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Hockey in the Himalayas

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks

Hockey in the Himalayas?

You bet.

Richard Loat, a group of Five Hole for Food colleagues and friends took hockey to the Himalayas in early 2015; during their weeklong trip at the end of January, the group taught kids how to skate and play hockey.

It turns out the group’s love of hockey was met with a passion for the sport in the mountain communities of Ladakh in Leh (and other places where it’s cold enough for water to freeze).

With the Himalayan children in need of hockey equipment and warm clothing, the Vancouver Canucks donated pucks, toques and jerseys, which will be proudly sported for years to come.

Loat wrote about his experiences and everything the group learned during their journey.

The game of hockey can be cutting. It can be sharp. It can be vicious and it can tear you apart.

Within that though you have a game that is pure. A game that brings people together, builds community, and encourages positive individual development. That contrast in many ways is indicative of some of this world’s most remote ice hockey. The sharp and jagged Himalayas guard and surround a hidden pocket of hockey in Northern India that is thriving.

The Indian Himalayas is home to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. A contested area through history between India, China and Pakistan, the area is heavily militarised and with the army – many years ago – came a sport that is rarely if ever associated with India: Ice Hockey.

The town of Leh is situated in a valley within the Himalayas. Facing the extremes of the weather spectrum this mountainous desert sees little in the way of precipitation at any time of the year. Facing +40 temperatures in the winter and -50 temperatures in the winter the people wear the weather in their features. Aged years beyond the wisdom they’ve acquired you find a mountain people that are gentle, welcoming, and kind. You also find a culture of ice hockey that is thriving and that can bring the town to a grinding stand still in the same way that Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final pushes all else from our schedule.

There in Leh, along the Indus River, lays a school called SECMOL. SECMOL, the Students Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, has made hockey a mandatory part of its curriculum where both boys and girls are encouraged to pick up sticks, lace up skates and chase that rubber disk we are all so fond of. During Ladakh’s most severe winter months, it simply isn’t affordable to heat schools and as such schools are closed. It’s during this time that hockey reaches another gear with competitions and tournaments taking place across the state.

SECMOL itself is home to some of the reigning champion mens and womens teams and even before the sun is up you can hear the sharp cutting of skates on fresh ice and sticks racing across the rink. I went up there this year after I found out about the hockey culture in Ladakh because I was on a mission to find some of the purest elements of the game. To me, there’s nothing quite like a good game of hockey on the pond. Take away the equipment. All you need is a pair of skates and a stick and friend equally mad about the game to have a good time.

I got more than I was bargaining for in the best way possible. Up there to coach for a week, and having collected seven bags of donated second hand equipment to donate to kids and players up there I was in for the most incredible week of my life.

As a Canucks fan for longer than I can remember it was exciting to have the team itself get behind what we were doing by contributing gear for us to take up to the area. A combination of jerseys, pucks and toques were the perfect blend to kit out some young players who were in need of gear, and gear that was going to battle the cold weather.

The nights in Ladakh during the winter easily hover close to -30 without the windchill and the sun rises over the Himalayas around 7:45am each day. By about 6:30am though, the ice is well enough lit, kids from the school are rolling out of bed and before anything else finding their skates and sticks to get in a morning session before the school bell rings calling everyone together for breakfast. After flooding their man-made rink the night before (an evening ritual in the wake of a Zamboni to re-set the ice) first tracks on the rink feel like treading precariously over thin ice with the ice cracking and settling for another day of end-to-end rushes.

The extra pucks sent up by the Canucks came in handy as the rink sat on the edge of a mountain side which dropped sharply down to the Indus River. If a puck went over… there wasn’t much chance of it getting returned and their puck count was getting dangerously low!

Days in the winter consist of hockey practice in the morning, afternoon classes, and then more on-ice sessions either in the form of formal practices or scrimmages. One of the things that allowed us to really illustrate what we were showing was exposing the team to footage of games. Being located where they are in the world, they don’t have access to any sort of hockey games. I had taken up a handful of Canucks games that I had recorded on my computer, to show them. Evenings after dinner saw tens of the students at a time gather around my laptop as we stopped and started footage to point out things like breakout passes, faceoff technique, and playing in zones.

As an ardent hockey fan of the game the world over I was proud to look at the mark that global hockey ambassadors like myself had left from previous visits. A skate with the kids saw some in Leksand jerseys, the appearance of a Djurgarden’s jersey and even NHL teams like the NY Islanders, and Montreal Canadiens and now proudly some Vancouver Canucks ones in the mix. There were AAA team jerseys from Canada’s junior system and even a number of German Ice Hockey jerseys donned. From Sweden, to Canada, to other pockets of the hockey world this was a mish-mash of hockey lovers sharing the game and striving to make it accessible to all those that wanted to play.

It was never about the crest on their chest though. Jerseys were a mark of the global support that hockey has in the region and it was a proud moment to contribute the Canucks mark to the area proudly telling kids about Canucks lore amongst other things. For the kids it was a means to an end. With a stick in their hands, the puck on the ice, and the skates on their feet they changed my image of passion for hockey. We always imagine playing hockey till the last possible second of the sun going down. These hockey lovers started skating before the sun was even up.

On the last day of our stay there we head into the town of Leh as the SECMOL girls were in the Youth Girls final against a neighbouring team. They walked off with a convincing 6-0 win and successfully defended their trophy. That however was followed by a game between the Ladakhi Army and the Ladakh Border Police. As players streamed onto the ice one Ladakhi sitting next to me turned and pointed to a particular player on the Army team indicating that he was by far and away the best player in Ladakh. He was tall. Taller than the rest of the players. He had a wrist shot that was unstoppable and a few strides would easily separate him from any pursuing defenders. I got a kick out of the fact he wore the number “99”.

This was arguably some of the remotest ice in the world, and with that came some of the purest hockey I have ever experienced. A love of hockey for the sake of hockey trumped all else on these mountain rinks. I head up there to teach a community of passionate hockey enthusiasts the game.

When I left, I think it was I that learned more from them.

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