New Delhi: Whenever the Indian women's ice hockey team take the rink for a match against their opponents, they face the usual challenges that come with being a minnow in the way that their opposition is invariably made of a set of players more experienced than them and possess the skill and ability that comes with it.
Once they get off it, however, they face a different set of challenges. These come with the fact that there is simply a lack of awareness about the sport that they play in the country.
Ice isn't usually the first thing that comes to mind when one says the word 'Hockey' in India. The sport exists in a number of different forms around the world but in most countries, including and especially India, hockey refers to 'field hockey.' However, such is the size and diversity in conditions that most facts cannot be universal across the length and breadth of the country and this is the case for ice hockey.
"In India it is the mecca for ice hockey," says Noor Jahan, talking about her hometown Leh in Ladakh. "In winters, those who are not playing, they come to cheer us. We just tell them some match is happening and even if it is happening on a (frozen) pond, you will see people climbing on top of trees and rooftops and its crowded. It is fun to play there and we have a lot of local fan following there," she told IANS on the sidelines of an event for US-based athletics brand Under Armour.
Noor Jahan is the goaltender -- which is the ice hockey term for goalkeeper -- of the Indian team which is composed entirely of girls from her hometown.
"We have this pond in my village and I used to borrow my brother's skates and skate on it during winters. When I learnt to do that I joined the Ladakh Winter Sports Club. They call volunteers from abroad to come and teach kids over there and that's how we learnt the sport. If it wasn't for the tournaments that they were organising or the camps they were holding, we wouldn't have been able to get here so the local clubs there have made a lot of contribution," she said.
In their formative years, the players used to make do with homemade equipment and cricket gear for protection. The team played their first matches only in 2016 and lost their first four matches. A year later, they managed to finish fourth in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia. Noor Jahan says that there are players from other states of the country now starting to take up the sport.
"A lot of people from other states are also joining in. There is talent coming in from Maharashtra, Telangana and Shimla. The nationals usually happen in Ladakh so when they come for that, trials happen at that time. Although on a very small scale, the sport is growing," she said.
The average age of the team is 23 and they cannot yet depend upon their sport for a stable source of income. "I am an art conservator at the National Museum Institute in Delhi and I am also finishing my Ph. D. there. Most players are students who are finishing their school and their graduation. Two senior players who started playing with me teach roller skating in a school in Ladakh. There are a few who are working also and those who are not are in schools and colleges," she said.
"Where we come from is very remote. Some of us are from the town but there are also those who are from the border areas. Conditions are pretty harsh there but everyone is managing somehow."
Their story has attracted international eyeballs. In 2018, Canadian four time-Olympic ice hockey gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser got the team to join a coaching programme in Canada and take part in WickFest, an annual festival she started in 2010 aimed at showcasing women's hockey. They also got to see a game from the National Hockey League (NHL), the premier ice hockey league in North America.
"She saw a Youtube video of us and decided to come to Ladakh with (former Stanley Cup winner) Andrew Ference. They supported us with some equipment and invited us to play at the WickFest. We went there and not only did we play there, we were exposed to their hockey world. We also went to see an NHL game," she said.
A project that is very much in its nascent stages, the team's challenges start with getting recognised by the Indian Olympic Association and the Sports Ministry. The Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1989 but it has still not got the status of a National Sports Federation (NSF). For now it is recognised as a National Sports Promoting Organisation (NSPO).
"The most important thing we need is infrastructure. Apart from that we need to get recognition. The association right now is a NSPO not NSF and if we become the latter then it helps with funding. Infrastructure will then come with that and we can then play as a proper national team," she said.
For now however, the players have set their eyes on an invitational tournament they will be playing in Chinese Taipei from November 4 to 9. They are training at iSKATE, an ice rink in Gurugram.
"We practice here everyday but before that in summers we used to train individually and in groups. We will be facing Australia there and we have never faced them before. Chinese Taipei will be fielding their senior as well as their under-18 team. There are also Philippines who like us are new to the sport," she said.