How ice hockey became the most popular sport in the Himalayas


On February 6, 2018, ice hockey set a new world record. At 4,361 meters above sea level, in the heart of the Indian Himalayas, a group of passionate hockey players led by Adam Sherlip, a member of the American charity The Hockey Foundation, traveled to an icy lake in Ladakh. On a makeshift ice rink, they played the highest altitude hockey game in history.

The mission was not easy given the jet lag, altitude sickness and the difficult logistics of getting the equipment in proving to be an almost insurmountable challenge. But the choice of the place was far from being due to chance.

The Hockey Foundation has been active in Ladakh since 2009. Before the game took place in 2018, it donated no less than 7,000 pieces of equipment to the locals.

And this world-record match was just one of many ice hockey matches to be played on the icy lakes of the Himalayas since the Hockey Foundation began its work in the region, there are over 13 years old.

Olympians join India’s hockey revolution

You’re forgiven if India isn’t the first place in the world you think of when talking about ice hockey. And yet, in reality, the Himalayan region offers a perfect setting for the development of winter sports.

As explained to Olympics.com Indian speed skater Vishwarag Jadeja, who trains in the Himalayas: “The Himalayas are present in ten of the provinces of India, so winter sports have immense possibilities there. There are 16 lakes in this area and I only explored two of them. These lakes are 100 km long and 20 km wide, and they are completely frozen. »

In Ladakh, it is only possible to play on the lakes two or three times a year, before the ice melts. But during these months, hundreds of women, men and children take possession of the ice, armed with sticks and pucks often provided by the NHL, to indulge their passion for ice hockey.

And their passion even gives them the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in ice hockey in the world, like six-time Olympian and former captain of Canada, Hayley Wickenheiser, who traveled during the day to train the disciplined young female ice hockey players from the region.

« They welcomed us with open arms and were very excited to be on the ice with us and learn what we had to teach them, » she told Olympics.com.

In her suitcases, Wickenheiser brought with her more than 70 bags of equipment for the young female athletes to play with. She was also touched by the number of people who participated in the training sessions.

“There were disabled children on pieces of cardboard. We put them on a sled and suddenly they could fly on the ice,” she replays when she thinks of the diversity of kids who joined her that week.

Asked why she came to Ladakh, Wickenheiser was very clear about her intentions:

“Just to get the message across that hockey is for everyone. It’s the most popular sport in the area, an area where the kids don’t really go to school, so there’s a lot of suicide issues, lack of hope, and boredom. »

Ice hockey, a mirror of climate change

There is another reason why hockey is played in the Himalayas: to highlight the impact of climate change.

In 2020, The Hockey Foundation and Ladakh Winter Sports Club, in collaboration with Randstad India and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, organized The Last Game as part of a series of ice hockey matches played around the world to highlight the effects of climate change.

NHL Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov carried the lead as the India team took on the United Nations team. This event also allowed the distribution of 8,000 cloth bags to the inhabitants of the Ladakh region in order to reduce the use of plastic in the region.

Paul Dupuis, CEO of Randstad India, spoke during the event, drawing attention to the climate change issues that have already affected Ladakh, which The Times of India documented with a clear loss of ice in the glaciers of the surrounding region.

« I think sport is the best way to connect, » says Dupuis. “It builds community, but also friendships, and today it will raise awareness about climate change. We know that all of you in Ladakh have been affected by climate change. And we will raise awareness, make your voice heard, tell your story to the world and take action to support you. »

The future of ice hockey in the Himalayas

With ice hockey taking a strong hold in the Himalayas, its impact will no doubt be felt in the years and decades to come.

In 2008, the Ladakh team participated for the very first time in the Asian Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi. Since then, the team, made up of many locals, has traveled extensively to play international matches. And the following year, in 2009, the Indian national ice hockey team began to appear on the international scene, well led by Sherlip, founder of the Hockey Foundation.

The sport’s popularity has become even more evident in recent years, with ice hockey earning its place on the schedule for the Khelo India Winter Games 2020, a national winter sports competition in India, for the first time.

And four years from Milano Cortina, there is even a chance of seeing an Indian team, perhaps including those who train in the Himalayas, compete in the next Winter Olympics in the mountainous regions of Italy.

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