Saturday, February 7, 2009
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
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
The reason why we rushed back from Chiktan to Leh was that we scheduled a hockey game against the top SECMOL team that had missed the Kargil Open to participate in the CEC Cup in Leh, a prominent tournament hosted by the Ladakh Winter Sports Club. As you know already (PART 1), this is the same tournament that had the SECMOL team dominated 15-0 in their first game, but they were able to rebound very well on the backs of a few players and make it to the finals. If they hadn't made it to the playoffs, they would've joined us in Chiktan/Kargil.
The night we returned, we went straight to Leh and stayed with some relatives of the aforementioned Tashi Angchok…what an amazing guy, by the way! Once again, these folks were incredibly warm and friendly. As common in Leh, they had specifically built small guest rooms on their property, which had a double and a triple room with non-functioning western-style bathrooms. Hey, it's the thought that counts!
Dinner and breakfast at the house were delicious, and as with all of the families I have met so far, their children were adorable, and cared for in the most heart-warming ways!
After breakfast, the Vermont, USA triumphantly returned to SECMOL, with the trophy that had "Winner, Men's Final" written on it (as stated previously, one of our players was a woman…still is, as a matter of fact). We played against the top boys team that had remained behind, this time without our 3 Ladakhi's (although we borrowed a new Ladakhi goalie), and absolutely dominated them through our passing. At the end of the day, 5 non-acclimatized Americans that know how to pass, skate and shoot, can dominate any number of Ladakhi's that can't.
It also allowed me to really notice the hockey deficiencies that I need to work on with their team, and in particular the players with the most potential.
That evening, we returned to Tashi's to watch the Obama inauguration (yes, this is delayed by about a week…it allows me to set up stories). Our hosts prepared a special feast and we went into the Leh Bazaar (Main St.) to pick up snacks, beer and juice (Vitamin C is in high demand here during the Winter). Watching everything from Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India is one of the most unique things I ever could have imagined for such an important moment in American history. Myself, 4 folks from Vermont, and Tashi huddled up in a small room around a heater and TV, snacking silently, late at night, watching everything unfold. At 11pm, in the middle of Obama's speech, when the power of Leh got turned off, our generator turned on, but not before missing about 2 minutes or so of the speech.
The reason I bring up President Obama is that in no small part, what is happening at home has contributed to what I am trying to do abroad. The pride I felt after Election Day in the fact that change is possible - and hopefully coming - motivated me to do my part. I have been an idealist for some time, and while you can't live each day in a state of disillusion and think the world is a perfect place with friendly people, that doesn't mean we can't strive to contribute to the improvement. The election, and in particular the inauguration, was reinforcement that when people work together to make a difference, they can achieve anything. I want to work with people that love hockey, care about the ideals (the base of "idealism") of the game, and want to improve the lives of children in India, as well as children around the world, utilizing a sport that can be so empowering.
As in China, where hockey has given the children more opportunities for a better education, or play hockey professionally in Asia, if not represent their country in the Olympics, the same is true in India.
In a country where there is still rampant corruption, an immense population (1.1 billion and growing faster than China's 1.3 billion), and an underlying current of tension stemming from religious and/or cultural factors – the caste system still exists in some ways, and there is a major difference between rural and urban populations – participating in a major hockey tournament in India is something to put on your resume and receive a distinct competitive edge when looking for jobs, such as in the military (a very desirable job here).
Before the 4th National Ice Hockey Tournament began, Tashi wanted to introduce me to someone. Before he could say anything, I knew what he was referring to. Before I departed on my journey to Ladakh & India, I reached out to Akshay Kumar, General Secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India. We had a brief conversation, and vowed to meet when he was in Leh. Since this was about the time I knew I was supposed to meet with Tashi, I knew immediately that he had run into Akshay and discussed how involved I have been with hockey to date.
Akshay was with the members of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club, the local body that runs the hockey in Ladakh…and by Ladakh, I mean Leh, as other regions of Ladakh have their own organizations (such as Kargil Ice and Snow Sports Club, or something to that affect). I discussed
my background with youth hockey, as well as my passion for the sport and how I want to see it improve in India, and he shared how the association has grown into recognition/prominence, through some significant challenges, and the plans that he has to really see the sport grow constructively in India. Akshay's desire to bring India into the world of ice hockey reinforced my desire to help the country succeed!
Immediately, we got to work. One of Akshay's main concerns centered on the scoring system being used. I helped re-draft a score-sheet for officials to use, and explained what every column on the sheet meant and why it was tracked. For the time being, we took off the plus/minus chart, as it is too detailed for their comforts as of yet. As it is, there has been an incredibly tough time just figuring out what player scored the goal, let alone who assisted them.
Another concern of his was that with players and referees not understanding the internationally accepted rules of the game, that any team that represents India in international play (in particular the 2009 IIHF Asia Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi, UAE) would end up embarrassing the country because they were so accustomed to the local rules. I set out to help relieve this problem, and sat down with the local referees and began discussing the basic rules of hockey. For about an hour I instructed them on the penalties, like which ones are common, what the signal for those penalties are, and what the infraction for each call is. I went in depth with them regarding off-sides, icing and how to line up for face-offs as well.
Let's start with icing. When it came to Ladakhi hockey, there is a penchant for taking slap-shots. No doubt, a hard slap-shot to the top blocker corner of the net, or a low slap-shot that gets deflected are very hard to stop for a goaltender. But as we know, the least accurate shot in hockey is the one you slap. Even for trained professionals it's tough to just pick a spot and hit it, now add a talented goalie. Maybe "talented" is the important word, because goaltending in Ladakh needs to be improved upon heavily…similar to our situation in China a few years ago. To make matters worse here, while the goalies may not be able to stop many shots, most players are not terrific at aiming. They wind up from anywhere on the rink, looking to score on the lowest-percentage shot the game has, especially when you're in your own defensive zone. As we know, if you miss the net from there, it's icing, but here in Ladakh, it wasn't being called. I explained that the background behind icing is to penalize a team that is just delaying the game by shooting the puck down the ice. It's hockey's form of prevent defense, and as a result, the face-off comes back in your zone. We discussed the ins and outs of icing, with a lot of questions coming my way regarding a slap-shot goal that was called icing in an earlier tournament that should have been allowed, but was called off for some reason. For the record, the more talented players in Ladakh are so accustomed to taking slap shots from anywhere on the rink, that they actually do hit the goalie in the chest on a regular basis. Sometimes they get lucky and it goes in. I wanted to make sure that even though that type of luck is rare in international play and in the NHL, every referee is prepared for anything.
Off-sides was a bit easier to grasp for the group, although it took longer for me to explain. We discussed the difference between skating off-sides, passing off-sides, and shooting the puck while off-sides. At the time, they seemed to really understand all of it, and proved themselves capable of understanding bits and pieces; there is a lot about off-sides that still needs to be ingrained in to the local psyche. The slap-shot dilemma can also be applied to off-sides, as every time the puck would come out of the zone (on a rink that was barely 2/3 that of the NHL), they would immediately attempt a slap-shot. If they were fortunate enough to hit the net, the ruling would be that the play is off-sides and the face-off would be dropped at or near the location of the shot. Yeah, good luck explaining situations like that!
In regards to face-offs, the situation in Leh is very similar to in Kargil. I started with where to have face-offs after off-sides, icing and when the goalie covers the puck, and while they swore this was understood, I knew the old habits of dropping pucks anywhere on the ice were going to die hard. The referees also seemed to all have a hot date after their games, because they didn't give the teams any chance to change before dropping the puck, which was as hurried as could be. They also blew their whistle incessantly, and pointed randomly, which made me feel like I was back in New York watching a traffic cop trying to control the road during rush-hour. At the same time, players were lining up anywhere they damn pleased on the ice, which made Face-Off Philosophy 101 a bit tough to teach.
Here's the thing, in hockey, during a face-off, your teammates are either behind you (e.g. the defense, usually), or lined up with you and the face-off dot (e.g. the forwards, usually). If you have a stray forward that is playing with butterflies out in left-field, (aka hanging out at the other end of the ice), you might be tempted to win the face-off forward to that player. I'd probably want to do the same if that's the way the game was played, but it's not. Plus, it's damn hard! You have to perfectly win your face-off forward to that distant player, through the opposing team's center and teammates, including one that is probably in man-coverage at the end of the rink. OK…let's say you magically accomplish that feat, how hard did you have to hit the stick and the puck? If you guessed "very", you're correct, and are now qualified to take a face-off against Ladakhis. In an area where sticks and equipment are not easy to come by, you'd think there'd be some logic applied to self-preservation, which includes one's material possessions. Not the case. Sticks break often, and fly wildly, and players get hit everywhere when they take a face-off. It's not uncommon to see a puck hurriedly dropped and only 1 player standing at the faceoff dot, or better yet, 2 teammates standing there.
Yeah, this is a bit of a challenge!
Let the 4th National Ice Hockey Championship begin!
Special thanks to the Allan and Rolly at Nasty Hockey Show for being strong advocates for this program, and putting together this broadcast. Please check it out!