League signs broadcast and sponsorship deals but big disparity continues to exist between male and female game.
Leh, India – Nestled amid the soaring peaks of the Himalayan ranges, Ladakh is renowned for its desolate beauty and ancient Buddhist monasteries. But few are aware of the unbridled passion this remote region has for ice hockey.
Every winter as temperatures plummet to -20 degrees Celcius, hundreds of people strap on their skates and hit the ice. It is a ritual that has been followed for generations after British colonists first introduced ice hockey to India around a century ago.
With little else to do during Ladakh’s brutal snow season, the sport was initially adopted by the Indian army, which is stationed there. Players used rocks and rubber boot heels for pucks and made hockey sticks out of discarded wood.
The sport has come a long way in the past decade with the Canadian embassy in the capital, New Delhi, donating ice hockey equipment and participating in tournaments against local teams.
After much lobbying, ice hockey was finally recognised as a national sport in 2002, but in a country where cricket is a religion very few Indians even today know that they have a national ice hockey team.
The 22-member squad, comprising mostly of Ladakhis, has been competing internationally in the Challenge Cup of Asia since 2009. An American ice hockey enthusiast, Adam Sherlip, has been volunteering as their coach since then. But with no funding from the government and no full-sized rink to train on, their performance has been dismal. They have scored only one victory so far, against Macau in 2012.
Still, the players’ passion for the sport is unquestionable. Most of them are using tattered second-hand equipment. They are also paying their own way for the opportunity to represent their country at international tournaments.
As the ultimate underdogs, Team India will be competing in the 2016 Challenge Cup of Asia to qualify for the Winter Olympics. But more importantly, they are competing to win the hearts of their countrymen.
For more, watch the 101 East documentary On Thin Ice.