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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

India Ice Hockey, Part 1: Dehra Dun Arena

Upon my return to Delhi, I made sure that I could go to Dehra Dun to visit the arena under construction. This was scheduled as part of a two week trip around Northern India, combining work with pleasure. I had spent a few nights at an amazing riverside camp up river from Rishikesh (where the Beatles went in 67 when the wrote the "White Album"), where I stayed in a gorgeous tent with a friendly staff and delicious food. While I was there, I did a small mountain hike, and some great river rafting/kayaking. If you're interested in this camp, please contact me and I can put you in touch with the company!

[NOTE: This report on the rink is my actual report to the Ice Hockey Association of India. Being that everything I have written has been personal and from my experiences, with the explicit interest of helping the development of ice hockey in India, I see no reason why this should be censored, as all it can do is put pressure on those in charge to do the right thing for all]

When I arrive at the rink, a few things struck me immediately. 1) That the rink was significantly out of the way of the middle of the town/city, and 2) it is well behind in construction based upon the schedule I was aware of and expecting.

The structure is clearly the outline of an arena, and from what it looks like, the surface itself is going to be constructed beautifully. At least, that’s what it looks like on the outside. There is clearly an inefficiency surrounding the construction that is not only slowing down the speed of the construction – which will raise costs of the rink – but it may also hinder the quality of the construction, which could have drastic effects on the usability of the rink.

The importance of not only doing this rink sufficiently, but doing it perfectly, can not be understated. Being the first international-standard ice hockey rink in India, a lot of money will be wasted if the system interferes. Concurrently, this is the opportunity for India to propel itself onto the global “rink” (as opposed to stage), alongside Asian countries like China, Japan and Kazakhstan. If all goes smoothly (figuratively and literally – e.g. the maintenance of the surface), there is no reason why India can’t become a major player on the global hockey scene. The first step is a quality ice rink.

I have additional questions and concerns about the rink. Immediately upon entering, I was told that the foyer will have a circular rink for children. There are a few issues with this. 1) A rink in an entrance will be susceptible to outside weather, and ice and air conditions will be incredibly difficult to manage, making hockey conditions very difficult as a result. 2) A circular rink is not appropriate for hockey at any age, even toddlers. The shape of the rink must be a rounded-rectangle, or it is useless for hockey. The rink could be useful for children even if it’s 1/3 the size of a standard international rink (60m X 30m), as long as it’s rectangular (with rounded corners). 3) If this rink is taking up such a large chunk of a small entrance-way, I am curious where there will be room for a skate rental office, a pro shop, and a snack bar? These are essential to a successful and profitable ice arena, as they are going to be major sources of income, as well as provide the public with temporary/permanent equipment to utilize, and food/beverages to occupy their time in the facility.

On the other end of the rink, there are locker rooms under construction. I am curious how many locker rooms are planned on the architectural drawings. I couldn’t tell if there were 2 or more, but it is essential that an arena being used by the public have at least 4 changing rooms with ample space. With 2 changing rooms, the teams from the following game will not be able to change until the teams from the current games are done. That leads to massive delays in the schedule, and a lot of wasted time after the ice-resurfacer has driven off the rink. That equals a lot of lost revenue!

While I am confident the cooling system has been expertly built by the Canadian firm, I am not confident that the building itself is being constructed properly. An ice rink needs to have a very consistent and carefully controlled atmosphere. Part of the indoor weather relies upon the construction of the building itself. Since heat rises, then there must be a proper cooling, air-conditioning, and de-humidifying system. There must also be proper insulation in the roof and walls, as well as tightly constructed walls and roof. If this gets completed improperly, not only will you have an inconsistent ice surface, which will greatly hinder on-ice performance and stunt the efficiency of growth and enjoyment of ice hockey in India, it will become exponentially more expensive to operate the facility over time. This is basic revenue and expenses…and ultimately, profits!

In regards to these major issues, I am curious what equipment is installed to manage the air and humidity, and what is on order? I have seen the cooling tanks for the surface, but this is not enough to maintain ice in an arena. Additionally, an ice-resurfacer (aka Zamboni) is required. This machine is a major investment, and should be handled as such. They are expensive, and quality is of the utmost importance, as maintenance for a used vehicle is a major expense in North America, let alone India. From my understanding, a Zamboni has not been purchased, and there has been minimal work done by the parties responsible for overseeing rink construction/maintenance/management to secure one. This will require major involvement from the government, which has also been neglecting the project.

I understand the financial situation for the Uttarakhand government is grim, but there is a general apathy that has been taking place from almost all aspects regarding the arena. The managers overseeing construction have not put enough pressure on the contractors to properly construct the building in a timely manner. Additionally, the standards for construction are not adhering to international requirements. To have Indians with no experience in ice arenas offering their expertise, when Canadians are contributing their “two-cents” to the project, is unjustified. I would defer to almost any Canadian 95% of the time, by the inherent fact that they have seen hundreds of arenas through all different stages of operation. There are no Indian experts in ice rink construction, and to behave in a manner that suggests otherwise is doing a dis-service to the sport, and to India.

There are also concerns that there is not only enough money to manage the facility when it opens, but not enough money to finish construction properly. As identified earlier, this would effectively nullify the whole purpose of an ice rink. The arena must be completed to the fullest extent, or the whole project has been an utter waste of money. Wherever the funding comes from, it needs to happen soon, and with full commitment.

Once the facility opens, it needs to open completely. There is no point in operating a rink for 5-8 hours in a day. A successful ice arena can stay open for nearly 20 hours with fully booked ice slots. I understand that this is India, and ice hockey is barely played in this country, but my mission is to not only fill the ice slots with full bookings, but generate such buzz around this new wonder in Dehra Dun, that there’s a wait list!

The state (AND national) governments need to invest in this facility, because the investment will pay off in the long term! As hockey grows in India, new markets will open up. Wealthier families in Northern India and in Delhi will come to participate in ice hockey. Tourists will also start to flock to a country that can add one more point to its long list of incredible features. This is a program that every department within the government can reap benefits from. Obviously, the sports ministries should be doing everything they can to make this rink a success, but there should be as much interest and support from the tourism ministry, as this rink can become the hub of hockey around Asia, including Russia and China! The health department should contribute to ensure proper treatment for injuries, and assurances of safety for the timid. The education department should offer incentives to students that excel in hockey to provide better education to them, as smart hockey players become better hockey players! The transportation department should offer express shuttle service to the arena (I understand there will be a bus route, it should be promoted!) so that players from town centers and those coming by train can make it to the arena quickly and efficiently. The ministry that handles human services and welfare can provide hockey to the poor, and give them an opportunity to grow in a sometimes restrictive and difficult culture. All of these recommendations can provide a combination of revenue, goodwill, and good public relations, all important when trying to operate an administration.

This is the argument I want to present not only to the Uttarakhand government, or the national government, but to the Jammu and Kashmir government, as well as to administrations around India. Ice hockey is a sport that

What is better than playing hockey in the world’s largest democracy, with such welcoming and friendly and passionate people as Indians! Right now, this is a Ladakhi sport, and if this rink doesn’t get completed and managed properly, it will remain a Ladakhi sport.

Reflections from my time in Ladakh

[NOTE: I wrote this the 1st time I left Ladakh, not knowing I would return less than a week later. I decided against posting it until I finished all of my posts regarding Ladakh. It has barely been edited since I originally wrote it, and only discusses some of the events that went down on my first tour. Since I discussed everything from my return trip already, there's no need to delve back into that. Anyway, enjoy.]

I’m not one that's known to form attachments – to people, to places (other than New York City), or to things in general (other than the internet). Hockey is among the few exceptions, but as I observed the inverse of a majestic landing into Leh, an overwhelming tidal wave of emotion dragged me under the surf. (I wanted to come up with a hockey analogy there, but the comparison escapes me.)

My face flushed like I had been in the sun, as it had a handful of times during my taxi ride from SECMOL through the desert and winding, mountain road to the airport in Leh.

Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India has become a permanent part of my life. There is no doubt in my mind about that. With some modest calculations, it became clear that my 4 weeks in Ladakh is the 5th longest tenure of mine in any particular region of the world (in order, the top four are New York, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal), and the only one not in North America. (Since that time, Delhi has surpassed Montreal, as I've spent 2 weeks in Delhi to date)

Our fates, in many ways, will rely upon our commitment to each other, and our cooperation in our committment to the sport of hockey.

This is an area with incredible natural beauty, a unique blend of religion – in particular Buddhism, tantric Buddhism even – a people that invited me in, and in way that are a bit uncommon for such a newcomer/foreigner who doesn’t speak the language.

Many Asian cultures live by a “saving face” code. That means they care more about looking good interpersonally and not offending others. To offend someone’s reputation in Asia is the equivalent of blatantly stealing someone’s life savings at gun-point in the West. For foreigners, it’s very rare to see the true colors of someone from Asia. There is no doubt that India is a unique country as compared the rest of Asia, and they interpret “saving face” and honesty differently from some of their neighbors, but Ladakh, while technically part of the subcontinent, is a hybrid of Asian cultures (Ladakhi, Tibetan, Kashmiri, Zanskari, Indian) and is not exempt from this attitude.

For some odd reason – or maybe it was all part of the plan – I became entangled in the local hockey culture in more ways than I knew were possible. In the process, I became an ex-officio member of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club; I had no say, could only make recommendations, but was also privy to a fair amount of information, as well as complaints.

Normally, when we hear complaints in the Western World, we feel the infectious nature of the negative energy, like a contagious virus. “Energy” may seem too metaphysical to be scientific, but Buddhism embraces the balance between both, and so do I.

When people come to New York City, you invariably hear that there is a penetrating “energy” that makes the city special. Everything makes up this energy – the people, the buildings, the companies, the arts, the sports, etc. This is why I love New York City. It’s why I consider it the greatest place on earth. As of yet, there is no greater positive energy I have experienced in a particular location, no matter how beautiful, or how clean.

The negative energy stemming from the complaints, as well as actions, of the LWSC members took a toll on me for a few days, but (there is a bright side) as always, it’s very easy to see the good from all of this.

The members were upset at the dramatic events from the National Tournament, starting with the match fixing, then stone throwing, then game protesting, then game boycotting, and finally, when resolution of the issues seemed apparent, protesting the decision. In some ways, they are a part of the problem, but the endearing part of this is that they want to improve. They constantly confided in me how betrayed they felt by what happened - the unsportsmanlike nature of it, but also their personal sacrifices. They sought avenues to remedy the problem in the future, and hopefully they will attempt to prevent these things from happening again.

Their disgust in the action of privileged adults reaffirmed their dedication to impressionable children.

Weighing the evidence I was aware of from all sides, I am happy to continue to work with the LWSC, as long as they retain some degree of idealism and uphold the value of the sport so many people around the world love: ice hockey. My primary mission as “The Hockey Volunteer” is to help everyone that wants to grow through the sport, and I will continue to do so as long as the main organizers are not interfering with the game and/or imposing their personal agendas onto the game.

Ladakh, not just Leh, has won the right of my return for another year, and we can once again trade the gifts that each can provide.

We owe it to each other.

Ice Hockey in Ladakh, Part 10: Saying My Part

Before I departed Ladakh, the LWSC hosted a couple of parties in my honor. I brought a guest from VIS for the first one, and although I had been adhering to the nutrition plan I laid out for the team, I decided this was worthy of drinking. Who doesn't drink when they're the guest of honor?

I also decided this was my chance to really speak my mind. With some liquid courage in me (although I didn't need any to say what I wanted to say), I tried to reinforce that we need to uphold the best interest of the game. The moment people start letting emotions and politics get in the way of hockey, the game suffers. When the game suffers, everyone loses. If we wanted hockey in Ladakh and in India to grow and improve, we had to behave in a manner that was conducive of it.

Points of interest regarding what I tried to prevent/change included the selection of the team, how to operate and grow the LWSC, how to coexist with the Ice Hockey Association of India (and by extension, their leadership) and even how to select captains.

When it came to the team itself, I was not given the team that I wanted. There's no other way to put it. Although I had assisted in scouting, the participants of the national tournament held some weeks prior organized a selection committee to select the national team, of which the IHAI was only to vote if there was a tie. If I had the authority to change this, I would've scrapped that whole concept. What ensued was negotiations over who would get selected from each team, and people that weren't even on the committee ended up voting. I have heard reliable statements regarding the fact that there were deals for certain players to make it, and complaints when others didn't. The end result was that a team was compiled where almost half of them were not even close to qualified, and I mean that with consideration for local levels of play! This had to stop, and it will in the future.

I also spoke to them about coordinating their efforts in developing hockey. They needed to focus more on the kids, and with the assistance of someone like Henk, they had just laid a great foundation. Now it needed to grow. Ending the barrage of self-serving tournaments and holding more developmet camps would also enhance the level of play in Ladakh, especially as the rink in Dehra Dun (6 hours north of Delhi) was slated to open prior to next winter, increasing competition.

The LWSC had become complacent and took solace in the fact that they were the driving force of hockey in India, which is true. But that's like saying you're the best political candidate in a military dictatorship. You're the only option. That will change once the Dehra Dun rink opens, and I vowed to the LWSC that I am not only there to help them. My mission is to help hockey grow, wherever that may be. They specifically asked me to favor them, and my response was phrased as carefully as possible that I would help everyone, but that Ladakh is where I will help the most. For now.

What they needed to understand is that at the end of the day, being the best at ice hockey in India is not going to get them very far (I resisted making another lame metaphor). It's about being able to play at the international level.

I received complaints about how it's only the LWSC that hosts tournaments, and that the army never does anything like that. All they do is participate in the tournaments that the LWSC hosts. Hockey began in Ladakh with the army, and while they used to be the best players in the region, the level of play is starting to balance out with the civilians. I thought this was one of the most unreasonable and selfish statements yet. I told the members there, with more gusto and enthusiasm, verbatim:
"The mission of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club is to hold hockey events (among other Winter sports). The mission of the army is to fight Pakistan. For you to expect them to hold a hockey tournament, and get upset when they don't, is unreasonable on your part. They're not required to do that. You are."
I think it sunk in.

Their sentiment regarding how to choose captains was just as frustrating. They had asked me when I was going to select captains (1 captain, 2 alternates/assistants), to which I responded that I would have the team vote and see if they chose the right players. They said Akshay wanted me to choose the captain. My response was that just because Akshay wants me to pick captains, doesn't mean I am going to pick them. The best thing for the team was for them to understand who their leaders were, and to give them a collective vote of confidence. They countered with the fact that since they were the Ladakh Winter Sports Club, and they are the ones doing all of the hockey, the only fair thing to do was have the captain be from one of the civilian (J&K) teams.

I controlled my disgust, and delicately informed them that this is the worst possible attitude to exude if we're trying to do the best thing for the team and the program. At the same time, I agreed on a techinicality. In my opinion, the best candidate for captain was a civilian player, and a good candidate for assistant captain was from the army. I said that if the team didn't select these players, I would make an executive decision and over-rule them, but I was confident that they'd do the right thing.

I was proven right. When we took the vote, the players first requested that they discuss who to vote for. I vetoed that motion immediately. This wasn't a political campaign or a popularity contest. This was meant to be their gut instinct on who the best person to lead them was. In overwhelming numbers, they voted for the captain and assistant captain that we all had wanted anyway, and a controversy was avoided.

Their collective opinions of the Ice Hockey Association of India, were also construed. I set out to correct their views, and take a more cooperative stance. I can't speak for the past, being that I was never in India, but I do know that my experience these past few months have been pretty damn good. The IHAI only received government recognition recently, so everything they tried to do prior to that was probably next to impossible. Promises that may have been made, most likely couldn't have been upheld, because there was no footing to stand on. That has started to chang. Now that they have support from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the India Sports Ministry, as well as someone with experience to play the hero (tada!), there is a much better forecast on the horizon.

That horizon depends on the rink in Dehra Dun. Upon my return to Delhi, I scheduled some time to visit the rink, and see how construction was progressing. The success of ice hockey in India, including Ladakh (whether they know it or not), depends on this rink getting up and skating from the moment it opens.

And with that, I leave Ladakh.

Pictures will have to wait

Along with the predefined technical difficulties, you can now add firewall to them. As a result, I can't log on to Flickr to upload pictures to my account or access them for the blog. That means you have to read straight through, no excuses!

More posts are coming up soon!

Ice Hockey in Ladakh, Part 9: "I Shall Return"

I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I know you will recognize the immense amount of thought that went into this philosophical analogy:

Ladakh is like a Manhattan cocktail...the tall, dark, attractive alcoholic beverage.

Think about it, the ingredients for a Manhattan (traditionally) are:
• Rye
• Sweet red vermouth
• Dash Angostura bitters
• Maraschino cherry (Garnish)

When I look at these ingredients, my first instinct is to back away slowly. Rye is not the friendliest of whiskeys, with a more peppery and dry taste, and vermouth is the equivalent of drinking vomit, in my humble opinion. If that isn't nauseating enough, add in some bitters for good measure. And just when you thought you had the drink figured out, it goes and surprises you with a cherry on top. Somehow it comes out tasting refined, distinguished, and well put together.

The comparison to Ladakh is like this:
[taking a deep breath]
You arrive in Ladakh with grandeur, as you well know, weaving in and out of the mountains. You step out into a tiny airport, with minimal amenities, but you ignore them. You then get harassed by a handful of taxi drivers shouting in Ladakhi, but you're OK with that, because they're taxi drivers. You arrive in Leh, and it's dirty. Garbage is everywhere, which usually includes raw sewage. You don't mind the people walking everywhere in the streets like a bunch of headless chickens, but are more concerned about the wounded canines, the fattened bovines, and the subtle asses (the donkeys). The people show you one face in public, and another in private, souring your impression of them. Nonetheless, they're friendly and hospitable, and marked with an interesting history and culture, that in many ways appears timeless, or rather static.

When you analyze any of these ingredients that make up Ladakh, you find that the cocktail is made with ingredients that don't seem too appealing, yet when all combined, they make up something unique, and even addictive.

Ladakh has a way of overtaking you. It has obvious drawbacks, like the lack of running, hot water, heated/insulated buildings or western toilets, among the other mentioned characteristics, yet somehow that's what you love about it. That's the addiction. Rarely would you consume the individual ingredients of a Manhattan, but when they're shaken (not stirred) together, you learn to not only appreciate and enjoy it fully, but you learn to love every component.

For your information, I've never consumed Manhattan before, but all this talk of one has made me interested.

As a secondary note, not to get too side-tracked, 's apparently an episode of Sex in the City that mentions the cocktail. Episode 90, last scene. I've never seen it. I swear.

We now return to our regularly scheduled hockey blog...

Not even a week after leaving Ladakh, I was back on a plane heading to Leh. This time, my mission was even more focused: train the Indian ice hockey team and prepare them for the 2009 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

It was a bit surreal, stepping off the plane after that incredible descent, retracing all of my steps. The first time around, I was lost, confused, and naive. Now I was entirely prepared, comfortable, and a hell of a lot more knowledgable about Ladakhi culture (although by no means an expert). Getting through the airport was quick, although my luggage wasn't, and I was able to instruct my taxi driver where to take me, although the price was not to my liking. This time around, though, I wasn't staying at SECMOL. The experience was very unique there, but since it was a major diversion in the opposite direction of Leh. My training would be focused strictly in the immediate area around Leh, and if I had my way, at the rink within the town.

That was my first point of business. After I dropped off my bags at the guest house I had previously stayed (where Tashi Angchok lives), I walked the 2km back into the center of town and to the office of the Ladakh Winter Sports Club. With obvious awareness to the difference in situations, importance, and ego, I felt a bit like General MacArthur upon his return to the Philippines during WWII. I wanted to come to the rescue of hockey in Ladakh - and India as an extension - and I felt like a hero just by returning. But like all ego trips, that only lasted for about a day.

The following day, practice began at Karzu/Karzoo (you choose) ice rink, located somewhat in the center of Leh, if you could geographically figure such a thing out in a town with chaotic roads and scattered hills. The rink is on a pond that is submerged in comparison to the road that encircles it, with stone walls about 6-7 feet high surrounding the full rink. In a few spots, there are some major hazards, in particular, the stairway when entering the rink, which would be partially submerged under thin ice (I punched through at the bottom and had a freezing foot), and the corner of the rink where the running water would enter the pond. This constant stream of water collected and made it nearly impossible for that section of the pond to freeze, which then broke down the stability of the entire rink at time.

We agreed to start practice at approximately 8:00 am so that the ice would be as firm as possible, and we could get off in time for the children's clinic that was being run by my friend and resident of Ladakh, Henk, which began at 10:00 am.

Henk held this clinic for 15 days, donating his own time as a volunteer coach, teaching children between the ages of 5 and 15 (approximately). It was an extraordinary sight to see, all of these kids on the ice, day in, day out, and I'm positive his instruction was invaluable to everyone on the ice! I look forward to coaching some of these kids as well, as the Indian ice hockey program develops.

In terms of the India ice hockey team, we began day one a little late, with one of the military groups being delayed through no fault of their own. My policy for team practices was that any time players were late, they had to do "suicides", which would reinforce their determination to arrive on time, something that's not as common in Ladakhi (or Indian) culture.

For your reference, "suicide" is a skating drill that is fantastically exhausting. You start on the goal line, at one of the ends of the rink, and proceed to skate to the nearest blue line. Then stop, and skate back to the goal line and stop. You're not done. Now do this to the red line, in the center of the rink, then back to the goal line. Tired yet? Too bad. Skate to the far blue line and back this time. Do you need some water? You can't have any. Not until you proceed to skate to the opposite goal line, at the far end of the rink, and return to where you started. Ok, feel free to get some air now. Only problem is that you're skating at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet (3,300 meters), and the oxygen in the air is scarce.

When you live at low altitudes, you can't comprehend what that means, but I can assure you that when your lungs are gasping for every last bit of available air, you learn very quickly the seriousness and intensity of high altitude training.

The clincher to the "suicide" drill is that there was an additional caveat to what happened when I made them do the drill: I had to do it too.

I always hated the drill when I training as a teeneger. I think the term came about because half way through the drill, you start to consider suicide as a better option than skating. At some point, the brilliant idea came to me that I should punish myself when I punish them, being that I'm responsible for the team as their coach. Since Indians and Ladakhis have a (slightly) greater level of respect and reverance for the person in charge, especially since half of my team is from the military, I figured I would add extra motivation to prevent them from screwing up if they saw me suffer as well. Let me assure you, I suffered.

Even though I agreed that the players had a good reason for being late that first day, I still made them skate, and kept my word by skating with them. I thought I was going to die.

Five minutes later, when blood finally returned to my brain, we began with some of the basic drills that we had done prior to my first departure from Ladakh. They had not really improved.

Happy Adam quickly stepped aside, and made way for frustrated Adam. (I'll use 3rd person sparingly). After my first day working with the team the first time around, a group of player told me, "we're not basic". I placated them at the time and told them, "I o, but we need to start from scratch". Unfortunately, in regards to hockey skills and understanding, they were and are basic. I hoped that with the foundation I was providing, that they'd have improved at least mildly to this point in time, and have a greater understanding of the game, but I was proven wrong.

The team couldn't do the basics that we had worked on initially, 2-on-0, 2-on-1, etc. They were still unable to skate strong, pass accurately, or shoot to a spot on the net of their choosing, that is, if they were able to hit the net. For ten days, I watched them miss the net from 10 feet away. For ten days, they lined up improperly for faceoffs. For ten days, players would collide into each other in a drill that explicitly explained who went in front, who went behind. For ten days, shots would go out of the rink, and nobody bothered to get them (we only had 6-8 pucks to practice with!). For ten days, players shot at the net when the goalie wasn't looking, often hitting him in a tender spot. For ten days, players would screw up simple tasks for 45 minutes, even after it was explained to them in English and Ladakhi...TEN times! For ten days, I ended up yelling way more than I am comfortable doing.

That's not to say we didn't have fun and didn't improve, but I was dealing with a team that was not contributing the attention, effort and brain-power required to be a successful hockey team. I wasn't seeing the determination and character that a national hockey team should have. At the same time, what could I expect? These guys were in a tough position. For years, they had been playing a style of hockey unique to their corner of the world. They didn't know anything otherwise. Then the best players got selected to represent their country in an international competition. How would you feel? Proud, maybe even cocky? How about equally scared and insecure? Add in an international coach that is more talented than you (there's no other way to put it) and is obviously not happy with your progress, and you can include embarassment and shame to the list.

I tried to counter-act that with on-ice games, like skating, passing and shooting competitions (the losers did suicides, including myself...again), and humility on my part. The only reason I went back to Ladakh was to help them get better. They are the team. They are the ones representing their region and their country. I'm not even getting paid! My disappointement was an expression of what I felt they owed to each other and those they were playing for.

I wanted to borrowed Miracle from SECMOL so that I could not only familiarize the team with the incredible and inspiring story of the 1980 US Olympic team, but also show them the potential parallels if we could band together and prove everyone wrong. Also, this was the first opportunity for them to watch people play hockey. Even though it's a movie, it's possibly the best hockey movie in regards to the hcoeky skills on display (if not the best hockey movie overall...don't attack me for that!).

Speaking of SECMOL...whatever my frustration at the level of performance out of the team during the week and a half of practice, multiply that by another ten when it came to SECMOL. If you can recall from the first time around, the SECMOL players were passive in how they approached attending the 3-day clinic, and although it wasn't entirely their fault at that time, they showed early signs of not having the mental toughness and passion required to represent their country. This time around, things were no different.

My announced return came only 2-3 days before I arrived. I won't say that's an eternity, but it's certainly enough time for word to spread. I am confident that the Ladakh Winter Sports Club DID NOT reach out to the SECMOL players, and they kept up their rhetoric regarding the SECMOL players not reaching out to them. Other than that, how would they know I was coming back? I give them a pass on that one, but not to the LWSC. After day one of practice, there were some announcements on the local news regarding the team. At that point, SECMOL was assured practice was on, and I received a call that night. In my chat, I instructed the two players to be ready for the army bus at 7:00 am, to ensure they would all arrive on time, and was guaranteed that would be the case. The next morning, no SECMOL players.

Obviously, I was annoyed. These guys were hurting the chemistry of the team by not being there, and insulted the work that was being put into developing the program. I received a call 3/4 of the way through practice, in the middle of running a drill, notifying me that one player didn't come because he couldn't get out of SECMOL. He was responsible for teaching a class that day on campus, and didn't have enough time (from the previous evening) to reschedule it. If he really wanted to, he could have...I'm positive of that. In response to his last minute decision not to go, the other player decided he wasn't going either, as he would have to walk 3km (1.5 miles) to the road, at dawn, and await the arrival of the army bus. Since nobody communicated any of this to myself or the army players, they were left waiting for 20 minutes for players that never showed.

I called SECMOL a few hours later, and discussed the importance of showing up, to which the response was that since the players couldn't afford to pay to participate, they didn't have the motivation to play. I can understand the frustraion of having to pay to play for a tournament of this nature, but unfortunately the India hockey program is at its infancy, and there are no funds available. I explained that the players should still show up to show their support, but to also improve their own hockey skills. I also enquired into whether SECMOL could pay for the players to participate, as it seemed like a great way to give their students a chance to really move up in the world (I perceive a school as trying to help its students any way possible, but maybe that's my idealism coming out once again), as well as great recognition for SECMOL itself (they could put it on their website, touting that two SECMOL students are on the national team, and use that to solicit more donations, support and volunteer), and was quickly met with a curt, "we don't have any money!" I decided it was time to go to SECMOL and present my case.

I returned to SECMOL that evening with Tashi and his new group of fifteen VIS students, replacing the half-dozen or so that had been there a few weeks prior. I felt like the resident Ladakhi expert when I met these (mostly) high school kids. Earlier that day I had shared with them some of the good and bad of Ladakh, but knew that most of it wouldn't set in until a month or so into their stay. Fortunately, their trip started as Winter was winding down, and as the season changes, Leh opens up to the outside world. I was there for the Winter, and we already discussed those hardships.

When I arrived at SECMOL, I had a few points of business to take care of. Firstly, I needed to speak to the players to explain why their presence is so important. Secondly, I wanted to speak to one of the folks in charge, to explain why I felt SECMOL should support them. Third(ly?), I wanted to grab a few hockey movies that they had in their posession (like Miracle) so that I could show it to the team, and lastly, I wanted to get my skates sharpened by one of the departing VIS students that sharpens skates when he's in Vermont. All of those were accomplished.

As expected, the players showed up the next day with the army, and for a week or so, practices progressed, if at a tortoise's pace. I tried my hardest to improve the basics, while implementing the most beginner of strategy. Off the ice, we discussed the concepts and reasoning behind how you position yourself on the ice, and how to work together as a team. I showed them Miracle, which they were absolutely loving, but we had to stop the movie in the middle because the DVD player started to smoke...really. Two days we concluded the movie, and the guys were on the edge of their seats as USA defeated USSR and Finland.

I spoke with them at length regarding my frustraion with their lack of focus and mental discpline, and went into a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis. Needless to say, Strengths were not our prominent category, but we found a few, and agree to magnify those aspects of our game, and obviously improve the contrary.

I also drafted up a document entitled, "So you want to be a hockey player...", reviewing and outlining all of the things that only partially lay out the things one would have to do to support their hockey career, such as cutting out certain foods, alcohol and tobacco, doing relevant exercises (like yoga), and carrying themselves in a manner that honors the traditions of the game.

It was relative smooth sailing, although frustrating nonetheless, until we started to run into a few unfortunate events. Among the most significant was the weather. Every evening, the temperature would make it down below the freezing point, but during the day, it would rise a few degrees over. We kept our practices early to combat this, but the problem intensifies with time. At high altitude, the sun is much closer and stronger, and when the ice melts a little on day one, it accumulates a little bit every day (when the weather is consistent). This was the pattern for almost the entire duration, with the ice becoming worse every day.

Because of the weather conditions, the playing surface of the rink suffered. In many damaged areas, I used cones to detour to the team so that they wouldn't fall in. There were holes in some spots as well, which I surrounded with cones, although that didn't stop a handful of pucks from going into the pond through those tiny holes. At one point, when 2 players collided on the drill that should be collission-less, they both fell, lost the puck, and it went scurrying into one of the holes on the surface, like it had an instinctive desire to go swimming. I was more pissed about the puck than I was about the players colliding stupidly.

When the team stood in one spot, the ice would begin to crack, sounding like a whip. The prospect of falling into the cold, dirty pond, in chest high water (I assume), was not on the top of my to do list. If for anything, I was more freightened about the garbage than I was about getting out of the water or catching hypothermia.

It drama came to a climax near the end of my stay in Ladakh, when we were doing a skating/passing drill (something we still hadn't perfected). One of the SECMOL players fell, and was in obvious pain. I skated over to him, and his mouth was open and he was writhing on the ice like a snake. I knew immediately, this was a seizure. Players came over and held is body, stabilizing his head and taking off his skates. Some massaged his feet (to this day, I'm not really sure why, although I assume it was increase blood flow). His eyes went into the back of his head, and he was foaming from the mouth, until he lost consciousness.

As the team stood around, the ice began to crack, to which I shouted to clear the area, and call a doctor. Nobody did anything. I repeated my request/command, and just now do I recall that I may have told people to "call 911!", which would explain their lack of response, since 911 is not the emergency line in India. Eventually, a player pulled his car near the rink, and a group of players picked up their teammate and hoisted him over there head, 7 feet high, to get him over the wall surrounding the rink and into the car, and to the hospital.

An hour or so later later, we got confirmation that it was indeed a seizure, but that he was ok, albeit dazed and confused. Initially, my assumption was that he had caught a rut in the ice, fallen, hit his head, and gone into a seizure. What actually happened was that he went into a seizure while skating and fell, but didn't hit his head (or hit it lightly). They were keeping him for 72 hours for observation and more tests.

Because of this happening, and my concern for safety (a foreign concept in India - and China for that matter, but you'll have to request those stories from me another time), I ended practice early, and instructed the players to remove the nets (which were usually left on the rink 24/7), and shut down the rink for the day (if not for the season). I spoke to Henk, and suggested that they cancel their youth clinic for the day, and he agreed. Apparently, the LWSC didn't.

I voiced my concerns (forcefully at times, sarcastically at others) that it's not worth risking a serious injury for one of the kids, and was met with disregard. The parents had paid, so the feeling was that the kids should skate. I suggested that they return the money for one day. Even if all went well, it's not worth taking a chance, because if tragedy does strike, it would be catastrophic.

This became a pattern.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Almost there...!

I'm proud to announce that 3,000 words in, I'm almost done with my next post! It's currently 11:30pm where I am, and these past few days have been long and tiring. This massive post will go live within the next 12 hours or so, and it will be followed in quick succession with the continuation (and then some).

By the time Friday rolls around, I PROMISE you, all of these posts will be up to date.

No excuses.

Until then, good night!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Some additional technical issues...

The last time I had a techinical complaint, it was due to being in Ladakh, the bain of technology, as well as some hardware malfunctions.

The complaint has intensified slightly this time around, as my computer has completely failed me (the monitor on my laptop displays pure static, and I can't get rid of it), and my camera (photo/video) has also crashed.

As of right now, that leaves me computer-less and camera-less, both of which are essential to allow me to report to you all of the amazing things that have been going on with "The Hockey Volunteer" initiative.

Nonetheless, I'm in a beautiful hotel right now that allows me to write a bit more, but as you'll come to find out in about 2-3 posts from now, I don't have all the time in the world to be on the computer.

I assure you, there is a post well under way, and many more coming, and I'll find a way to get you more pictures and video.

Thanks for your understanding and patience.

P.S. If you know someone in UAE or India will to donate a camera or computer, please let me know!


Listen to my broadcast from  Saturday, 1/10 with the guys from Hockey Night on Long Island: 
Listen to Hockey Night on Long Island on internet talk radio

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!
Awesome quote from their website: "I’ll match your contributions up to a total of $200. Just leave a comment on this blog with what you have donated."
Thank you guys!
Special thanks to Sarah Elizabeth Foster of for doing this interview, supporting the cause, and donating! (NOTE: I mention in the video I'll be leaving by the New Year. My departure date is now set at 1/12/09!)