Tsewang Chuskit received the award of the Most Valuable Player in the tournament, while Diskit C Angmo was recognised as India's best player.
As a result of these achievements, the Indian women's ice hockey team received the Ministry of Women and Child Development's 'First lady Award' from the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind on 20 January, 2018.
In March 2018, the team once again participated in the 2018 IIHF IHWCCOA Division-I in Kaula Lumpur, Malaysia. This time, they did not win a single match but Kunzes Angmo was recognised as the best forward in the tournament. Rinchen Dolma felt that despite not winning a single match, the players managed to gain valuable experience and exposure. "We also realised the need to improve our skills," she added.
Her team mate, Diskit C. Angmo said, "The tournament fuelled our desire to continue improving. The matches, the failures, the motivation, the exploration and the sisterhood that we developed on that trip made it a bitter-sweet journey. We returned with tears, bruises and a sense of pride. We will not sit back. We are prepared to play more matches and earn more bruises to gain valuable experience and improve our skills."
IHAI is the national body that oversees ice hockey in India. IHAI General Secretary, Harjinder Singh said that the sport faces obstacles such as of lack of infrastructure, equipment, and financial support. "We had to resort to crowd-funding to ensure that the Indian team could participate in the IIHF IHWCCOA tournament. It is due to the generosity of well-wishers that we were able to collect the funds in a short time. Since all the players in the team are from Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council released 27 lakh for the team in 2017. The women's team now has to break the myth that they are weak and show the world that women are equal to men. The women's ice hockey team must become a catalyst to transform the lives of women. They should strive to become role models for female athletes in the country. This will not only help popularise the sport, but also facilitate the induction of more girls into the sport," he added.
The players definitely need more exposure to make their mark in international ice hockey. In March 2018, IHAI arranged a week-long coaching camp by Canadian ice hockey player and winner of four Olympic gold medals, Hanley Wickenheiser. Indian player, Deachen Dolkar said they were very fortunate to receive training hockey from one of the most inspirational ice hockey players in the world. "I only wish the camp was for a longer duration" she added. As part of the growing relationship with Canadian players, in November 2018 the Indian ice hockey team participated in the WickFest: The Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival in Calgary, Canada.
Indian player, Tsetan Dolma said, "WickFest gave us an opportunity to learn more about ice hockey and our place in this new world. It was a great experience to participate in this festival. We got an opportunity to meet many international legends in the sport, which inspired us to continue pursuing our dreams."
Since ice hockey is not played in most of India, it remains neglected. Women's ice hockey used to get very little attention till 2016 when the women's team participated in the IIHF's IHWCCOA. Prior to this, the players were forced to use equipment donated by the men's team. While the number of male hockey players has increased, the number of women players has stagnated.
In 2015, women ice hockey players in Ladakh formed a society called Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation (LWIHF) to improve women's ice hockey. General Secretary of LWIHF and goal tender for India, Noor Jahan said, "Since its formation, LWIHF has been organising coaching camps for young girls. LWIHF believes that involvement in one sport from an early age ensures a longer career and positive long-term impact for the sport."
Ice hockey in India is still in its infancy. There is no indoor rink in Ladakh where players can practice their skills throughout the year. As a result, the Indian players barely get a month's practice before participating in tournaments such as IIHF's IHWCCOA.
Indian player, Kunzes Angmo emphasised the need for an indoor rink. "An indoor rink is the most basic requirement for an ice hockey player. Right now, we are able to practice for a very short period before tournaments. If they are unable to create such an infrastructure, I hope the government provides us with land to build a floor-ball or in-line skating rink to enable our players to practice in the summer." Ice hockey in India has a long way to go and requires steadfast support from the government and civil society in terms of funds and other forms of support.