Ladakh Women’s Ice Hockey Foundation: Beginning 2018 in the Ice Hockey Rink

Yet another new year has come and the spirit of Indian sports has been undying in nature. Hockey being throughout the rest of the country, how can Indians miss out on the chill-splashed ice hockey?  Ice hockey is a sport that is gaining wide popularity in India. 2018 began with a good icy kick-start to hockey in Ladakh.

Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation(LWIHF) has launched a ten day free ice skating and hockey training programme for girls from the 1st of Jan till the 10th of Jan, 2018. The programme has got 104 participants so far. LWIHF posted on its FB page on 2nd January, 2018, ‘The New Year started with new hopes and new beginnings. Our 10-day Free (1st Jan- 10th Jan 2018) ice skating and hockey training program for Girls started with 104 young participants.’ The training programme has already seen the keen participation of many young girls from the district aspiring to play the sport with skill and passion. The foundation attributes the success of the program not only to efforts made by itself but also to the efforts of many others, such as the Chief Executive Councillor and District administration “who has generously provided the transportation from town to Gupugs pond”.

LWIHF is being able to run this training free of cost because of the crowd funding money which was raised by SECMOL in collaboration with LWIHF in the year 2016, partially for the Indian women’s ice hockey team and partially for promoting Ice hockey in the remote region of Ladakh. The foundation also expressed its gratitude to the District Forest Officer, who had made the pond available for them. The main aim of the NGO is to produce world-class ice hockey players and so this free training programme is a bold step towards their goal.

Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation was set up in the winter of 2015. It started with a hope to uplift the status of Women’s Ice hockey in Ladakh. The foundation said that the women players always felt the gender segregation and were not being encouraged enough to play the sport. So, the foundation was set up with the ambition to elevate the stature of women players. LWIHF further states, ‘The male ice hockey players were always blessed with proper hockey gears and skates, while the women players were never in the position to own their personal equipment. Till this date we borrow equipment from the men’s team for our matches.’ Soon enough the LWIHF founders felt the need of an organisation solely dedicated to the needs of the female players in Ladakh. The purpose of the foundation seems to be served with the inflow of equipment donations from individuals and organization from India and abroad this year.

It aims to promote women’s ice hockey and to provide an open space for Ladakhi women to excel in the said field. LWIHF puts in great efforts for encouraging and mentoring young Ladakhi women sports persons to flourish in any kind of organized sports and games. The founders was quoted saying, ‘We believe in imparting skills and knowledge, therefore we organize basic & advance ice-skating and hockey camps for the upcoming athletes on a regular basis.’

It tries to facilitate more women sports persons by providing the infrastructure and facilities required, to encourage world-class ethics of sportsmanship in Ladakh. It organizes tournaments and game centers in order to promote women’s ice hockey games in Ladakh. The foundation tries to create a space for the Ladakhi women sports persons to participate equally in any field of sports. LWIHF has become an anchor for guidance and support for budding women sports persons in Ladakh.

2016 was the first year a women’s team represented India in the International Ice Hockey arena. Mostly from Ladakh and all members of the LWIHF, the girls trained hard and qualified to play at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia Division I in March, 2016. The founders of LWIHF remarked, ‘It was the first time abroad for many in the team and a massive experience for each player.’ Of the 28 players who were selected for the national team, many hail from rural regions of Ladakh. It was a very difficult journey for them, starting with convincing their families to let them travel abroad and participate in the Games. On 10th March, 2016, Huffington Post had a headline which captured so many readers’ eyes all over the world: ‘ The Indian Women’s Ice Hockey Team Just Made History After Winning Its First Ever International Game. Kudos!’ After months of struggle with funding and gear, the Indian Women’s Ice Hockey Team created history in its very first attempt at the international level. The team registered its first victory ever in an international match on 9th March, 2017, by beating Philippines at the Challenge Cup of Asia fixture which was held in Bangkok.

Going back in time, we can see that ice hockey which is a sport that is less known in India, has been an integral part of Ladakh for about six decades now. The extreme winters in the region provide for the perfect setting for the sport to grow. But the game was restricted to men only for a long time. It was about 15 years ago that members of Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) thought of opening the doors of ice hockey to women as well. Slowly, with the help of donated clubs from teams in Sweden, Canada etc., SECMOL developed four women’s teams from different parts of Ladakh.

For the past many years, away from the eyes of national sports media, these women of Ladakh have been playing ice-hockey on Gupuk lake, which has now become the highest ice rink on Earth. As you’d guess, the challenges have been enormous. There are no training facilities, sourcing equipment is a struggle, and they borrow gear from the men’s team. Because there are no ready funds for the sport, they spend from their own pocket. If that isn’t enough, they even have to prepare the rink themselves’the Public Health Engineering Department supplies them with 3,000 litres of water every day, which the women, in groups of four, splash on the lake bed from 8 pm till 3 am in the freezing winter night. And then they are ready to play.

On the webpage on LWIHF, a tiny tale about how they made the ice rink: ‘We started by leveling the ground with the help of a JCB. The second step was to make a boundary that would help the water hold in that area. Then we filled the rink with water every evening which would then freeze by 10 pm. Then we would pour more water on the already frozen surface and repeat the process in the morning. For this we had assigned duties to groups of three to four girls who would stay overnight at the SECMOL office and water the rink three times a night, every night.’

Despite their hardships, their passion and determination remain intact. ‘We would freeze in (the) cold, but that did not kill our spirit. To keep our spirits high, we would turn on some music, and continue the task,’ said Noor Jahan, who was the goal tender of the national women’s ice hockey team. As more and more people learnt about these women, help started pouring in, and the women who were shooting pucks in a tiny corner of India are now taking on the world.

Last year September, as the game was gaining popularity, Sonam Wangchuk, who is credited with having changed the education landscape of Ladakh, was quoted saying that women are increasingly playing ice hockey there. He said, “Ladakh is the winter sports capital in India, a place where ice hockey and ice skating are quite popular. Fifteen years ago ice hockey was completely dominated by men, now it is a different story.’ It all began with a football ground being changed into an ice ring with the help of new technique 15 years ago for sportswomen. Gradually the schools in the remote places also were helped to have teams, and slowly ice hockey team girls started playing in the district, state and at the national level. At a CII event in Kolkata last year, Wangchuk had said, “The women ice hockey teams did very well in tourneys in Taipei and Bangkok. In Asia Challenge Cup. So now both men and womens teams doing well in ice hockey.”

The Women’s Ice Hockey Team of India has definitely geared up to march straight ahead in its path of success and glory. With the tireless initiatives and encouraging voices behind them from the various support groups and booster clubs like that of the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation and SECMOL, ice hockey, particularly women’s ice hockey is gaining wide popularity in the country and is definitely striding over the success hill. With innovative and striking programmes like this 10-day free training programme launched by LWIHF, the opportunities for women into this less experimented of field of sports can no longer be barricaded in the name of the typical Indian taboos or the economic and financial conditions of many a woman who cannot even afford to get herself a hockey stick. Kudos to LWIHF for this wonderful initiative!