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01-28-2010, 05:12 AM
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Toronto Star: Hockey Finds a Himalayan Shangri-la

I don't usually post in this forum but here's an article that was featured in the Toronto Star from a couple days ago that I just got around to reading (its been sitting on the floor of my res room since Monday):

LEH, INDIA–The first time Mushtaq Ahmed saw a hockey puck, he was 14 years old and wandering the ice-covered streets of this remote Himalayan city with his friends.

"We saw some guys playing on a frozen pond," recalled Ahmed. "Hockey looked so dangerous."

Fascinated, he immediately signed up for lessons.

Five years on, Ahmed has represented India in an international tournament – where he scored his country's lone goal – and attended a Los Angeles training camp sponsored by the NHL's Kings in 2007.

"I tell (cricket enthusiasts) hockey is much faster and exciting," he said, inspecting his stick for cracks before playing here in a Sunday morning game. "I don't understand how they can sit for 12 hours and watch a cricket match."

Ahmed's love for hockey is a credit to a few Canadians who have spent the past decade trying to breathe life into hockey programs in a region along India's northern border, best known for Buddhist monasteries and breathtaking peaks.

Efforts to bring in donated equipment from Canada have been frustrated by India's infamous bureaucracies. Leh's top coach decided not to come home from the Los Angeles training camp three years ago. And efforts to build a rink have been stymied by allegations of corruption and government ineptitude.

"They don't make it easy to help them," said Tony Kretzschmar, a Calgary native who has helped organize equipment donation drives in Canada to help outfit players in this city of 35,000.

Yet he and others involved say there has been progress. Illiteracy and unemployment in Jammu and Kashmir state are among the highest in India. So hockey is helping teens who might otherwise fall prey to evils such as glue sniffing.

Canada's ties to hockey in Leh go back a decade to when an immigration officer at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi was leery about a visa application.

"A guy wanted to go to Canada to buy some hockey equipment and the officer was like, `yeah, right,'" Kretzschmar recalled.

A year later, after confirming Indians in this Himalayan region do indeed play hockey, a group of diplomatic staff and their friends went to Leh to play in a tournament. They've been back every year since.

"It's been a blessing to have the Canadians come and help," said Abdul Hakim, a phys-ed teacher in Leh. "Our kids really like your game. You know how good it feels to score a goal?"

At a time when some Canadians involved in amateur hockey are taking the sport far too seriously, the Indian attitude is refreshing.

During a Sunday morning game against a group of Canadian expats, the overmatched Indian club were all smiles as they came off the ice.

"It's nice," said Shane Tuckey, an RCMP officer posted to the Canadian mission in New Delhi. "There's no chippiness or fighting."

A yellow banner sums up the local attitude: "Ice hockey is for those who are physically strong, mentally tough, but soft at heart."

Spectators lined the rink and a play-by-play broadcaster provided live analysis in Hindi. Women bundled in shawls handed out coffee.

"We've come pretty far pretty fast," said Akshay Kumar, general secretary with the Ice Hockey Association of India. "We're recognized as a sport now."

India, with only 700 registered hockey players out of a population of 1.1 billion, is still awaiting its first indoor rink with artificial ice.

Ahmed, the 19-year-old player, hopes hockey may help him land a good job.

"The army and border police are getting more interested in hockey and they like to hire officers who know how to play well," he said. "If I can play for the national team, it could lead to a government job later. Hockey is my future, I hope."

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