Category: Asia (page 1 of 17)

Spectacular Humo Arena Officially Opened in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev opening the Humo Arena in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

PRESS RELEASE PR Newswire

In a spectacular ceremony, the Humo Arena Sports Complex in Tashkent was officially opened by the President of Uzbekistan – Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

The 12,500 capacity Humo Arena includes:

  • Multi functional ice arena;
  • Training arena with 200 seats;
  • Multiple gyms;
  • A sports museum; and
  • Many other facilities

The ceremony confirmed the Humo Arena as one of the largest ice arenas in Central Asia, but also one of the most technologically advanced with smart and energy efficient technology used throughout the building.

The arena will operate in three ‘modes.’ This will allow a variety of winter sports – hockey, figure skating, short track and curling – and summer sports – basketball, volleyball, futsal, kurash, boxing, fencing and taekwondo – to be played.

The opening of the Arena complex was a signal of intent from the Uzbek government to position itself firmly on the world stage of international sport with an aim to host the Asian Games in 2030.

Following the official ceremony, guests were treated to a display of sporting prowess by Uzbek athletes and a game of ice hockey between teams mixing veterans and young players representing the past and the future of the sport. Well-known members of the Uzbek Paralympic team were also honoured for their courage and resilience in their performances for their country.

Much was made of the inspiration the Humo Arena will provide, not only to professional athletes looking to take their skills to the next level, but also to the future generation of athletic hopefuls.

In addition to being a state of the art sporting facility, the opening ceremony went a long way to show the multi functionality of the stadium in hosting other cultural events. Uzbek and Russian popstars – Philipp Kirkorov, Nikolay Baskov, Dima Bilan, the Yalla Group and many others – performed at the opening ceremony alongside a beautiful light show. 

The launch of the Humo Arena will be followed by the opening of a smaller scale sporting centres and arenas across all regions of Uzbekistan.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev commented:

“The launch of this modern ice complex is opening up a new stage in the history of Uzbek sport. I am confident that it will serve for training the highest-class athletes and organizing major international competitions in Uzbekistan, most importantly – broadly attracting our youth to winter types of sports.”

Kyrgyzstan national hockey team lost to Canadian club H1N1

By AKI Press

The national hockey team of Kyrgyzstan continues to prepare for the start of the 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championships Division IIIQ

The Kyrgyz team on March 8 held a friendly game against the Canadian H1N1 club from Montreal.

The meeting was held In the skating rink in Bishkek and ended with the victory of the team from Canada with a score of 3-1. Igor Maksimov scored the only goal for Kyrgyzstan.

“The game was good. The opponent goalkeeper played spectacular,  in the game against Kyrgyzstan, he stop 52 shots out of 53, ”Said  vice-president of the Kyrgyz Hockey Federation Elzar Bolotbekov”.

The Kyrgyz team will play in the qualifying tournament of the World Championship for the right to get into Division III. The tournament will be held from March 31 to April 6 in the city of Abu Dhabi (UAE). In this tournament, six teams will play each other in one round.

Previously the Canadian Clubs from and Montreal and The Hockey Lads from British Colombia
played at Almaty Challenge Cup in Kazakhstan.

The winner of the tournament was the team of Almaty KZ.

Here are the final standings.

The winner of the tournament was Almaty of Kazakhstan

Grassroots program key to Philippine hockey’s bright future

Philippine Hockey will have to depend on a good grassroots program to replenish aging players in the lineup

Luisa Morales – philstar.com

More than two decades after ice hockey’s arrival in the Philippines, many of the generation of hockey pioneers in the country are slowly approaching retirement.

Much like any other sport, Philippine ice hockey will have to rely on a solid good grassroots program to sustain and replenish players as time passes.

Hockey Philippines Executive Vice President Francois Gautier is aware of this and has made moves with the federation to ensure the future of the winter sport in the country.

“We have to make sure that our youth program is good so that it replenishes our players,” Gautier said.

The federation revamped the sport’s youth program last year and has been continually developing their approach to young players – including plans to proactively approach potential prospects in schools across the country.

“We’re still trying out new things, working on improvement,”

“We’re gonna be entering schools [to] do some extra curricular activities, just to get the word out,” Gautier said.

Head coach Daniel Brodan, who first mentored the team in the 2017 during the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, sees a bright future for the program.

“I’m looking forward to what ice hockey will look like here in the next two, three years,” the Czech national said.

Both Gautier and Brodan acknowledge that sport’s journey in the Philippines won’t be a walk in the park but remain hopeful moving forward.

“It’s not perfect… we still have hiccups but it’s a lot better than what it was before,” Gautier said.

“We still don’t have many rinks here where we can play. But in the end, if we continue like this… we can compete with any country,” Brodan said.

Two young Israelis bolster junior hockey’s Greeley-based Northern Colorado Eagles

Israelis Mark Revniaga, left, and Denis Kozev pose Thursday on the ice after practicing with junior hockey’s Northern Colorado Eagles

By Terri Frei – The tribune

Mark Revniaga and Denis Kozev have unlikely hockey pedigrees, but compelling backgrounds.

In fact, theirs are not the sorts of stories you expect to hear as you pass through the city of Greeley’s downtown rink, the Ice Haus, and sit down to chat with a pair of 20-year-old hockey players in the lobby, before lunch.

Both of their families immigrated to Israel from parts of the former Soviet Union.

Revniaga’s father, Edward, had been a well-known hockey player and coach in Latvia, his Baltic homeland. Revniaga’s mother came from Belarus.

Kozev’s parents came together to Israel from Siberia in 1995.

Revniaga and Kozev were born only 20 days apart in September 1998 — and both in Nahariya, a city of about 57,000 on the Mediterranean Sea near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

In Nahariya, they lived a 15-minute walk apart and met in first grade.

Given the lack of rinks in Israel, especially in their home region, they had to scramble, scrounge and make the best of limited ice time and opportunity for development, and for several years were teammates on Israel’s national age-group teams competing in the lower classifications of World U-20 and U-18 tournaments.

In the 2018-19 season, they have wound up in Greeley. Greeley, as in Greeley, Colo. Together. Playing hockey.

Revniaga, a center-right wing, and Kozev, a defenseman, are finishing up their junior eligibility this season with the Greeley-based Northern Colorado Eagles, a Tier II Junior A team in the Western States Hockey League, and are hoping to move on to college hockey — whether in the U.S. or Canada — in 2019-20.

These Eagles, not to be confused with the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles, now in the American Hockey League, are winding down their first season in the Ice Haus after making the short move from Windsor last summer.

After winning two of three in a weekend set against the Dallas Snipers at the Ice Haus, the Eagles will move on to the league’s Thorne Cup playoffs.

These Eagles, with long-time former Colorado Eagles winger Steve Haddon in his sixth season as the junior franchise’s coach and general manager, finished 29-19-2 in the regular season and in third place in the Mid-Western Division.

Their top scorer, Russian Nikita Sheberov, departed the team recently. That left Revniaga, who had four goals in the three weekend games against Dallas, as their top offensive threat. He finished the regular season with 23 goals and 55 points in 41 games.

Kozev is a stay-at-home defenseman still shaking off some of the cobwebs after missing all of last season. He wasn’t hurt. He was serving his mandatory year in the Israel Defense Forces, aka, the Israeli Army.

“I got drafted,” Kozev said — and he didn’t mean by a hockey team.

“The first seven months I was a combat soldier for the home command search and rescue division,” Kozev explained. “When there was no life-threatening situations, we were doing border control. If war had happened, we would have been helping civilians, rescuing them from buildings that fell apart from rockets, and helping our soldiers that got trapped, that sort of thing. But I didn’t have to do that. I was only in training.”

Mark Revniaga, left, works for a shot during the Northern Colorado Eagles’ practice Thursday at the Ice Haus.

The Eagles’ website now lists their roster as 11 Americans, five Canadians … and the two Israelis who at times can appear raw, which is understandable considering the amount of full-rink practice time they had growing up was minuscule compared to North American prodigies.

Neither Nahariya nor Israel is a hockey hotbed.

Edward Revniaga was in his twilight as a player when he came from Latvia to Israel in 1996, but starred for some national teams against lower-tier international competition.

“He kept coaching when I was growing up,” Mark Revniaga said. “I loved the game ever since I was a kid.”

That’s not a throwaway line. It apparently requires considerable passion for hockey to stick with it in Israel.

“There is no hockey in Israel, basically,” Revniaga said. “There’s one big rink in Israel where you can actually play. That was in Mettula, right on the border. It was an hour and a half away, and it was hard to drive there. You could see Lebanon from there. I skated there for two years. I also practiced in a smaller rink, maybe the size of one zone, maybe even smaller, in Ma’alot. That was 20 minutes from my house. That was easier. We skated there twice a week.

“And we had inline hockey, because we didn’t get enough ice and had to skate on roller blades to be better.”

So how could he develop as a player under those conditions?

“It’s only because of my dad,” Revniaga said. “He invested a lot of time and effort to make guys like me better. When you turn 13 in Israel (bar mitzvah age), that’s when you’re growing up and in hockey that’s when you have to work on your skating skills. For a year, we barely touched the puck. That was hard and frustrating, but I’m glad my dad made it about the effort. He made us better and gave me the ability to come to America and play hockey and achieve my goals.”

Denis Kozev, in black at center, works on defense during the Northern Colorado Eagles’ practice Thursday morning at the Ice Haus in Greeley.

Kozev got started later than Revniaga.

“Around the age of 7, I started playing inline hockey, and (Revniaga’s) dad coached us,” Kozev said. “If he hadn’t been there coaching in northern Israel, I would not be in the place I’m at now. Mark and I have pushed each other, too, ever since, going to the gym and doing the right things every day.”

After Revniaga and Kozev were mainstays on Israel’s age group teams in the lower-division international competition from 15 on, their national program coach, Derek Eisler, told them they should head to the U.S. to play. At that point, they were separated.

Revniaga played for the Point Mallard Ducks in Decatur, Ala., in the North American Tier III Hockey League, in 2016-17; and the New York Apple Core of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League in Brewster, N.Y., last season. He came to Greeley this season after a national team teammate, Tom Ignatovich, who has duel citizenship and is from Seattle, played for the Eagles last season and recommended Haddon and playing in northern Colorado.

Kozev played for the Billings Bulls in the NA3HL in 2016-17, sat out last season while in the Army, and started out this season with the WSHL’s Seattle Totems. He asked for a trade to the Eagles so he could reunite with Revniaga, and the Totems obliged him in December. Kozev had three goals and eight assists in 31 regular season games for Northern Colorado.

Under junior hockey’s “billet” system — even National Hockey League superstars often consider their junior hockey surrogate hosting families to be their friends for life — Revniaga is living with a family in Windsor, Kozev with a family in Eaton.

“We got them back together,” Haddon said. “I didn’t realize they were childhood friends. It takes a lot to get something out of these guys. You have to ask them a lot of questions. They’re very serious. They’re driven young men. You can see where they come from, with the Army stuff. They’re all business. They’re great kids. I wish they’d have more fun. They had to grow up probably too quick.

“Your players are your best recruiters. I was lucky to to be able to bring them in here and have them be part of the family.”

Both Revniaga and Kozev rave about the Greeley area, Colorado and the Eagles organization. From their conversations, in which they can rattle off cities along the Front Range, it seems apparent they have done some exploring, and Greeley’s population also is about twice that of their hometown…if that means anything.

Next fall, they most likely will be playing college hockey. Separately. Revniaga is drawing interest from smaller NCAA programs, Kozev from Canadian college (CIS) programs.

But they’ve come a long way together.

Uzbekistan dreams of ice hockey

By Eurasianet

Fans hope that team Binokor will revive the winter sport’s fortunes in a nation not often associated with cold weather.

It is 8 o’clock in the morning at an ice rink in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, and little can be heard over the shouting, scraping skates, smacking pucks and the ref blowing on his whistle. It is training time for kids at Binokor, a hockey club with a complicated past and, its supporters believe, a hopeful future.

When the club appeared in 1971, it was a sensation. Tashkent was the southernmost city on the planet to host an ice hockey team. Seventeen years later, the team folded. 

And then, in 2012, the club was brought back to life. Management hopes Binokor will revive the winter sport’s fortunes in a nation not often associated with cold weather.

One of the loudest voices heard at the Binokor rink is that of chief trainer Alisher Azimov, one of only a few people in Uzbekistan to have made a living playing hockey. It is thanks to Azimov that the sport has received another lease on life.

“When I came back to Tashkent in 1989, after doing my service in the Soviet army, Binokor had already ceased to exist. And my dreams of becoming a hockey player disappeared along with it. I was devastated, in shock. Our majestic and luxurious ice palace lay empty. I kept going back there for a long time hoping to hear any encouraging news about my team,” Azimov told Eurasianet.

Binokor’s director Abdumadjid Nasirov got into hockey when he was just nine years old. He spent his childhood honing his game at Binokor, but he too never got to play with the club. 

“In the year before [doing my military] service, I was already training with the first squad,” Nasirov said. “After two years, I came back from the army, and there was already no Binokor.”

There is a well-established narrative about the ways in which the Soviet Union used sport to make a political point – to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system over their capitalist rivals.

But away from the global stage, there was an equally ferocious rivalry between the various republics within the union. Teams from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular would vie for primacy among the Central Asian republics.

So in soccer, for example, the Kazakh SSR’s capital, Alma-Ata, got its own club, Kairat, in 1954. Tashkent’s Pakhtakor appeared two years later, in 1956.

It was a similar story with hockey, one of the Soviet Union’s most beloved sports. The first competitive hockey tournament in the neighborhood took place in Kazakhstan in January 1956. Unwilling to allow the Kazakhs to claim all the glory, the first secretary of the Communist Party in the Uzbek SSR, Sharaf Rashidov, ordered the construction of what he insisted should become Central Asia’s finest ice-sports venue.

In 1970, that area, built near a university campus in Tashkent, opened its doors. As it was inaugurated in the year of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the arena was called Jubilee.

Major Moscow teams like CSKA and Spartak were among the many that turned up for the opening ceremony. Before then, the closest most Uzbeks had seen of a hockey player was on their TV screens.

A Tashkent hockey team called Spartak was formed in 1971. It was renamed Binokor – Uzbek for “builder” – in 1973. Jubilee became the club’s home.

There were few Uzbek players to begin with. The backbone of the club was made up of athletes from other Soviet republics. As interest mounted, hundreds of local boys were developed through the local training system. It was still hard though.

“To be honest, the Russian trainers preferred to send their own guys, the incomers, onto the ice. Of course we were indignant about this. We wanted to play!” said veteran hockey player Sabir Alihojayev.

Alihojayev caught his trainers’ attention when he was only nine. He got to play for Binokor for two seasons.

It was the death of Rashidov, the longest enduring Soviet-era ruler of Uzbekistan, that spelled the beginning of the end for Uzbek hockey. With the loss of their main patron, Binokor limped on for another five years. 

The Jubilee arena would suffer an even greater indignity. In the early years of Uzbekistan’s independence, the main section of arena was turned into an exhibition hall. The training area became a wholesale market. Dozens of talented hockey players hung up their skates.

In the early 2010s, a group of hockey fanatics decided to revive not just Binokor, but the sport itself.

“I lived for 20 years without hockey. In 2008, I moved to the United Arab Emirates for work. I was amazed when I learned that there was ice hockey even in this hot country. I played with some old-timers, and then in the first league, and finally in the professional Emirates Hockey League,” Azimov, the chief trainer, said.

The vast majority of EHL players are from Canada or Europe. With his two-year stint in the professional ranks, it felt like Azimov had achieved his dream.

This was only the start, however.

Azimov immediately returned to Uzbekistan when he heard news that Tashkent was about to get a new ice rink.

Jumping forward a few years, to March 2018, and Uzbekistan saw the creation of a National Hockey Federation. In addition to its adult squad, Binokor has several youth teams in various age groupings.

Uzbekistan Ice hockey Federation Logo

“Having an internal league is a basic requirement to join the IIHF – the International Ice Hockey Federation,” said Nasirov, Binokor’s director. “But for that, we need the right infrastructure: ice arenas, training facilities and other things. There are now four Tashkent clubs playing on a rink in the park.” 

That field is 50 meters by 25 meters, way below the IIHF-mandated standard of around 61-by-30 meters.

Luckily, hockey in Uzbekistan has found a new and important champion in another national leader – President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In 2017, Mirziyoyev ordered construction of a new, large arena.

The project for the Humo Arena envisions a 12,000-person stadium with another smaller venue attached that will be able to seat 300 spectators. Similar undertakings are planned for other cities, including Samarkand, Andijan and Qarshi. Work is expected to be complete by the end of 2018.

But perhaps the greatest brake on development of hockey in Uzbekistan is the sheer expense. A full outfit, from uniform to skates, can cost parents upward of $500. The hockey federation is helping younger players by underwriting the cost of traveling to international competitions.

Russian journalist Oleg Dmitriyev, who regularly comments on hockey in his own country, believes all the same that Uzbekistan has good chances of reviving the sport.

“It will be very interesting to see Binokor revived. The Uzbek team will play in the Continental Hockey League [KHL], like Barys from Astana [in Kazakhstan] does,” he said.

Dmitriyev suggested China as a good model of what could be done if the funding can be found.

“Of course you won’t be able to get by without legionnaires. In China, you have Belarusians, Swedes, Finns and Canadians with a Chinese background,” Dmitriyev said. “There is enough money to go around in Tashkent.”

Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov has spent many millions on developing Tashkent soccer club Pakhtakor. Hockey fans hope a similarly generous benefactor will give their sport a fillip.

Back at the training session, 70-year-old Jahongir Tajibayev is watching from the sidelines with his grandson, Maruf. Tajibayev recalls fondly how he would go to watch Binokor play.

“I had always wanted to see Binokor play in the higher leagues, the same as Pakhtakor did in soccer,” Tajibayev said. “Now I dream of seeing a new Binokor. I dream of seeing my grandson play in this team with Canadians, Americans, Russians and Czechs.

Pakistan holds first ever Ice Hockey match

PAF won the match penalty shootouts

By Saman Siddiqui – OY! Oye Yeah

Another historic day for sports in Pakistan and a great initiative heralding the beginning of new era in Pakistan’s sports world.

History was made as the first ever ice hockey match was played at PAF Ski Resort,  Naltar Valley on December 29th.

This first ever ice hockey took place between the Ice Hockey teams of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Vs Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts

There was a fine display of extraordinary ski and hockey skills from the players of both the teams.
Due to that none of the team was able to score a goal in the match duration. However, the winner of the match was decided through penalty shootouts.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts Group Picture

PAF won the match with the only goal from Shah Siyar.

Though ice hockey sport is included in the list of the world’s modern games. The history of ice hockey in Gilgit Baltistan region can be related to a local game “Ghatal”, which is also played with two sticks and a ball.

Hope this sports will flourish in Pakistan in coming years and people will get to enjoy Ice Hockey sport on larger scale.

Team Lebanon ‘writing history’ from Canadian hockey hub

The team was built by Lebanese community members in Montreal

By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours – Middle East Eye

Dozens of players from across North America currently play for Lebanese national hockey team, a grassroots initiative with hopes set on Olympics

At first glance, Saturday night’s hockey game was like any of the thousands of others taking place across Canada.

But as the starting rosters were read out over the arena’s sound system – and fans wove red and white flags, emblazoned with a green cedar tree, enthusiastically in the stands – it was clear that something else was taking place.

The game was a chance to showcase Lebanese hockey talent – and give the close-knit community in Montreal something to cheer for.

Charles El-Mir, president of the Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation, said between 50 and 60 players – all of Lebanese descent, between ages 18 and 38 – currently play on the team.

They hail from across North America, but the majority are based in Canada, “the hub of ice hockey”, El-Mir said.

We say … that we are writing history, to be honest with you
– Charles El-Mir, Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation president

Last month, the Lebanese Ministry of Youth and Sport gave the federation official accredited status in Lebanon, making it the only official body representing Lebanese ice hockey players in the world.

That status also paves the way for the federation to apply to join the Lebanese Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation, which would open the door to international matches, including at the Olympics.

The president of the Lebanese Olympic Committee, Jean Hammam, did the ceremonial puck drop at the start of the game in Montreal on 22 December, which saw the Lebanese side win 11-6 against a local team.

Ralph Melki, the team’s coach, moved to Canada from Lebanon at age six. He started to play hockey two years later, after he asked his father – by that time, a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, the city’s National Hockey League team – to sign him up.

“I grew up here and fell in love with the game,” Melki told Middle East Eye ahead of Saturday’s game.

The Lebanese men’s team played an exhibition game on 22 December in Montreal

When he moved onto coaching after his playing days ended in his later teenage years, Melki said he noticed the high number of talented players of Lebanese background in Montreal.

Melki said some of the players come from as far away as the US states of Ohio and Michigan, or the cities of Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, to represent Lebanon.

“They’re all dedicated,” Melki told MEE. “We have talented players on the team.”

For El-Mir, the next major goal is to build an ice rink in Lebanon and begin training more players there. But until then, the base remains in Montreal. “We say … that we are writing history, to be honest with you,” he told Middle East Eye.

“There is a lot of work to go on the next two years. A lot a lot of work, but at least it’s a reality.”

Changing perceptions

This month also marked the first time the Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation helped get a women’s team on the ice.

Ranging in age from 15 to 38, the players came to Montreal from across North America to play an exhibition match of their own on 22 December.

“It’s surreal,” said Sally Tabarah, the women’s team’s manager, who hails from New Jersey. She told Middle East Eye she said she spent four months scanning the rosters of university teams and others, searching for last names that hinted at Lebanese ancestry.

“We want to make it to the Olympics one day. It’s a lofty goal – but why not?” she said.

The women had never played together before, but they bonded almost immediately, Tabarah said, revelling in their shared backgrounds and dreams of representing Lebanon.

“We all have this shared ancestry… All that matters is we’re playing for the cedar,” she told Middle East Eye. “This is history in the making.”

India’s national women’s hockey team comes to Airdrie

India’s national women’s hockey concluded its first ever trip to Canada

By Scott StrasserAirdrie City View

India’s national women’s hockey concluded its first ever trip to Canada with two exhibition games in Airdrie. The team defeated the AMHA bantam Rockies team 5-1 and lost to the Rockies midget team 3-1.

In a historic first trip to Canada, India’s national women’s hockey team spent a few days in Airdrie Nov. 19 and 20, when the team played a pair of exhibition games at the Ron Ebbesen Arena.

The team – comprised of players from the remote region of Ladakh, at the base of the Himalayas – was in Canada for the Hayley Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival. Known as Wickfest, the annual tournament and coaching seminar brings together women’s hockey teams from around the world for games, player development sessions and coaching clinics.

After the players enjoyed stops in Vancouver and Calgary, their trip to Canada concluded with further coaching at training sessions and the two exhibition games in Airdrie.

According to Airdrie Minor Hockey Association (AMHA) Director of Hockey Operations Darrin Harrold, the relationship with the Indian team started in January 2016, while he was working for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). He said he met the Indian players – some of whom were still very new to the sport, at the time – at an IIHF coaching clinic in Ladakh.

Fast forward two years, Harrold said, and he made a second trip to Ladakh, this time with Wickenheiser – the retired Team Canada captain and four-time Olympic gold-medal winner.

“The whole idea was to go there first and then bring the national team to Wickfest,” Harrold said. “Because I’d gone on the trip, they wanted to come to Airdrie and see what Airdrie is like.

“It’s cool to see it come full-circle. I went to their neck of the woods, and now they’re here in ours.”

While India has had a men’s national hockey team since 1989, the women’s team formed just two years ago, according to Harrold. Many of the players learned to skate and play with hand-me-down gear.

Though much of India’s climate is generally warm, winter temperatures in Ladakh drop enough to freeze the ponds, which is where the players got their start.

Diskit Angmo, who plays left defence for Team India, said the trip to Canada was a whirlwind. Along with Wickfest, the tour included attending Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers practices, and meeting Wayne Gretzky.

“Being an ice-hockey player, it’s always a dream to come to Canada,” she said.

Along with meeting a hockey legend and watching NHL players practise, Angmo added the hospitality the Indian team experienced in Canada was another highlight of the trip.

“Back in India, it’s very difficult for us to grow this sport,” the 22-year-old said. “But here in Canada, we are getting so much love from the people here. They’re supporting us so much, and it’s been really great.

“We have never been loved so much in our own country, where this sport is not so supported. But here, people are loving us so much, encouraging us and they are getting inspired by us – that’s the main thing we should take back home.”

Mayor Peter Brown was a keen spectator at the two exhibition games India played in Airdrie, and performed the ceremonial puck drop at both. Team India overcame the AMHA Rockies female bantam team 5-1 in its first win on Canadian soil, before losing 3-1 to the Rockies midget team the following night.

“I think it’s wonderful, and they’re so respectful and so thrilled to be here,” Brown said.

“When you look at where they practised and learned to play hockey, and all of a sudden, they become the national team for India for the ladies – it’s really amazing.”

How A Team Of Incredible Ladakhi Women Hockey Players Broke India’s Ice Ceiling

https://o.aolcdn.com/images/dims?quality=80&thumbnail=970%2C&image_uri=https%3A%2F%2Fs.yimg.com%2Fos%2Fcreatr-uploaded-images%2F2018-11%2Fb57a25d0-dfa1-11e8-bfdd-36cdc290485f&client=cbc79c14efcebee57402&signature=16af38b958fd5aa91a970564e3531730fa6dd285
Team India poses during the 2018 Challenge Cup of Asia in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo:Ice Hockey Association of India)

By Sam Goldman – Huffpost

LADAKH, Jammu and Kashmir — Some nights in the winter of 2013, Rigzen Yangdol and a dozen of her peers at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school would bundle up and trudge out of their hostel into the frigid Himalayan air. From the bathroom, a stone’s throw away from the main building, the students would fill buckets with water, haul them down a short slope, and empty them onto a dirt field.

Three hours later, at midnight, the women, in their late teens and early twenties, would return to their buckets and repeat the process, making sure to fill in the patches they had missed. Then again at 2 a.m., when the temperature would dip to –20°C.

Once the entire surface was under a thin sheet of water, they would finally go to bed. And when daylight rolled around, they would pick up their donated hockey sticks, put on their donated shoes and drag the small goals out across the rough ice of their own DIY rink. After Rigzen’s first winter at SECMOL, things got a little easier: a pipe now spurts out the water that will freeze over the field.

“It was quite tough,” Rigzen, now 23, recalled as she sat on a log next to the dirt field. In her hand was a little black notebook with Andrew Ference, a former Canadian ice hockey player, on the cover. Winter was over, and a pickup football match had just ended. Nowadays, she and her peers pass, steal and shoot the puck under the direction of a Canadian coach. Many of the players make up not just SECMOL’s ice hockey clubs, but also India’s national women’s ice hockey team.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, it is Ladakh—a region of fewer than half a million that is accessible only by plane during the year’s snowiest months—that has produced every member of the women’s national ice hockey team. That, too, with frozen ponds, borrowed equipment and a few lakhs in funding from the government—less than the Jump Rope Federation of India.

Not many internationally competing ice hockey players regularly practice outdoors; few do so at 12,000-feet elevation; even fewer on homemade ice. So when the team went on to win a pair of games in 2017 at Asia’s biggest ice hockey tournament, it was so unexpected that players, referees and spectators alike were in tears when the Indian national anthem was played.

Organized women’s ice hockey in Ladakh was only 15 years old at that point. The vast majority of the players’ practice occurs on natural ice, which lasts less than two months. But after the two wins, the team became an international sensation of sorts: They met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in February, four-time Olympic ice hockey gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser dropped by with equipment and coaching advice and numerous online news sites swooped in to make videos introducing India’s Cinderella team to the world.

“Because there’s so much talent despite everything—there’s so much energy in Indian sport at the grassroots level—that if anyone wants to turn it around, they can turn it around,” said sports journalist Sharda Ugra. “You’ve created this competitive ice hockey team out of nothing. We don’t even have a rink. But people just do it because they just love to play, they love to be out there.”

An uncertain investment

Like everywhere else, women’s sport in India has grown in the shadow of men’s sport. A handful of Anglo-Indian women competed in Wimbledon in the first half of the 20th century, and the first female Indian Olympians swam and ran in the 1952 Helsinki Games. Of the 28 medals the country has won at the Summer Olympics, five have gone to women. Athletes of either gender are dependent on the government and their own sports’ federations for funding and competition opportunities. But women have to fight their way through another thick layer of deeply ingrained social expectations.

“I think the paradigm for any girls growing up in much of the society is ultimately marriage,” said Madhumita Das, a gender and sports researcher in Delhi. “And that’s seen as, I think, the most important piece in any woman or girl’s life.”

Ladakhis enjoy a greater degree of gender equality than their compatriots elsewhere in India, but female role models combining sport, career, and family are few and far between.

“Knowing that maybe this is my first and last opportunity, you put your maybe 200% into it,” Das said of women in sports. For girls who want to continue a sporting career, “you have to prove at all times … that, yes, your investment is important, and your investment is a gainful investment.”

The Early Years

https://o.aolcdn.com/images/dims?quality=80&thumbnail=970%2C&image_uri=https%3A%2F%2Fs.yimg.com%2Fos%2Fcreatr-uploaded-images%2F2018-11%2Fb972dea0-df9e-11e8-bf9f-c23917133d51&client=cbc79c14efcebee57402&signature=d1089a25693aec70f19c79e66b5e7184ffd297bbLadakh’s original class of ice hockey players. (Photo: Mepham)

When winter arrives in Ladakh, the roads from the rest of the subcontinent close and ponds like Gupuks, just outside Leh, and Karzoo, in the heart of town, freeze over.

“You can’t play cricket, you can’t play football—ice hockey’s the only option,” said Jigmet Angchuk, general secretary of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club, which organizes and oversees most ice hockey play in the region.

How did the sport reach Ladakh, though? Around 1969, Tonzang, the last living army man from Ladakh’s original class of ice hockey players, told me over butter tea and biscuits that some soldiers discovered a curious bladed shoe in an army storage facility. The shopkeeper told them you could traverse the ice with it. But that was silly—the blade would cut through the surface and plunge the wearer into the frigid water.

“I told him that I think it’s some kind of a fancy door handle,” Tonzang recalled. But they came around after seeing a picture in a book of someone achieving the feat.

So Tonzang and company nailed what figure-skate blades they could find onto the bottom of their army boots and rounded up field hockey sticks and balls. In 1972, they introduced inter-brigade tournaments near the Chinese border. The sport saw its first civilian teams eight years later.

“We were not aware of the rules in those days,” Tonzang said. “Rules were made keeping in mind we had no equipment. After a point, the goalkeeper started using cricket pads for safety.” Proper pads and helmets were forced onto the players in 2006, the year Tonzang, now 67, retired from the sport.

The Ladakh Winter Sports Club estimates some 10,000–12,000 Ladakhi youth play ice hockey in one form or another. At the biggest championship game, held in January each year, thousands crowd around Karzoo pond, some climbing trees for a better view. Equipment, gear and coaches arrive each year from Canada. (The rumour goes that in the comparatively wealthy, ice hockey-obsessed country, athletes use their gear once before donating it to places like Ladakh.) The only full-scale ice rink in India—in Dehradun—has been closed for several years because the authorities claim it is too expensive to maintain. The ice there, smoothed by a ice-resurfacing machine, called a Zamboni, is different than that of a frozen pond, where the surface is harder, coarser and sounds roughly like tearing cardboard as skates carve scars into it.

Birthplace

The main campus of SECMOL—the boarding school that was the birthplace of organized Indian women’s ice hockey—is a 15-minute drive east out of Leh, down a winding road that tracks the Indus River, past the razor-wire-enclosed military facilities, the Gupuks pond shore, and a handful of houses topped by colourful lines of Buddhist prayer flags.

The alternative school was founded in 1988 for Ladakhi students who were struggling in regular government schools—especially those from poor, rural backgrounds. Between the hostel, dirt football field and student-run shop are wonders of sustainability: a bicycle pedalled to power a washing machine, a subterranean house domed by the shell of an old van, and giant concave mirrors that concentrate light and heat to boil water in an adjacent kitchen (If this sounds familiar, it’s because Aamir Khan’s character in 3 Idiots was loosely inspired by Sonam Wangchuk, SECMOL’s founder.) In the main hall, a soft-spoken student pointed out shelves of plaques and trophies commemorating the local and international successes of homegrown men and women ice hockey players.

In the early 2000s, women were already performing on the ice, but in the more traditionally “feminine” sport of figure skating. Women’s organized ice hockey was born on the dusty grounds of the campus in 2002, when Wangchuk, an engineer, brought in a Western instructor and bags of skates from abroad. Thin pieces of metal were fastened to long pieces of wood to make sticks. A patch of dirt turned into a skating surface, and a goal was made from wood scraps. The girls gingerly scooted around—”knees bent, ass out!” as the instructor called out—and fell repeatedly.

One of the girls urging on her peers was Stanzin Dolker, who began carving out her place in local sporting history in 2003, when the Ladakh Winter Sports Club barred women from competing.

“Like they said, ‘Women can’t play hockey—this hockey is only for the men,'” Stanzin, now 36, told me over tea in a quiet second-floor coffee shop near Leh’s main market. A physical education lecturer in Turtuk, near the Pakistan border, Stanzin speaks with a soft calmness a librarian would be jealous of.

So the women protested, right there on the ice. They sang protest songs about women being excluded while the men could continue to play. They made a banner and dashed around the rink with it.

“If I don’t do anything in sport, then my life will become half,” Stanzin would go on to tell a Swedish film crew, that chronicled her journey from a group figure-skating performer during the intermissions of men’s games to Ladakh’s foremost female ice hockey player in a documentary On Thin Ice. “That’s why I have to shout. That’s why I have to protest,” Stanzin said.

The “ban” on women’s games eventually petered out, and in 2005, Stanzin and her SECMOL classmates boarded a bus and caravanned through icy mountains to Kargil. An exhibition game was held, and they got the thumbs up to bring women from Kargil back to Leh for a championship tournament. They played in blue and grey tracksuits with beaten-up sticks, on hard, abraded ice that looked like the cratered surface of Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus. Slipping and falling was common, and only the goaltenders wore helmets and pads.

Fast forward nine years to 2014, and female hockey players were still so rare that Stanzin could barely pull together enough skaters for two teams. She had to ask the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company—an all-women’s travel agency in Leh—to spare players to even hold a competition.

“After the completed tournament, I called all the women and the captains, and told them there is no one to support us,” she said. “We have to do better. So we have to make an association.”

The following year, in 2015, after rounding up the requisite dozen founders necessary to submit the organisational paperwork, the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation was born.

Today, Winter Sports Club officials estimate bigger towns like Leh have eight to 10 men’s clubs alone, which play up to six tournaments, depending on available funds and the type of club. There are currently four teams on the women’s side—one more than the minimum needed to hold a tournament. The foundation and SECMOL acquire and distribute most of the women’s gear and raise funds. Men, said Stanzin, have had to adjust their attitudes.

“Before that, they were saying, ‘Women can’t play, no they can’t, men are the real players,'” she said. “But now, time has changed, and women are really very strong, and they are flying on the ice.”

On 21 January 2016, SECMOL took down its arch rival, Siachen, 4–3 in a local championship game held by the Sports Club and the Leh District government at Karzoo pond.

“The day is not far when they will make Ladakh proud at the international level,” Tashi Dolma, a Leh government official and chief guest that day, said after the match.

https://s.yimg.com/os/creatr-uploaded-images/2018-11/bb7b6df0-dfa0-11e8-bfcb-8008e3b59deeThe 2015 IHAI national women’s championship at Karzoo Pond in Leh.
(Photo:Ladakh Winter Sports Club)

Wanting more

For years, Disket Angmo was among Leh’s figure skating girls who performed during the intermissions of men’s games. The Delhi University literature student, one of the smallest athletes on the ice, originally put on skates at the insistence of her father, a policeman and Winter Sports Club member who passed away in 2014. He dragged his daughter and son to club events during their long winter breaks from school.

Disket initially skated just to appease him, but his initial encouragement laid the foundation for the 22-year-old’s international sporting career. “I think it’s all because of him,” she said.

Once Disket began skating, some women approached the soon-to-be left defender, looking for players to round out their ice hockey teams. Even though it was not uncommon for young Ladakhi women to take to figure skating, the costumes sometimes received an uncomfortable level of attention. It’s one reason why ice hockey, with its bulky, gender-neutral attire, became a compelling option. “I think there’s less criticism in hockey,” she said. “So that’s why I turned to hockey.”

Her older brother, Tsewang Gyaltson, was already a star on the men’s side. She went first to him for guidance.

“He’d be like, ‘no, no, it’s not for girls’,” Disket said. Later, when the women’s national team was formed in 2016, ‘even he was like, ‘Yeah, you should practice’.”

Some players learned to skate with older siblings, trekking out to the nearest frozen pond to turn their wobbling into confident strides. Others’ initial encounters with the sport were more akin to that of Tonzang, the army man. “I could never imagine a skate could look like this,” one woman recalled. Each went on to join clubs and compete in tournaments, but even with their limited knowledge of ice hockey’s official rulebook and even more limited competition experience, many wanted something more.

Team India

Seven years after the men’s team first played internationally, the Ice Hockey Association of India held try-outs for a women’s squad. They looked to Ladakh for players.

Tsetan Dolma was at SECMOL when she heard that she had been selected for the first national team.

“I was like, ‘No, don’t joke’.” Surely a 20-year-old with little experience hadn’t made the roster. Someone else approached her. Same news, same reply: “‘No, don’t joke’.” Finally, Tsetan, now 23, believed it: Two years after picking up the sport, the right defender was headed to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF’s) 2016 Challenge Cup of Asia in Taipei.

But it wouldn’t be Indian women’s ice hockey without another hiccup. A number of players, born and raised in one of the country’s most remote regions, didn’t have passports. A few didn’t make it to Taipei.

Tsetan scrambled to acquire the documentation, receiving some help from her SECMOL mentors, and spending entire days in government offices. The team headed to Delhi for practice on a miniature rink, and Tsetan finally got her passport there. “I was able to get nine passports done in two days,” said Harjinder Singh, head of the ice hockey federation, “which is a record in the history of India.”

For many of the women, Taipei was their first foreign trip. The size of a full-scale rink awed them; Tsetan reckoned it was double the size of Delhi’s cramped rink. But there was another hitch. Tsetan and her teammates were used to the unofficial Ladakhi rules of play. “Yes, I know how to play ice hockey,” she clarified, “but I didn’t know the rules and regulations IIHF has that we must know as players of a national team.” Those had to be picked up over the course of India’s four matches.

Then there was the ice itself. The 21 seasoned skaters found themselves slipping and sliding on the slick artificial surface like they were new to the sport. “First of all, we just had to figure out how to be on the ice,” Disket said. “It was so slippery. The ice was so different that you couldn’t even manage to get the puck on the stick.” Then, goaltender Noor Jahan had to borrow a spare stick from her Taiwanese counterpart after hers broke. She’d later discover her thumb would stick out of a hole in her blocker.

India—its uniform alternating between blazing saffron and deep blue—kicked off the five-team Challenge Cup of Asia on 22 March 2016, 14 years after the first organised game in Ladakh. Disket, Tsetan and crew suffered an 8–1 drubbing at the hands of Singapore. The next day, Thailand hammered the young squad 12–1. Things got worse when Disket fractured her leg in a freak accident. “It was bad,” she said. “It was really bad.” That was when the tears started. “First of all, they’re losing games,” she said of her teammates. “And then they don’t know anything about this game … and then people are getting hurt. It was very emotional.”

The following day: Chinese Taipei piled on with a shutout, 13–0. Team India had its best showing on 25 March, but still lost to Malaysia 6–3. The squad left Taipei outscored 36–8.

After the fracture, “my mom literally told me to stop playing the game,” Disket said. “And I was so depressed—I was like, ‘Oh shit’ now, ‘this shouldn’t be happening’. I really tried to convince my mom: ‘Please, please don’t do this.'”

Goosebump moment

The players said they remained positive; they at least had to pay back those who supported them with money and equipment.

Over the following months, Disket pleaded with her mother to let her return once her leg healed. She even sent her videos from university of professional ice hockey players fighting, breaking noses and getting bloody. See all the more-horrific injuries suffered by others in the sport? As 2016 wore on, she gradually wore her mother down. “Finally, she was like, ‘Okay, let’s just see what happens.'”

After the Taipei drubbing, the team brushed up on the rules and learned the little things: how to tighten their skates, how to properly wear their pads and helmets, some of which they borrowed from their male counterparts. The Ice Hockey Association of India decided that the ponds of Leh and the tiny rink in Delhi were not enough. Frantic crowdfunding and out-of-pocket spending took the teams north to Kyrgyzstan for practice on a fully functional rink—the more slippery kind. The men spent a month prepping for Kuwait, the women half a month for Thailand.

The 2017 Challenge Cup of Asia was a seven-nation affair. The United Arab Emirates took the first game, 6–4. The following day, India headed into the third period against the Philippines up 1–0. Both squads traded goal after goal. When the clock ran out, the ladies from Ladakh had taken it 4–3. Disket’s stick went airborne.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening for real,” she said. “We were hoping we could at least get a win, and then when it happens, it’s like a dream come true, you know?”

Even a year later, the weight of the win left Disket repeatedly pausing mid-sentence in an effort to better articulate its meaning: “All the criticisms, all the hard work, suffering, the difficulty that we had gone through up until that time—it all poured out.”

This time, the tears were happy ones. Disket recalled the referees and judges crying too. The emotional peak came when the national anthem was played. “It was something out of this world,” Disket said.

“We were crying just looking at the flag,” Tsetan said. “That time, everyone was like, ‘Oh, these girls are amazing’.”

India had the next day off, but then hit the roughest stretch of its international record, falling to New Zealand, Thailand and Singapore by a combined 39–3. But the team broke through again on the final day of play in Bangkok, squeaking past Malaysia 5–4. It was a nail biter. India was up one goal with 11 seconds to go. Malaysia subbed out their goaltender for an extra attacker, but to no avail. When the final horn blew, they knew they’d hear the national anthem again. “That was a goosebump moment,” one player recalled.

Disket returned from the Challenge Cup named best player on Team India by the coach, sealing mom’s support for her playing. She gave her mother the award, which joined an increasingly decorated shelf at their home in Leh.

International attention

The celebrations started as soon as the team touched down at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport. Friends, families and fans mobbed the entrance to the one-story terminal. More celebrations awaited in many of their villages.

The success translated into a new fan base. The two international wins catapulted attendance at their local matches to levels starting to resemble that of the men. The story of how a squad of young women—lacking proper training facilities, borrowing some of their equipment from their neighbours and brothers, and operating on a tight budget—came to win those two international games was soon picked up by western media. Brief check-this-out pieces were written, and short videos were produced showing the players zipping across the scarred ice of Gupuks pond. Joining the annual contingent of Canadian coaches and equipment donations arriving in Ladakh were Wickenheiser, the four-time gold medallist, and recently retired National Hockey League (NHL) player Andrew Ference.

What international attention had been given to Indian ice hockey abruptly pivoted from the men’s team to the women—a shift that Singh, the head of the sport’s federation, doesn’t think helps the sport. The men struggle too, he pointed out. “Men are so disciplined, they have been spending money from their own pockets,” he said. “But women haven’t done that; they have always been given the thing on a platter.”

Try telling that to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, who capped off his February state visit to India by meeting with the women’s team on a tennis court in Delhi, where his son knocked around a ball with the players. “India’s national women’s ice hockey team is breaking barriers, taking on challengers, and showing girls that anything is possible,” Trudeau tweeted that day.

“None of us had ever imagined that we could have an NHL player in Leh,” Disket said. “Can you imagine—seriously—the people who you watch every day on the internet, and then they are coming to your place just to teach you, and you can see they’re real?”

But less than a month before their conga line of high fives with Trudeau, ice hockey had come to a relative standstill in Leh. Chief Executive Councilor Sonam Dawa Lonpo, head of the Leh District government, died suddenly of a heart attack. It happened during a local tournament, and all official events were called off. Practice stopped. There would be no second trip to Kyrgyzstan.

The team arrived in Kuala Lumpur for the 2018 Challenge Cup with virtually no training under its belt. The players had to get into form starting Game 1 against the UAE, which they lost 6–1. The next day, host Malaysia shut them out 5–0. Two days later, on the final day of play, India led the Philippines—the first country it had ever taken down—two goals to nothing after the first period. But the Philippines went on to score six unanswered. It was the division’s bronze medal match.

“The women, they need to improve their hockey now,” Sports Club secretary Noney Wangchok told me when we met in the lobby of Leh’s most upscale hotel. Sports officials no longer bark at women to get their sticks off the ice, but the bar still seems to be high for justifying their place in the sport. “They are improving, but I don’t know,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Women are women, after all.”

But the team lost no time wallowing in disappointment. In between school and writing poetry, between table tennis and mischievous WhatsApp messages, is a new “off ice” training regimen many players do on alternating days—practicing their technical skills, getting in some cardio at 11,500 feet. They figure if they can score two wins on only a couple months’ winter training, maybe winning the Challenge Cup of Asia isn’t out of reach.

“Chinese Taipei are good, Singapore are good,” said Stanzin, who had retired after the 2016 cup. “But it is not impossible that we can’t win from them. We can.”

Many challenges

According to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, no funding has been allocated by the central government for ice hockey since fiscal year 2014–15. Between 2011 and 2015, the sport received just Rs 3.5 lakh. According to the most recently available numbers, for 2016–17, Hockey India (which governs field hockey, the much more popular and successful variety of hockey) received Rs 12.2 crore. The All India Football Federation got Rs 9.1 crore ($1.4 million) and Rs 74.7 lakh ($115,000) was allocated to the Taekwondo Federation of India. The Bridge Federation of India—which oversees the card game competition—got Rs 8.7 lakh ($13,400) of funding that year.

“Shoestring”, then, becomes a rather generous term for the national teams’ budgets. According to Singh, the women’s 2017 campaign—traveling to and training in Kyrgyzstan, traveling to Delhi and then to Bangkok—cost roughly Rs 35 lakh ($54,000). (The bill for the men’s team, which stayed twice as long in Kyrgyzstan and competed in Kuwait, was closer to Rs 49 lakh ($75,600).) “Player development” and sports conferences cost extra. SECMOL and the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation’s help with crowdsourcing the shortfall in government funds gave the women’s team a rare leg up.

But funding for trips to Kyrgyzstan could become even more important in the future as climate change seeps into India’s coldest region. Natural ice lasted only a month this past winter. One Ladakhi educator showed me the meticulous notes his father took daily on the weather. Temperatures in Leh today are some seven to 10 degrees warmer than the early and mid-1990s.

Construction on a proper ice hockey stadium in Leh has stalled pending funding.
Shade from the sun is expected to lengthen the life span of the eventual
ice surface, allowing a longer playing season. (Photo: Sam Goldman)

One solution is a gray concrete arena rising up from the ground near Leh’s dirt cricket stadium. Steel rods protrude from the columns and walls above the rough-cut seating and will eventually support the shade that officials expect would keep the ice frozen from October to March. Funding’s dried up, however—young cricketers currently use the floor of the stadium for batting and bowling practice. Sports Club president NA Gyapo put the completion of Ladakh’s first proper ice hockey stadium at around five years—though it could come down to one year if funding from the government or sponsors comes through.

But weather, fiscal concerns, gear acquisition and coaching opportunities are only half the story. Women in Ladakh still bring up pre- and post-sport struggles: less encouragement from parents to pursue certain paths, the pressure to get a sustainable job. Opinions among women vary whether and how much marriage, children and the attendant expectations hinder a career in sport.

“I married in 2012,” Stanzin said. “My baby’s five years old, and still I played hockey.”

What no one disputes, however, is the effect—or lack thereof—a career in ice hockey has on getting a government job, seen as virtually a lifetime of job security.

But the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the hub of Indian ice hockey, doesn’t officially recognize the sport. Lacking that recognition, for which Stanzin has lobbied unsuccessfully, is a deal breaker for the extra points athletes can earn on their merit-based civil service exams for sports-related government jobs. That means even someone with an illustrious international career—Disket, say—has no advantage when applying for a government job teaching, say, winter sports. Stanzin got her current job as a physical education lecturer after scoring well in an exam.

“I can’t give much importance to the women to say, ‘play hockey, play hockey, play hockey’,” Stanzin said. Once they get to job-application age, “they will face a lot.”

Eye on the future

Stanzin’s pragmatism hasn’t discouraged her former teammates yet. Some say they’re thinking of possibly refereeing in the future; others say their coaches give them the confidence to pursue a career in the sport. They already put on coaching camps in villages that draw as many as 70 kids each—prepping their replacements, as one player put it. Regardless, they want to hear the national anthem again—”to bring back the flag to the same position that it was before,” Tsetan said. But the most important thing, the players agree, is that folks outside Ladakh know ice hockey is played there—and that girls and women play it.

Have gender barriers been broken yet? Is this crew of unassuming athletes the role models young Ladakhi girls need? Stanzin stirred her tea in thought. “Yes, yes, it will come, it will come—change,” she said. “I’m sure it will come.”

“Sometimes in the back of your mind, it happens, like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s nothing; we’re just wasting our time’,” Disket said. But then an NHL player and a four-time Olympic gold medallist arrive in your remote corner of your country. And then you high-five the prime minister of Canada.

“I think ice hockey in the country is going to have a good future,” she said. “And I’m really positive about it, that it’s going to be great.”

Chinese ice hockey star Zachary Yuen feels weight of a nation as he forges his path in Russia’s KHL

By Patrick Blennerhassett – South China Morning Post

China-born youngster talks about adapting to life playing hockey in Russia and his hopes for representing his motherland at the 2022 Olympics

Zachary Yuen did not get to choose his heritage, but as one of ice hockey’s budding Chinese prospects the National Hockey League (NHL) is hoping will help grow the game in the Far East, he has embraced the added attention and duty to the motherland.

Yuen, 25, whose father is from Hong Kong and mother is from the Guangdong Province, was born in Vancouver (which is 43 per cent ethnically Chinese) and now plays for the Beijing-based Kunlun Red Stars, the only Chinese team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

Yuen, who was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, chose the KHL over the typical American Hockey League route (which houses the NHL’s feeder teams) to help grow the game in China.

This, of course, has placed a particularly bright spot on Yuen as the NHL tries desperately to bring forth a Chinese superstar to reach a new audience overseas.

Yuen has featured in multiple media outlets since heading overseas including GQ China twice, the Financial Times and recently walked the catwalk at a fashion show in Shenzhen.

“I definitely feel like there is a lot more responsibility and pressure being a Chinese player because I feel I have a responsibility to be a good role model for all the kids in China who have interest in hockey,” he said.

The NHL is hoping all the games it has hosted in China and the cash it spent flying in marquee draws like Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito will be able to piggyback off the country’s commitment to winter sports ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

State broadcaster CCTV has also televised a number of NHL regular season games and the play-offs hoping to entice more Chinese people to either play or take interest in the game.

China has literally built hundreds of ice rinks across the country and the International Ice Hockey Federation reports the game has grown from about 1,000 local players in 2017 to 12,000 today.

Yuen, who is in his third year in the KHL and is a much-coveted left-handed defenceman, is a pitch-perfect spokesperson given he is trilingual. He said even though he was born and raised in Vancouver, he was raised in a fairly traditional Chinese family.

“For me being able to also speak Mandarin and Cantonese, I’m able to really keep in touch and communicate with all the Chinese fans, and I feel like it’s a very important part to growing the sport in China.”

Yuen added his first season (2016-17) in the KHL was tough, noting it was like having “continuous jetlag”, but now he feels much more at home and knows all the Russian cities. Right now the Red Stars have five Canada-born players and eight China-born players on their roster. The team is currently 10th in the East Division of the KHL with five wins and nine losses in 14 games. Yuen has only played six games this season due to injury.

One of the points of upcoming contention between the NHL and China ahead of 2022 will be whether the league sends its players. The NHL bucked the trend in 2018 by announcing its players would stay put which boiled down to a money issue with the International Olympic Committee.

Yuen said it is “still too early to say” whether the NHL will allow its players to go to Beijing in 2022. If Yuen is still playing in the KHL it will be a no-brainer as he will definitely suit up, but if he is playing for an NHL team, the decision will be out of his hands.

“For me, I would love to be a part of Team China for the Olympics. I want to represent my mother country, and it’s definitely something I look forward to. So with regards to NHL participation in the Olympics I guess only time will tell.”

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