At the end of the 4th National Ice Hockey Championship, I had agreed to train the selected players that were to participate in the 2009 IIHF Asia Challenge Tournament, being held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in mid-March. I had already been familiar with the players after watching them play in the National Tournament, and my scouting report was provided to Akshay Kumar of the Ice Hockey Association of India for his selection committee meeting. I had been watching these players for a solid week, and knew that there was a passion, and a potential to vastly improve. If only for three days before my departure back to Delhi (and around India) I was given the opportunity to lay the foundation of an international style of hockey.
Although I had spent a lot of time talking to the members of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club about my departure date, and my desire to train the team, it was incredibly last minute when I was notified we'd begin training just a few hours later in the day.
Our first session was scheduled at 4pm, the same day I had begun my intensive training at SECMOL in the morning, and classroom instruction in the evening. SECMOL is 20 km outside of Leh in one direction, and this rink is about 10 km outside of Leh in the other direction. As a result, a ride was arranged on day one to bring me to SECMOL to get my equipment, to the rink, and later back to SECMOL. The rink was on the banks of a river, although I'm not sure if it was the Indus or the Sindhu, and was the practice rink for one of the military teams. In order to make it to the rink, you had climb over a stone wall, and then navigate down AND up some rocky dirt paths. The players' bench - and I use that term very liberally - was a couple of boulders and trees, although most people just got changed on the ice immediately outside of the rink.
The team was comprised of about 12 players from the military teams, and the remaining roster was filled by players from the local teams, two being from SECMOL (including "formerly selfish"). 6 players were placed on reserve. A couple of players were in Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu & Kashmir, studying in school, and were not able to attend. Only a couple others were also absent.
The surface was brutal. There were speed bumps all over the rink, and they were damn effective, because very often people would come to a complete halt and face-plant into the rink. I speak from experience. On day one of training, I fell four times, twice without my gloves, which are relatively imperative to alleviating the impact of falls. No matter, I had the team (sans a few players – including those from SECMOL that were unaware they had made the team and that there was even a practice that) work on skating drills – in particular, their stopping, cross-overs and backwards skating.
Pond hockey has a yin-yang relationship. Using this analogy, there's a "good" and an "evil". On the side of the good guys, you have freedom: free ice, freedom to play how you like, freedom to have fun. This is obviously great for harnessing passion, and learning how to have fun in the game. You play because you love it and you can. On the (New Jersey) Devil(s) side, you have a pond, with no boards, uneven surfaces, the risk of falling in, and no rules. You lose pucks twice as fast as you would in an arena (pucks are like socks…even when you know the full schedule of where your socks have been, somehow you lose them all the time. Same thing with pucks…even in an arena, you shoot pucks out of the rink and tend to lose them regularly), and the risks of playing on an unreliable surface, with no rules, no referees and no support has not only life-impacting ramifications, but more importantly, it can stunt your hockey growth!
Playing hockey in an arena may be expensive, limited in time, restrictive in its rules and the way it's played, etc, but at the end of the day hockey is played in an arena. Nothing can replace that training.
Long story short, the pond severely handicapped the Ladakhi ability to power skate. As you have learned in earlier posts (you better have read each one!), ice conditions can sometimes be like skating on broken glass, or in this case, with the speedbumps. These hindrances affect the natural skating style, forcing players to skate timidly and focus on their feet. Obviously hockey is a sport that runs on an alternative mode of transportation (has anyone researched ice skating as a source for alternative energy?), but the skating must become second-nature so players can focus on the game going on around them. Being a mediocre ice skater will end up getting you injured, as you tend to spend more time looking down and can get your ass handed to you in one of those moments. Needless to say, nobody wants to see that happen. Neither do I, but there is no alternative in India currently. Outdoor pond hockey is the only way to go. So we fought through the detours and continued training.
After our skating drills, we got into shooting. Immediately I set out to change the mind-set when the players took a shot. I put a moratorium on slap shots until a wrist shot not only became second nature, but became adequate enough to score on a comatose goalie. If you know an obsessive hockey player, and I'm no exception, then you know that they are very emotional and protective about their sticks. The hockey stick is an extension of the body, and it must operate as such. A player should take the utmost care of their stick, because mistreatment can result in breakage on the ice in the middle of a game, always when you're about to take an important shot. Karmic retribution.
After 20 minutes or so of continuous shooting, we got into face-off alignment. In an attempt to radically change hockey in Ladakh, I showed every player specifically where they needed to be on a face-off at each dot on the rink. Once the centers got to see their wingers lined up properly next to them, and their defensemen behind them, they quickly understood the logic of trying to win the puck backwards on a face-off. Mission accomplished! (Hey, I'll take it…beggars can't be choosers).
After the on-ice training, I had the army drop me off at SECMOL so I could teach my off-ice hockey class (see previous post).
Day 2 began mid-day this time, instead of 4pm in an attempt to get better ice. The army players picked me and the two SECMOL players up from campus, and brought us to the rink on the opposite side of Leh. Although we tried to outsmart the weather, we failed. If anyone spent too much time in one particular spot for too long, they'd find that there skate was an inch into the ice, and partially submerged in water. Skating drills? I think not. As a result, more time was spent shooting from different angles quickly to train the goalies to move laterally in the net, play their angles, and practice going down and getting back up.
Needless to say, without formal training for the players, there was no formal training for the goalies. The butterfly (a particular style of goaltending that relies upon speed and flexibility in covering as much of the net as possible, while covering your angles) was completely foreign to them. Not being a goalie, I tried my best to explain what a butterfly position looks like and why it's effective. The trouble is that with no equipment and average flexibility (on a good day, after yoga and a massage), I can't get into a butterfly position. I thought I was going to tear my groin. It was worth the sacrifice though, if I could at least make a slight improvement in their abilities in net, especially since my groin is out of commission while in India as it is (too much information?).
After shooting for a solid 35 minutes, we worked on screens and deflections, something they have never utilized. I wanted to lay the foundations of how to position oneself in front of the end and cause absolute chaos. As a center, I got more pleasure in helping a teammate score a goal due to my screening the goalie than when I scored the goals myself. Sure, you take a few shots to the spine or calf, but even that is part of the fun. We ran a drill for the full team where all players would fight for positioning in front of the net, and either I or a defenseman would shoot at the perfect moment for a screen, deflection or rebound. Some did this perfectly and stood their ground in front, others did it perfectly by clearing their man in front, and others took themselves 8 or 9 feet out of position in an attempt to get open. Obviously since this is a drill to fight for positioning in front of the net, they failed.
For day 3, my final day with the team before my departure to Delhi, we decided to hold a morning practice. 9am. This effectively meant I couldn't coach the SECMOL group that night, something I wasn't happy about, but in the grand scheme of things, training this newly formed Indian team is obviously an honor and incredibly important.
The ice was a bit better, although still nothing to rave about, so skating drills returned. After some brief shooting, passing and stick-handling drills, we got into the real meat. We started with a 2-on-0 drill. If it sounds simple, it is. For those of you that don't play hockey, here's the brief-over: two players start from opposing corners on the same side of the ice and leave the zone, criss-crossing as they return back into the zone. They make a short pass as they approach each other, with the player receiving the puck crossing in front of the player passing the puck. Other than the obvious reason for doing this, not running into each other, the logic behind this is that you want the player with the puck to enter the offensive zone immediately so as to not go off-sides. Granted, this is a drill that requires players to go back into the zone they started from; a situation that is unrealistic in a game, but it reinforces the concept of pass and go behind, and stay onsides. Also, it's hockey. You never know where the puck will take you on the ice. Sometimes you skate laterally. In that case, this drill is perfect practice.
It should still sound like an easy drill. Apparently not for Ladakhis. The players consistently failed to pass properly, and to make matters worse, they were going off-sides and running into each other! Communicate! I tried to reinforce that the drill isn't about skating to the top of the zone and just giving the player the puck. You can pass as much as you want before and after, but make sure that you pass at the top of the zone about 10 feet from each other. We attempted this drill for about 30 minutes, and would've done it longer until we consistently got it right, but the tea was getting cold. So we took a break.
When tea time was over, I really complicated things by making it a 2-on-1 drill. Now the defenseman would start near the net and pass to one of the players leaving the zone, then they'd criss-cross, just as before, and come back into the zone against the defenseman. Although it was filled with countless mistakes, mostly going off-sides or making an ill-advised pass, they managed to run this drill more efficiently than when there was no defensive opponent. Go figure.
Other than day three's tea break, there were no water breaks throughout these two-hour long practices. It's not that I was overworking or punishing them, quite the opposite. I felt that with the level of drills we were running, and the limited time available, there was no point in wasting a water break when everyone appeared fresh. But maybe that was just their cultural tendency of respecting authority that kicked in. Either way, being the last practice, I didn't want to leave without getting into some sort of team situation.
I attempted to introduce a 3-on-2 drill that would develop multiple skills at once: defensive pair passing to one another, offensive players coming back into the zone, all 5 players breaking out in unison, the forwards coming in on attack with a 1-man advantage, hence 3-on-2. Before I could really get this drill up and running, we ended practice. Time had run out, and this drill would require another hour that was unavailable.
For now, my training with the Indian hockey team had come to an end. They needed to be ready to play for the Asia Challenge Cup, and I was leaving Ladakh with a strong feeling that more training was imperative.
We needed to work on skating, shooting, passing and positioning. Minor details in a game reliant upon skating, shooting, passing and positioning. Or as they say in Miracle: "Pass, shoot, score." But hey…we have passion! Hopefully we can work on some of these things before time runs out.