It’s 4 am in Spituk village in Ladakh. The freezing cold ensures that the inhabitants are snuggling under their quilts.
It’s 4 am in Spituk village in Ladakh. The freezing cold ensures that the inhabitants are snuggling under their quilts. There is no trace of any human or animal out in the cold except a bunch of resolute young women whizzing across an ice hockey rink they have carved from the snow. It’s here that these 20 women, who today form India’s women’s ice hockey team, have been playing since the mid-2000s.
Long before they made it to the national team, though, they had christened their rink as the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation (LWIHF) to encourage not just the sport, but, through it, a sense of independence among the women of the region. “We got to know about the sport when we saw army officials playing the game in our village. Some of our brothers also joined in,” says Kunzes Angmo, president, LWIHF, and one of the members of the Indian national team. “We really liked the sport and took it up as a hobby. But slowly, we got hooked to the game,” she says.
Talking about their initial struggles, 27-year-old Rinchen Dolma, the current captain of the Indian team, says, “When we started to make the rink, people thought we were fools… But we did it.”
The remoteness of the area and the paucity of funds were major roadblocks, says Dolma. “We had no funds, no support, and a lot of scepticism from locals. They would make fun of us. We didn’t even have enough equipment and gear. We practised with whatever we had,” she says. But their efforts paid off, as news of their work and talent reached the right ears. In 2016, these women were approached by the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI), the apex body for the sport in India, to form India’s first women’s ice hockey team. “At that time, they would stick skating blades on to army boots to play,” says Harjinder Singh, secretary, IHAI, adding, “And because the cricket pads they wore couldn’t take the force of the hockey puck, they would stuff thermocol into the gaps.”
Today, the world is taking notice of these women. In 2017, they travelled to the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia held in Bangkok and put up a stellar show. The team beat Philippines 4-3 to register its first victory. Since then, there has been no looking back. After watching a YouTube video of them, in fact, four-time Canadian ice hockey Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser and Stanley Cup champion Andrew Ference decided to visit Ladakh and train them. “We have about 60 bags full of hockey equipment… for the team practising here,” says Ference, who is currently in Ladakh training the players along with Wickenheiser. Their motive, they say, is to empower young female hockey players of the region. “It’s great to see how the sport has found its way through in such a remote area. It’s commendable. We want the game to grow and if it changes the lives of these women, there is nothing better than that,” says Wickenheiser.
The equipment they have brought with them includes donations from Canada-based National Hockey League Players’ Association and various other hockey organisations around the world. “It’s a huge moment for ice hockey and these women. Their hard work is paying off. This opportunity would give a massive boost to the sport in India,” says Singh of IHAI.
“For us, the sport is a way of life. It gives us the inspiration to fight all the adversities that we face,” says Dolma.