Himalayan hockey tournament showcases an Indian love of the game that rivals Canada’s (with gallery)

Published: February 1, 2013

RICHARD SIMPSON 
POSTMEDIA NEWS

Spitfire Geronimo

The Spitfire take on Geronimo with the monastery (left) and palace in the distance in Leh, India. Tyler Kretzschmar/Postmedia News

LEH, India — Three-and-a-half kilometres above sea level, near the roof of the world where the air is thin and the vistas rich, an extremely short hockey shift is about all a visiting player can handle before he puffs off the ice.

“The locals have the stamina for this, but for us visitors it’s 20-second shifts,” says Brian Jablon, one of those visitors. “It’s the only way we’ll make it through three periods. Two years ago, one of our guys passed out midway through the second period!”

Jablon plays for the Sacred Bulls. Although the team is mostly made up of members of Canada’s High Commission in Dehli, Jablon is head of security at the American Embassy in the Indian capital.

The distinctly Canadian tale of how he and his teammates came to play in a hockey tournament nearly 700 kilometres — and a universe — away from their home base began 12 years ago.

It’s no secret that cricket is India’s passion, a game that means as much to Indians as hockey does to Canadians. The country is known to come to a standstill when India is playing one of its fiercest rivals, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, in a crucial international match.

But here in the otherworldly heights of this sleepy Himalayan town in the Indian region of Ladakh, a place famous for its Buddhist monasteries and awe-inspiring peaks, something improbable has developed: a hockey hotbed.

“From the moment the snow falls in December until it melts in the spring, Ladakh lives and breathes ice hockey,” says N.A. Gyapo, the head of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club. “This is truly remarkable considering the region’s geographic isolation.”

And isolated it is. At 3,484 metres, Leh can be reached only by air in the winter, and only when weather permits.

“Between the fog in Delhi and the harsh Himalayan weather conditions, it’s 50-50 whether your flight will take off on any given day,” says an employee of Jet Airways, which runs regular flights into the mountain retreat.

With the odds so unfavourable, it’s no surprise tourism is restricted to summer trekking months. But for three days every January, the town reinvents itself with what’s come to be known as the Indo-Canadian Friendship Ice Hockey Tournament.

The tournament’s roots were planted a dozen years ago when a group of Indian officials visited the High Commission in Delhi looking for visas so they could bring hockey equipment from Canada to India.

Tony Kretzschmar, captain of the Sacred Bulls and a primary organizer of the tournament, says Canadian officials at first thought it was some sort of scam.

“Ice hockey and India aren’t exactly notions that go hand in hand,” he explains.

But their interest piqued, a couple of high commission staff decided to venture to Little Tibet, as Ladakh is sometimes called, to investigate for themselves.

What they discovered astounded them.

“Local Ladakhis were playing the game with used field hockey sticks and cricket pads and skates made from army boots with homemade blades nailed to them,” Kretzschmar recalls. “Pucks were no more than shoe polish tins.”

And they were playing outdoors in deep sub-zero temperatures.

It turned out that Canada’s national passion had been introduced to landlocked Ladakh more than 30 years before, in the late 1960s, by Indian army officers looking for entertaining ways to pass the cold winter months.

Since their visit to Ladakh, staff at the High Commission as well as a handful of Canadian MPs, the National Hockey League Players’ Association and a few NHL teams, including the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings, have sponsored a program to channel donations of used equipment to Ladakh, as well as helping to train children.

Twelve years later, the result is that locals now play in equipment reminiscent of the early days of Wayne Gretzky — clearly dated by Canadian standards, but a vast improvement over used cricket pads. To complete the retro look, the early ’80s equipment is neatly coupled with an array of donated old hockey sweaters from schools such as Lower Canada College in Montreal and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary.

Winter coaching camps have been established and are now run by Adam Sherlip, coach of India’s national hockey team and founder of India’s first ice hockey association, which Sherlip says is “an organization that uses ice hockey to help reinforce ideals on the ice — such as accountability, honesty, teamwork, selflessness — as well as address issues off the ice, such as inadequate electrical power or sub-par education standard.”

Other notable developments include the donation of an all-important skate sharpener by the Canadiens and a few recent films that have helped draw attention to Ladakh’s hockey cause.

As for the annual tournament, it reveals a passion for the sport that rivals those of Canadians. Until this season, the tournament mainly involved the High Commission squad flying into the mountain village to play Ladakh’s local teams, including the Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol, and to educate the locals in any way they could.

But this year’s event, held last week, took on a truly international dimension with invitations extended to — and accepted by — the London Spitfire, a team based in London, England with a strong Canadian contingent, as well as Geronimo, a German-Finnish team.

Spitfire player Michael Teryazos, a Montrealer, says the tournament first came to his attention in an obscure article. When he pitched the idea of participating to his London teammates, the response was overwhelming.

Then came the reality.

“Minus 15 degrees on an outdoor rink while lining up against (donated) LLC sweaters was a throwback to the frigid Royal Avenue battles while playing at Selwyn House,” Teryazos says. “Players lost all sense of feeling in their fingers and toes but nonetheless would surrender themselves to the moment.”

Spitfire captain Duncan Hamilton, from Mississauga, Ont., says the team enters international tournaments every year, most of them in Eastern Europe.

“But nothing even comes close to the experience of playing hockey at this altitude, and surrounded by this scenery,” he said between periods during a game, the spectacular 17th century Leh Palace and monastery towering above him from the heights of the Himalayas.

Around the frozen reservoir where the game was being played, yaks and wild dogs were taking in the action alongside the locals, some of them having travelled the eight kilometres from the Spituk Monastery.

On the ice, six men comprising a human Zamboni was sweeping snow off the surface with wicker brooms. And in the distance, a call to prayer resonated from the minaret of one of Leh’s mosques. Across the valley, the mighty Indus River was running its course.

“It’s one of the most exhausting hockey experiences of my life,” Duncan says, “but also one of the most rewarding.”

And not just because of the beauty and mystery of the surroundings — “to be able to encourage the development of the game in India” was also a big part of the satisfaction, he says.

In a quiet town such as Leh, hockey has proved to be more than simply a distraction to get through the long winter. It’s become an annual celebration.

Playing on what is almost certainly the highest-altitude ice rink in the world, London Spitfire came out victorious against the local teams.
But the real winner, everyone agreed, was ice hockey.

Richard Simpson, a Franco-Canadian writer working in Britain, is a member of the London Spitfire.

Indo-Canadian Friendship Ice Hockey Tournament

Picture 1 of 9

The Spitfire play Geronimo with Leh Monastery (left) and Palace (right) in the distance. Tyler Kretzschmar/Postmedia News

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