The 4th National Ice Hockey Championship was held in Leh because it's possibly the most populous city in India that can sustain ice in the Winter. The Ladakh Winter Sports Club (LWSC), based in Leh, was tasked by the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) to facilitate this tournament, which included 3 local military teams, 2 local Jammu & Kashmir (aka Leh) teams, 1 team from Kargil, and 1 ex-military team, which included 10 players from SECMOL (no, they are/were not in the military).
The drama began before the tournament, when the SECMOL students were not allowed their own team. To make matters worse, they were placed on the J&K teams, without their knowledge, even though they had agreed to play with the ex-military team. This was not seen positively by the LWSC, even though the players were at no fault. They were upset they weren't allowed their own team that had just participated in a tournament in the same rink, run by the same organization, but other teams that played in the prior tournament, including the champs, were also not officially invited to participate. That being said, every player was eligible to participate.
My presence was requested by Akshay Kumar of the IHAI to assist the head official in keeping score until he got used to the system, ensuring the referees were living up to the lessons they swore they understood, and to scout out the best players to be invited on the Indian Ice Hockey Team when they travel to Abu Dhabi, UAE for the 2009 IIHF Asia Challenge Cup.
The first day of play was freezing, and after recording Akshay and a local government official making their speeches, I sat somewhat idle for the next 3 hours, until my toes were M.I.A. I had to go on a rescue mission just to ensure they were still with me. The head official took to the score-sheets pretty well, although I provided the tally of who scored and who assisted, as the referees never skated over to us during game-play. Speaking of the refs, apparently I was speaking a different language, because they did not do half of the things I spoke to them about – things they swore they understood fully.
Game-play for the first 2 days was good. Many players stood out, including a handful of goalies that were surprisingly competent, and many games ended with very small goal differentials. One thing was clear though, the military teams were far better than their competition. The biggest factors in the success of the military teams are the inherent teamwork mentality of the military and their conditioning. They are used to working together, supporting each other, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their comrades, and they could skate all day. The local players didn't know each other, didn't have a teamwork mentality, and were not nearly as conditioned, although many were very capable.
On day 1, icing was being called somewhat often, and my pride was growing, but as the day progressed, off-sides were being called improperly, and my pride settled back down. When players skated off-sides, this was called. It's the easiest of the calls, and if they didn't get that right at least 90% of the time, I would probably have started crying right there. When it came to passing off-sides, the referees were calling this as well…so far, so good. The difference here is that instead of a face-off outside of the zone you transgressed, the faceoff should be even wherever the pass originated from, or even with the face-off dots in the vicinity. OK…I can accept this error, and this was already improvement, so beggars can't be choosers. When there was a delayed off-sides - that is, some players in the offensive zone before the puck – the play was called off-sides, whether the puck was shot in or not, whether it hit the net, or not. I know, I'm nitpicking, but this stuff matters to me, especially since it's part of the basics. If India wants to compete on the international stage, I don't want them to look foolish not understanding off-sides rules…that would be embarrassing.
The matches were exciting, as many of the teams were even, and the support I provided to the Ladakh Winter Sports Club, the referees, and to the Ice Hockey Association of India left me feeling confident that I could skip day three and do some writing about the previous events. Bad idea on my part.
Day three began with super drama. In a classic unsportsmanlike move, two of the military teams arranged to fix their match to help each other make the playoffs and prevent other teams from making it. In their opinion, the more goals each team scored would help them advance into the semi-finals, so each team scored about 20 goals in their head to head match. In prior games, the most goals scored were 8, and that was when there was a far superior team. Two somewhat equal teams will not score 20 goals against each other in that type of setting. In response, two of the local teams arranged their match similarly, with the better of the two scoring 32 goals, and the lesser of the two scoring 16. One of those teams had children of people in the military, including some players, and they pulled their children out of the games. What's unclear to me is whether these players were pulled out of their game by parents of the team that had fixed the previous match so that they could fix this match also, or if the players were pulled out by parents from the other military branch in protest. Either way, one of the teams ended up playing a game that day with only 3 players and a goalie.
Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Somewhere in this melee, players from the Army started throwing stones onto the rink because the responsive match fixing prevented their team from making it into the playoffs. Nobody was hit or injured.
I had left on day two feeling confident that things were OK at the tournament, but came into a bunch of controversy when I arrived at the rink late on day 3. Had I been there, I absolutely would have been up on the rink shouting, as I was prone to do when referees missed an icing, off-sides or penalty. If I was present for blatant match fixing, I would've made sure that the offenders be stopped on the spot – regardless of the fact that I am not an official of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club.
Instead, the LWSC didn't do anything to stop what was going on, and expected a referee with no training, that was playing for one of the teams in the tournament to stand up to a crowd of soldiers and tell them to play nice. I have the U.S. Embassy to back me up, or so I believe; they have a broken hockey stick.
The team from Kargil, along with the military team not involved in match fixing, and the ex-servicemen team all filed protests with the LWSC, which went to a board of review that was overseen by the D.C., the highest ranking official in the region of Ladakh. At the same time, the captain of the ex-servicemen was practicing what not to do in interpersonal communication by not telling the SECMOL players of the details, and the fact that there was a review panel. He also didn't communicate information about the game they were scheduled to play on Day 4. From the best of my understanding, there was discussion to boycott the game that was mutually agreed up by all players of the team, but it seems like they had different reasons. One thing is perfectly clear to me, none of them knew enough to make an informed decision, and this is the fact that bothers me the most.
[Disclaimer: What I'm about to present is an opinion based argument that may offend some of the involved parties (if I haven't already done so). It's meant to be nothing more than a reflection of what I saw, and I if additional evidence is presented to me, I will happily (or not so happily) amend my argument.]
There is no doubt that match-fixing is a terrible thing to do in a sporting match, especially a sport that I argue has a higher set of morals and ideals. The teams assumed that running up the score would enhance their chances of advancing in a tournament, and when I explained to some that in fact it's goals against that is counted first, then goals for, then goal differential (difference between goals against and goals for), the reaction I got was, "…well then the teams would have just played to a 0-0 tie". Maybe that's true, but the attitude on this respect is defeatist. The reality is that there are a few players on practically every team that are capable of committing an unsportsmanlike conduct in a sporting match, no matter how much we try to groom them and assume everyone is a perfect person and player. Throwing stones onto the rink is not only unsportsmanlike, but it's incredibly dangerous, and everyone is fortunate that nobody got hurt. There should be a sign that says: "Common Sense: Don't throw rocks on the rink when frozen, as it can cause cracks." As it was explained to me, nobody was aiming for any players, they were just throwing rocks in disgust. Well I guess I can understand their frustration, but it began with their comrades fixing a match.
The ex-men (their nickname) boycotted their game on Day 4, something I was unaware of until it was happening, and totally unsupportive of. The argument from their side, through a non-hockey representative, was that they shouldn't play in a tournament that has no discipline, control or sportsmanship, and in that regards, I agree. There are few things more disheartening in sports than a lack of control and respect. But the game must go on. Mental toughness needs to set in and take a hold. Especially in a sport like ice hockey, that requires an immense amount of mental discipline.
At the same time, the members of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club were greatly offended by the boycotting of their tournament by a team that was already embroiled in apparent controversy (between the girls not being able to participate in the previous tournament because they were co-organizers of the tournament in Kargil, and the boys not playing on one of the J&K teams, although they weren't aware of it until later on). Despite their mismanagement in the breakdown of order and discipline in their tournament, I agree with the offense of boycotting the game for a few reasons:
- As stated previously, participating in a major sporting event in India is resume-worthy, and provides a greater competitive edge when looking to advance in a country that is notoriously difficult to thrive in when the odds are stacked against you. Boycotting the event would hinder the chances of these players ever receiving such a promising opportunity of advancement again. I'm not suggesting that they just sit back and let corruption thrive, but sometimes we have to choose how much "fight the man!" we should put out there.
- No matter your disgust, "the game must go on". Play through protest, but don't abstain from play. You can't win an argument in sports if you walk away…which really is a lesson in life as well. As it is, the game was a semi-final match. Boycotting the game, which led to a 1-0 forfeit loss, also removed the chance of winning the tournament. Which leads me to…
- In order to make an educated, rational decision, you must know the facts. It's very easy to sit back and play the role of victim (or hero), especially when the past predicates this reaction. If we blindly act harshly, without addressing the LWSC members to find out exactly what is going on, you fall in the category of "poor judgment". To wait for an organization to publicly admit fault and/or cast blame on transgressorsbefore playing is not the best way to a speedy and appropriate solution.
The following day, the panel made its decision. They acknowledged that dishonorable intentions were at play, but without hard evidence, they felt there was nothing they could do. They recommended that people caught throwing rocks and/or taking their children out of the game personally be suspended from tournament play (and all of the respective privileges) for 1-2 years.
I received minutes of the report around 1-2 days after the meeting of the jury, a meeting I wish I was called into to present the rules and precedence to the panel. That obviously didn't happen. I was also told that there were players willing to testify that teams blatantly set out to fix the match, but that they weren't able to present their argument. This team had sent official complaints to every administrator and public official responsible for hockey in Ladakh all the way through to Delhi. Obviously that made the situation a bit more complicated, when the Sports Ministry chief gets a complaint about a tournament he probably only knew vague details about.
The ex-men team showed up the next day after I gave a stern (and initially misunderstood) lecture over the phone about how boycotting only makes the situation worse, in all aspects, and it is intensified by the situations that SECMOL has been involved with over the winter (and past years…visit the SECMOL website for more details on that). I didn't want to see anyone lose out, especially since the captain of the team was not present for much of the proceedings, and blindly made decisions without communicating with the SECMOL group.
The players accosted me, and then Mr. Kumar, and demanded that they play their original semi-final match that they had boycotted the day earlier. Both of us were in agreement that this was a lofty demand, considering the circumstances, and after Akshay spoke to them and told them they should've appeared yesterday, there request was denied.
In the end, the ex-servicemen team played in the Bronze Medal game, and after competing in the first period, there defeatist nature set in and they fell apart on the ice, with an obvious lack of passion and motivation. My message didn't get through. If there is any time to tap into passion and mental toughness, this was it, and they failed. I realize they were distraught and frustrated, but I like to take that aggression out by playing strong, smart hockey, not by laying down on the rink and letting people skate all over me. That's not the hockey way.
The final match was scheduled for the following between one of the accused military teams and one of the accused local teams, but not until the chief guest showed up, naturally. Whereas the chief guest to inaugurate the tournament was the CEC (Chief Executive Counselor – a decently high local official), the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, the equivalent of a governor in the United States. Unfortunately, fog delayed his takeoff from Jammu (the winter capital of J&K…the summer capital is Jammu), so the game didn't start for a few hours. The issue with this is that over the past few days, the weather became a bit warmer than normal, and by noon time, the ice started to melt and fall apart. The decision was made to start the game without the CM and the game started with a predicted lack of control and discipline. Just as in the NHL, once the advanced play began, whistles get put away. For the whole game, 1 penalty was called, when many, including a penalty shot, should've been called.
Before the 3rd period began, we got word that the CM had landed, and was on his way from the airport, so game-play was halted. As the crowd waited, the players lined up at the end of the rink, waiting to meet the youngest Chief Minister in Jammu & Kashmir history, the son and grandson of former Chief Ministers. With two teams and a handful of delegates all waiting in the same area on the rink, the ice started to crack and the pond water began to creep up onto the ice surface. This is something we had become accustomed to, so we quickly shifted everyone to a (temporarily) strong section of the rink, and the speeches commenced. First the CEC made a speech, then Akshay Kumar, both in Hindi – so I assume they were speaking about me exclusively, even though I couldn't understand any of it.
The game continued with intensity, and ended in a 1-1 tie. Having experienced this already in the semi-final match that played, the 5-minute overtime played through and the game went to a shoot-out.
Because of the primitive zamboni – straw and wood brooms – only one side of the rink was used for the shoot-out. The rink had a crowd of nearly 5,000 fans, and the energy was palpable. When space ran out around the rink, fans piled into nearby roof-tops, like Wrigley Field in the summer. When roof-space ran out, children went under a platform that held mid-level guests. All you could see were faces sticking out, barely able to see the game. When space under the deck ran out, people started claiming trees. Dozens of people piled on the apparently sturdy trees around the rink, some holding as many as 50 people. One guy climbed about 20 feet high in a narrow tree that he must have reserved, because nobody else went in the tree. I was told by a local that the people will urinate while in the tree just so they don't lose their spot. Whether or not it's true, it's believable.
The game ended with a 2-0 shootout win for the military team. They figured out the secret to scoring on a breakaway: lateral movement…especially in Ladakh, where the goalies sit back in the net and have a hard time moving side to side. The military crowd went crazy, and the roar was deafening. I felt like I was in an NHL arena during a playoff game!
The Chief Minister made a speech after the game, promising (as past politicians have) that he would increase the funding for sports in Ladakh, in particular ice hockey. Ladakh, being a "tribal region" on the border with Tibet/China and in a state bordering Pakistan, is vitally important to the Indian government. But they have their issues. Employment is low, and tourism is the main industry keeping the area sustainable. To increase the resources for ice hockey in Ladakh puts people to work (hopefully not to construct the new arena that was supposed to be built 8 years ago), and provides a greater incentive for hockey tourism, which will absolutely grow.
As I have stated many times, hockey can improve the way of life for people. Sometimes it's nuanced, like the lessons we can learn from the game, and other times it's blatant, like when people can put it on their resume for a better career or get employment from the growth of the industry.
For me, I agreed with a local friend when he stated that this drama was good for the long-term advancement of the game. Maybe this wouldn't have happened if I was in attendance that day, and maybe I could've helped the resolution if I was in the loop throughout, but at least I feel confident that my advice is in the spirit of the people and the game. I instructed them on how to handle these ordeals, and I hope they listened. Drama, politics and unsportsmanlike behavior will happen in hockey. But through it we learn, improve and grow. The game will change, and so will we.
What I didn't yet mention was that at the end of his speech, the Chief Minister walked directly towards me (surround by his entourage), and thanked me personally for my assistance in the hockey community. We had a brief chat about my time in Ladakh, and I affirmed to him that I would continue my support for Ladakh as long as I could.
Additionally, a reporter from the Hindustan Times covered the event and hockey in Ladakh & India in general, which came out yesterday (from this post). In the article, I am quoted and listed as a former NHL player, something I have adamantly avoided claiming, no matter where I am. I could list the amusing occasions where I couldn't avoid being perceived as a player, but this is already almost 3,500 words, so I'll spare you…for now. Nonetheless, please check out the article:
Condensed URL: http://is.gd/iIu9
Also, be sure to check out not only my photo gallery: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34781538@N08/sets/72157613464001176/ but Akshay Kumar's photo gallery as well: http://picasaweb.google.co.in/lh/sredir?uname=musifat&target=ALBUM&id=5297393326109710529&authkey=5A0yKadN1XI&feat=email