By Sonny Sachdeva, October 6 2015 —
Think of ice hockey’s top competitive nations and a few names probably come to mind — Canada, Russia, the United States.
One name likely not included on that list is India, but the country’s national ice hockey association is looking to change that.
Ice hockey has been on the rise in India. While almost all of the country’s participants are located near the Himalayas in the far north, the sport has slowly been creeping south as national support grows.
A recent fundraising campaign for the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) saw the country garner enough sponsorship attention to allow them to compete in the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia, Division I in April.
The IHAI will take the next step this month when Team India comes to Canada on Oct. 9 to play an exhibition game against the ECHL’s Brampton Beast — an affiliate of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.
Due to the costs of bringing the players to Canada, along with accompanying costs related to equipment, food and accomodations,
only 10–12 players from India’s national team will participate in the game. The rest of the roster will be comprised of players from the Greater Toronto Area who are of Indian descent.
It’s a significant sign of progress for Indian ice hockey. The country clearly faces an uphill battle due to their climate — which makes it difficult to house ice rinks anywhere outside of the very northern
section of the country — and the fact that cricket reigns as the supreme sport of choice for most of India’s population.
That said, the IHAI have still made great strides in terms of gaining international attention and slowly raising the profile of their national program. The eventual goal is to inspire more local athletes to turn their sights to the ice rather than the country’s plethora of summer sports.
One of the biggest hurdles for the country so far has been building proper ice rink facilities that will allow new participants to pick up the sport. There are currently 10 indoor ice rinks in all of India, compared to, for example, 2,631 in Canada.
Bolstered support and national attention should allow the IHAI to expand their indoor facilities, and while there may not be an overwhelming number of ice hockey players in the country at the moment, there is a group that boasts legitimate untapped potential — roller hockey players.
India has a prominent roller hockey presence — Delhi alone boasts over 200 roller hockey players and around 50 inline hockey players. The nation even has an annual roller hockey tournament dubbed the Indian Roller Hockey National Championship, which includes 12 teams from around the country.
While the transition from roller hockey to ice hockey would still be a difficult one, there is certainly some notable crossover between each sport’s skillset.
Also key is India’s presence on the international field hockey scene. India leads all countries in field hockey gold medals at the Summer Olympics, having won eight golds dating back to 1928. With field hockey firmly entrenched as one of the country’s top sports, there is a clear opportunity to entice many of these athletes to make the switch from turf to ice as well.
A crucial step in this transition will come on Oct. 9 when the Indian national ice hockey team debuts in Canada — the globe’s undisputed leader in the sport.