The Colgate Scene
May 2006

Hockey diplomacy
From Colgate Raiders to Sacred Bulls: News from India

High in the Himalayas, the hardy locals of Ladakh, India, have developed a passion for ice hockey as a means of whiling away the brutal winters. In February, former Raider Paul Kelley '04 traveled there with a team of India-based Canadian pucksters for an unusual cross-cultural exchange. [Enlarge] [Photos courtesy of Paul Kelley]

Bouncing along in a frigid old bus, the rough ride intensifying my lack-of-oxygen-induced headache, I am captivated by the narrow valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains that we are traveling through. Still, my thoughts return to my frozen feet and I wonder how I will be able to put on skates, let alone play, in such conditions.

I am in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and the largest city of this high Himalayan mountain region, in the northernmost part of India. It is the middle of January, a time when few foreigners are brave enough to take on the cold for a visit. I am here as a member of the New Delhi Sacred Bulls, a hockey team made up of India-based Canadian diplomats and businesspeople. We are all excited to be playing one of the last sports anyone would ever expect in India: ice hockey.

This trip marks the sixth consecutive year that the Sacred Bulls have assembled to play in friendly hockey matches in Ladakh. The majority of this year's New Delhi team, including me, are rookies. The team is selected primarily by virtue of desire to participate, although playing experience is encouraged. We have no idea what to expect, but are looking forward to taking part in what the team captain has called "hockey diplomacy."

In a kind of circular symmetry, hockey brought me to Ladakh, just as it brought me to Colgate. And it is because of Colgate that I came to study in India. While on the Freiburg Study Group, led by Colgate Professor Claire Baldwin, I learned about the Albert Ludwigs University two-year interdisciplinary master of arts in global studies, a program that gives students the opportunity to live and study in Germany, South Africa, and India. It was also at Colgate that I developed the desire to take part in such a globally focused program, and acquired the skills to succeed.

Having realized that I would be spending the hockey season in South Africa and India, I had been resigned to the fact that for the first time in 20 years my winter would not involve the game I love. However, good fortune in the shape of Ladakhi ice hockey intervened. In Ladakh, hockey is played exclusively outdoors on frozen lakes and ponds. For the most part, the local players have become masters of bumpy ice, freezing temperatures, and perhaps most noticeably for us outsiders, the major lack of oxygen due to the altitude. Leh is 11,500 feet above sea level.

Although ice hockey has been played in Ladakh for almost 30 years, it was only with the arrival of the Sacred Bulls six years ago that its popularity began to take off. Earlier, equipment had been in short supply. Thanks to the efforts of Sacred Bulls players and Canadian filmmakers Pat and Baiba Morrow, who made a short film about the 2004 tournament and screened it throughout Canada -- including at the Banff Mountain Film Festival -- donors were found for new and used equipment. Perhaps the largest supporter is the NHL Players Association, which has donated 50 full sets of equipment.

During our five-day stay in Ladakh, we are treated as hockey royalty. The Ladakhis are eager to learn more skills, strategies, and nuances of hockey from us. Their eagerness to play also means that rather than playing complete games against one team, we rotate opponents every period, to allow everyone the chance to face off against the Canadian team. Our struggle with the altitude is therefore compounded by the fact that not only are the Ladakhis acclimatized, but they put on a fresh team every period! Still we do our best to oblige, coaxing burning lungs and spent legs to keep going, even after the score is out of reach for the host teams.


[Enlarge]

After the games, we run a practice for younger players. Playing and coaching become the unexpected culmination of the long hours of training at Colgate with coaches Don Vaughn, Stan Moore, and Andrew Dickson. Teaching passing techniques to three young girls, I am amazed how quickly they pick up the new skills. The young players are eager to learn more about hockey -- their interest and enthusiasm is palpable. They listen attentively to our explanations (we converse in English), some of which they do not fully understand, and are keenly absorbed while watching us demonstrate different skills. Receiving an ovation after an agility and puck handling drill I had repeated hundreds of times in early morning "specials" at Starr Rink, I really begin to feel I am bringing Colgate hockey to Ladakh.

It is striking how harsh winter in Ladakh is, and how tough the people who live here are. Temperatures drop as low as -17 F during our stay. We regularly wake up to find the water in the toilet frozen solid. In Leh, unheated shops and outdoor vendors carry on with what appears to be business as usual. The same attitude exists at the ice rink, where many players prefer to play without gloves, and fans stand in the snow for hours watching.

The Ladakhis tell us the purpose of hockey is to fight off the boredom of long harsh winters. I believe it works. Playing here, I am able to forget the cold and become totally caught up in the game and in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. Although we come from opposite sides of the world and from drastically different cultures, we find a common icy ground in hockey. And even if the skating and stick-handling skills of the Ladakhi players are still developing, their spirit and enthusiasm for the game of hockey is truly second to none.

Kelley was a sociology and anthropology major, three-time ECAC academic honor roll member, and recipient of the Terry Slater Award at Colgate. After playing one year of professional hockey in France, he is spending a semester in New Delhi, India, as part of the Global Studies Program at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany. He has also been accepted for a summer 2006 internship at the United Nations Secretariat in New York City.
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