ABU DHABI // The Indian team are charting new waters. They arrived in the capital city to take part in their first international competition and to play away from their natural environment in Ladakh, a mountainous region in Jammu and Kashmir, for the first time.
The team have had only two weeks training under the American instructor Adam Sharlin at the New Delhi Ice Rink, which is half the size of the Abu Dhabi Ice Rink at the Zayed Sports City, the venue for the Challenge Cup of Asia which starts today. "It is a whole new experience for all of us," said the team manager Gyal Wangyal, who counts over two decades as a player and administrator. "We don't know how good we are because we have never played at such a high level. We are lucky to be here and be part of the championship. We hope this outing gives a new lease of life for the sport back home."
According to Wangyal, the sport has been played in India from the early 1970s as a pastime for the youth in the area but the organised tournaments only started after the Ladakh Winter Sports Club was established in 1994. "The youth at that time used old skates or shoes fixed with the ice blades and used field hockey sticks to play during the winter. The game was very popular and drew a lot of onlookers. As the interest kept growing, the club was established and now we have regular tournaments."
"We didn't have any modern equipment to play at higher levels but things are beginning to change. We have a governing body for the sport in place and a new ice rink is being constructed in Dehradun, about 100 kilometres away from New Delhi." Recalling the roots of the game, Wangyal said: "The Canadian embassy visited Ladakh for a game in 2000. Then the club flew down coaches from New Zealand and the US, and we sent a few players for ice skating to Finland, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the US.
"The NHL Players Association of Canada donated 50 sets of ice hockey equipment and the LA Junior Ski Club provided a large quantity of used equipment. And now we are in Abu Dhabi for our first-ever international competition." India face Thailand in today's opening Group A match at 11.30am, followed by the Hong Kong-Singapore game in Group B, Malaysia versus Mongolia and the UAE's fixture with Macau.
The UAE player Mohammed Arif felt his team were well-prepared and have a realistic chance to win the championship. He said: "We have been preparing for this event for the last one-and-a-half months and have played a series of games with some strong opponents outside the country. Even before, we have never been out of the finals in whatever competitions we have taken part." Arif expects Hong Kong and Thailand to be the strongest of the seven opponents. "But it's hard to say before the start of a competition. We are playing Macau in the opener and we would like to start on a winning note."
Singapore have retained the side who played in the inaugural championship last year. And Calin Eng commented: "We are a young squad with many players having played together for the past two years. We only beat Macau last year and are looking forward for a better result." firstname.lastname@example.org