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
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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.
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."
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.
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."