India's 1st women's hockey team enjoys smooth skating in Alberta
Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser brought players from frozen Himalayan ponds to slick indoor rinks
Women hockey players from India say they're skating better than ever now that they're on Alberta ice.
India's top female hockey players learned the game against the odds, on frozen Himalayan ponds and in second-hand gear nabbed from brothers.
Now their hard work has brought them to Canada and its slick indoor rinks, under the guidance of one of the world's top female hockey players, Hayley Wickenheiser.
They're in Alberta this week for the Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival in Calgary and exhibition games in Airdrie.
"The ice is quite rough back home. It's quite hard to play. But when you compare it with the indoor rinks here, it's like, you know, the difference is huge," goalie Noor Jahan told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.
Jahan remembers coaches trying to teach moves and the team struggling to learn them. Now they're performing those without issue on indoor rinks in Alberta.
"We were not so dumb. We can actually do those things," Jahan said. "It was just the surface of the ice that was … just making it difficult."
India has had a national men's team since 1989 but women first represented India internationally in hockey in 2016. Jahan was dubbed the top goaltender in that competition.
Jahan, who is from the rural northern region of Ladakh, started playing because her cousin was on the national team, winning medals, trophies and praise from her family. She borrowed his old skates, which were too big for her.
That's how team defensive player Diskit Angmo learned, too. Her brother played for the national team.
"We used to steal the gear from our brother," she said. "It was too large for us, but then still we used to wear it and manage."
Other women were encouraged to start playing, too. The group even built their own rink by flooding and brushing a frozen pond. In their part of the Himalayan mountains — 3,657 metres above sea level — the temperature can drop to –30 C.
They looked up to the men, who at the time were the only examples they knew of athletes in the sport.
"We didn't know that women do play hockey," Angmo said.
After searching online, she found out women play, and at high levels, around the world.
Their own story reached the ears of Wickenheiser, a four-time hockey Olympian, who is an advocate for women in sport and now assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Watch India's female hockey players in their picturesque mountain rink on Hayley Wickenheiser's visit:
Wickenheiser visited the team at its home rink in India in January. The world-class athlete said the air was so thin, she was breathless about 20 seconds into her first scrimmage.
With former Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference and others, Wickenheiser brought new hockey gear and taught hockey skills to the young women players.
After the full-contact games against the spectacular backdrop, they invited the team to Wickenheiser's hockey festival, nicknamed WickFest.
For nearly a decade now, more than 2,000 players compete over eight days in November and take part in clinics run by high-profile coaches and experts.
Bringing the team from India took a lot of fundraising, but that paid off this month. The money will also go toward building outdoor rinks and finishing the only indoor facility in the team's home region.
While in Canada, the team also played in Vancouver — and met Wayne Gretzky.
Both players are optimistic for the team's future. They expect the team to face the biggest test of their sport, the Olympics. Jahan said she's looking to the younger women playing hockey to make that happen.
"It's too big of a dream for me, personally. I hate to say that because I've, like, I started playing quite late," the 28-year-old said. "I definitely see them coming to Olympic sports, and I see myself sitting on the bench, like cheering them up."
Jahan and other members of the hockey team now teach girls in India to skate and play hockey.
While the team is in Alberta, the women will try out the ice at a variety of rinks, including at WinSport and at the Siksika Deerfoot Sportsplex for a scrimmage.
They also have a bit of shopping scheduled for some new hockey gear.
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With files from Danielle Nerman and the Calgary Eyeopener.