India may not be famously known for its Ice Hockey, but that has not deterred the Indian Women’s National Ice Hockey Team from pursuing this sport, which certainly is no bed of roses. Breaking into the sport was not easy, particularly as women. From practising hockey on frozen ponds with second-hand equipment to raising money through crowdfunding for their expenses to now participating in the Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival in Canada, the team has surely come a long way. 

India has had a national men’s team since 1989. The women’s team, however, only played their first game in 2016, which was followed by their first ever international win in March 2017. SheThePeople.TV engaged in a conversation with Ladakh-based Diskit Chhonzom Angmo, playing member and spokesperson of the team, about their story, struggles, dreams and expectations. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

What led to the understanding, passion and commitment towards Ice Hockey?

Ice Hockey is essentially a Winter Olympic Sport. When most of the businesses, schools and colleges are closed, Ice Skating and Ice Hockey are the two sports which all of us indulge in for recreation. We had many expatriates, especially from Canada, who used to come to Leh for Ice Hockey. Many started professional coaching and soon we had several teams cropping up. This paved the way for local Championships, a few of which were hosted by the Ladakh Winter Sports Club.

While the men were actively playing, women slowly started developing an interest, too, while watching some family members play the sport. Most of us started learning to skate and then borrowed necessary equipment from family members who played the sport and the club to initially try our hand at it. Most of the members of the men’s team were from Ladakh and seeing them, we, too, developed an urge to represent India.

To promote the women’s sport, the Ice Hockey Association of India conducted its first National Championship for Women in 2013. As the number of female players grew, the association sent a team for the Challenge Cup of Asia in 2016. None of us had imagined we would be representing our country so soon. Only eleven of us had passports at the time of the final team selection. However, our ‘never say die attitude’ allowed all of us to get our passports in a very short span and we proudly represented India.

It’s the struggle which motivates us to never give up on our dreams

The team has trained in Ladakh for a long time now. How challenging has the training schedule been?

Our debut in the International circuit in Chinese Taipei triggered the hunger to win. We, however, realised that we required good equipment and a considerable amount of time to practise on ice. Unfortunately, equipment, full-time coach, ice time and availability were always a constraint for our growth, and still remains. With new kids coming in, and various championships on the line, we started making our own ice rinks to practise, with expatriates on holidays as our coaches.

Our association took us to Kyrgyzstan for a three-week training at an international sized indoor rink and a coach. The association made it possible by raising money through crowdfunding. Soon after, we went to Bangkok for the 2017 CCOA Championship.

How have the families reacted when it came to playing at a professional level?

Most of our relatives and family members have been involved in the sport, either through play or at the peripheral work. This made it easier to earn their encouragement. For most of us, Ice Hockey was the only way to pump up our adrenaline during winters and our families understood this to a great extent. 

Most people in the country aren’t aware of the fact that this sport exists. How challenging has it been to cross this hurdle of acknowledgement?

Firstly, our concern is that Ice Hockey is an Olympic Sport and it’s about time that it should should be treated on par with other sports. Another thing is that the huge disparity between winter and summer sports is extremely discouraging. In spite of the Himalayas in the country, snow sports like skiing are not encouraged here. It is these things which will add up to more awareness and thereby acknowledgment from the audiences.

A cheering audience always boosts our confidence and performance in the rink. Just want to let them know that if they are with us, we have nothing to fear

While there are teenagers in the team, there are also some in their twenties and thirties. How do you all gel together as a team?

Our motto says: “We affirm our commitments to one another and strive to lift each other up, then together, we will continue moving closer to that brighter future we all seek.” We follow this motto religiously and this understanding is what has led us to accept each other regardless.

Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Canada, decided to support you all after seeing the team’s performance in a YouTube video. She has also helped with equipment to some extent. How has the experience been associating with her?

Yes, Hayley Wickenheiser donated some of the team’s new equipment. She is also hosting the Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival in Calgary this month, which we’re attending.

In 2018, the Association could not raise funds for training and we went for the Championship in Malaysia despite knowing the fact that other teams were well prepared and had been practising in their own indoor rinks for a year. We, on the another hand, had matured as players and scored as many goals, as we did in the last championship, but were unsuccessful in Malaysia.

Wickenheiser, on noticing our story on social media, visited us in Leh this January. She invited us for a hockey coaching program and WICKFEST in Canada. This is a huge opportunity for us. It’s true that fortune favours the brave.

Our passion for the sport made us believe in ourselves. We were once an unheard team from a remote area in India, and now we’re playing the sport internationally in Canada

How has the recognition from the government been?

We do not expect funds or any kind of financial support from any sponsor to come by until our sport gets exposure nationally. The government focuses primarily on summer Olympic sport, especially those which fetch medals. Our Association is recognised as a National Sports Promotion Organisation and the support from the government can’t truly come by until they recognise us as a National Sports Federation. The team needs to be recognised nationally even if this winter Olympic sport is played only at a regional level.

We are not halting here; we are ready for more bruises, more matches, and more experiences coming our way

In 2017, the team competed in the same tournament again, ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised ₹32 lakh. Tell us about this experience. Also, how has the association facilitated change over the years?

To have come this far is a great achievement for the sport and the association. The association has twice been successful in getting crowdfunding for the sport to enable the teams to train and participate internationally. Playing repeatedly on one’s own home ground does not spur growth or up the level of sport. Only when you experience competition internationally does the evaluation progress. Ice Hockey Association of India has not only facilitated our participation internationally but has also sent athletes, coaches and officials to attend various IIHF driven programs. It has also shared a masterplan on conducting “Learn to Play Program” at various villages to raise awareness. This will facilitate increased level of competitiveness and improved skill set of the team as well. 

We also have six-time winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan, a Luge athlete, who has been participating and training all by himself. Our Association is developing the sport, but it’s not easy. In their recent annual general meeting, the body went ahead and included four players in the nine-member executive council, including Noor Jahan – our current goalie – as a female council member.

There is only one artificial rink in the country – in Dehradun. What difficulties has the team faced concerning its unavailability for use?

The best the government can do at the moment is reopening the only international sized indoor rink in Dehradun, which is lying shut since 2012. This rink needs to be made available for us all year round. It’s mind boggling to see that the facility remains shut despite investing crores. This rink’s functionality will enable us to improve upon our capability and to win championship consistently. We believe it’s the winning ways of the team which would help us get funding and sponsorships.

What is the support that the Women’s Ice Hockey team expects from the government and concerned authorities?

  • The government must facilitate setting up infrastructure across India. Complete the unfinished rinks in Leh and Kargil, re-open the international class rink in Dehradun.
  • Grant National Sports Federation status to our Association.
  • Provide jobs for State and National players of all olympic sports, including Ice Hockey.
  • Have zero customs duty on import of all kinds of equipment for the winter sports, Ice Hockey essentially. Government has selectively chosen sports when to comes to waiver of customs duty.
  • We request all PSUs to take up each of the winter sports as part of their CSR, offer benefits, and similarly encourage private corporates for the same.
  • Give grants for participation in international championships and training camps, including reimbursing the costs being incurred to get coaches.

Winter Sports can be game changer for the economy of the region. It will lure tourists and increase the economy. But this can happen only if there is better infrastructure

Where do you see the future of women’s ice hockey team in the country and internationally?

We’ve worked extremely hard and only we know the struggle we have gone through. Having said that, the team has always had a positive attitude. The matches, failures, motivation and the sisterhood we’ve experienced on this journey have been bittersweet with tears, sweat, bruised skin and happiness. The future of ice hockey lies in several factors. We aim to strive hard and achieve great heights, but we cannot do it without rightful support from our country.

Photo credits: Ice Hockey Association of India Facebook

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