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India's ice hockey on thin ice but help is at hand

Former professionals from Canada mixing it with the locals in Ladakh last month. The venue: a frozen lake. Hayley Wickenheiser

Thousands of miles west from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the frenzy-generating rounds of its biggest team sport, India's ice hockey community knows it has Hayley Wickenheiser, the sport's greatest female player of all time and a four-time Winter Olympic gold medallist, in its corner. Someone who can look beyond the minutiae of the sport and see it as a "vehicle of education, development and hope".

First things first. There is actually an Indian ice-hockey community -- with around 1,900 players, mainly male -- from parts of the country never imagined: Haryana, for example, and Maharashtra and Delhi. They are currently in the midst of their outdoor season in Ladakh, two precious months "on ice", before the national teams head to Kuala Lumpur for the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia (Division 1) in March.

Before that, they await two potential landmarks: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to India this week (he landed in New Delhi yesterday) and the fervent hope that India's only world-standard ice-sport facility, the Doon Ice Rink in Dehradun, could possibly re-open after being shut for nearly eight years. The Trudeau visit could yield an agreement between Canada and India around the sport, which could involve an exchange of people -- players in training, coaches -- and material, like equipment. Which brings us back to Wickenheiser.

Last month, Wickenheiser travelled to Ladakh with nine others and plenty of goodwill. They included Stanley Cup winner (and fellow Canadian) Andrew Ference, donations from the Ice Hockey Players' Association and 73 bags of equipment. Two weeks on and Wickenheiser found herself hooked onto the Indian ice hockey mission.

As rudimentary as it was. Out in the open on a frozen lake that had been turned into a rink, the former professionals mixed it with the locals -- girls, boys, men, women. "I grew up on the same things, outdoor ice," Wickenheiser told ESPN, "and it was the most fun I've ever had in hockey, that I've had in my life, when I played with the girls." There were 'real practices and training' and the opportunity was "not a hand-out but a hand up... to teach them so they teach themselves."

"They [the community] were in shock -- the fact that we had got the equipment up to them was a miracle -- the people were so appreciative," she said. "I see hockey as a vehicle for education, development and hope. Kids don't go to school in the winters and have nothing to do and hockey could play a big part."

Wickenheiser, currently in Pyeongchang, will return to India during the Trudeau visit and hopes to bring in the ice-hockey girls to meet Trudeau as part of a youth forum in Delhi. She chanced upon their story on a YouTube video and wants them to eventually travel to her annual Wickfest (the Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival), this year to be held in Calgary. She promises to return to strengthen her ties with India's players, including working with girls' (ice) hockey in the Delhi area.

"The girls have such a long way to go but they have to start somewhere and by working with them and with them working consistently I hope we can help," she says.

The stories of frozen lakes and ponds give the impression that India does not have an international standard ice-rink. It does, though it's currently locked up. The Doon Ice Rink occupies 20 acres of the Maharana Pratap Sports College in Dehradun. It is what drew Tsewang Gyaltson back to the sport he'd played as a child in Ladakh after five years, and then reeled him in. In 2012, Tsewang finished high school in Delhi, signed up for a college in Dehradun and returned to the competitive ice hockey season in Ladakh's winter, where the national team selections were held.

He is today the captain of India and hugely optimistic about where the sport stands at the moment. "When I initially got into the team I thought the picture was very bleak and it's never going to a certain height. But in the past few years, there have been some game changers and I am very confident we will be able to be a challenge at the Asian Winter Games in the future."

One game changer was a 2015 crowd-funding mission launched by the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) and its secretary Harjinder Singh Jindi, which raised funds to send the Indian team to take part in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, the foremost continental tournament in the sport. The 285 donors from 50 cities included the industrialist Anand Mahindra and the cricketer Gautam Gambhir; all told, they raised funds to give the men some practice time on a rink at the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon in 2015.

The next year, the corpus ensured they travelled to Kyrgyzstan, which has reasonably priced international-standard facilities, to spend a month training, before the Asian event in Kuwait. India's best finish so far? Silver in 2017 in IIHF Challenge Cup Men's Division-I, two years after crowd-funding, and 13 years since the association was founded in 2004.

The Indian men's team has players from Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra as well as the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. The civilians in the squad are drawn from the few indoor rinks in the country and practise on small 20x20 ft roller skating rinks; in winter, they travel up north to play pond-hockey on frozen lakes and ponds.

"We are restricted not by geography but by facilities," says Akshay Kumar, IHAI director. Because the only international-standard rink in the country is shut, the two-month winter season is cramped with competition and team selection for the handful of events India compete in.

However, the sport has always interested ice hockey majors. Like a group of Americans in the early years of the IHAI, who hunkered down in Ladakh villages, living in houses without toilets at -30 degrees Celsius, for the purpose of spreading the ice hockey gospel. An annual India-Canada Friendship Cup has been held in Leh since 2001, organised by the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi. Ladakh is currently the heartland of Indian ice hockey, having taken over from the historical centre of the sport in Shimla. The rink in Shimla, more than 100 years old, had to close, Akshay says, "because of climate change". Global warming had ensured that the ice field did not get thick enough for hockey.

From the mid-1990s, Ladakhi village children had the entire landscape open to them, their ice hockey involving constant improvisation. Conventional hockey sticks for the want of the real stuff, parts of plastic buckets as protection pads, army boots with blades hammered into them, or figure skating skates if available, boxes of shoe polish as pucks. Akshay says, "I've played hockey in that, but those days are over. Now go to a village and you won't find low-quality equipment." It took the IHAI a couple of years to convince tough Ladakhi locals to play with helmets.

In the far warmer non-ice parts of the country, inline and roller hockey players often want to test their skills at lower temperatures. At the 2015 women's nationals, the bronze medallists came from, surprise, surprise, Maharashtra. It is a sport itching for more indoor venues, which cost, Akshay reckons, Rs 40 crore to construct. Far less than the Doon Ice Rink, built for the 2010 South Asian Winter Games at a cost between Rs 110 and 120 crore. India's first international ice hockey tournament was held there in 2012 -- around the time Tsewang moved to Dehradun -- before the Uttarakhand government shut it down citing excessive monthly maintenance.

"The girls have such a long way to go but they have to start somewhere and by working with them and with them working consistently I hope we can help." Hayley Wickenheiser

When last heard, the state sports minister dubbed the rink a "mausoleum". What it actually is, is a world-class facility which requires creative management and cost-effective usage. In what is a district filled with around 150,000 students from wealthy families.

Ice hockey in India, like the Doon Rink, stands for a multitude of possibilities. In 2014, the mobile phone developer Jana -- which calls itself the "largest provider of free internet in emerging markets" -- carried out a survey (of, they say, around 1,500 people) in "emerging markets". One of the questions asked respondents which sport would they watch in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Sixty-four per cent of the Indian responders said ice-hockey.

Tsewang puts it in perspective. "We were supposed to take part in the Asian Winter Games last year [in Sapporo, Japan] but we evaluated ourselves, our team and said we're not going to go. And we should focus on the Challenge Cup of Asia, the tournament we play every year. We will hopefully participate in the next Asian Winter Games and I'm positive we can challenge there in the next 10 years."