With the support and participation of a group of girls from Ladakh, hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser is on a mission to train these budding players in ice hockey and promote women empowerment through the sport.
The sport of ice hockey is hardly heard of or witnessed in India. But this year, one woman will put a spotlight on it. With the support and participation of a group of girls from Ladakh, a small rural village in northern India, hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser, is on a mission to train these budding players in ice hockey and promote women empowerment through the sport. Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympic medalist and seven-time World Championship medalist, made history in 2003 when she became the first female hockey player to notch a point in a men’s professional game with the Kirkkonummen Salamat of the Finnish second division. Through her project in Ladakh, India2YYC Initiative
, Wickenheiser plans to achieve two main goals: One, to bring young women players to Canada to learn the game from the best-of-the-best in the world at Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival (WickFest) in November 2018; and two, to send coaches and equipment to Ladakh to help these women continue to grow the game in their community and mentor the next generation.
It all started when Wickenheiser saw an online video of young girls in Ladakh playing ice hockey. The story goes like this: Noor Jahan, a young woman in Ladakh had a cousin who had learned to play hockey. During his visit to Ladakh, Noor saw him skate and she was intrigued. She convinced her cousin to leave behind a pair of his hand-me-down skates. Against her parent’s wishes, who felt she should be in the home taking care of her family and studying for school, Noor found herself drawn to the sport and pursued it on her own.
Noor fought through the laughter and mocking of her peers, particularly the young men and boys, in her community and took to the ice over and over again. Soon, other young girls around her took notice and began to join Noor for those early mornings. They began a routine of creating and maintaining a rink in their mountain village. They taught each other not just to skate but to play the game of hockey. They took hand-me-down equipment from brothers and cousins who were in the cities playing, but most off all – they persevered. They broke down barrier after barrier.
Few years later, Wickenheiser stumbles upon a video about these young women. She, along with many other motivated individuals from Western Canada, is inspired and connected to the story – resulting in the formation of India2YYC Initiative.
After months of planning and preparation, on January 11, a group of 13 individuals including Wickenheiser and retired NHLer Andrew Ference, corporate representatives and Non-Governmental Agencies (NGO) left for India to officially activate the India2YYC project through the delivery of equipment and both on and off-ice skills clinics.
The visit will prepare the women of Ladakh for their trip to Canada for WickFest and will further the vision of the participants to activate conversation and empowerment through sport. “I want to show them what Canadian hockey has to offer, and show them that our worlds are not much different; that we have similar struggles, just different cultures. I want to inspire them as well as people in India and Canada to do more for women and girls of the world,” asserts Wickenheiser, who retired from hockey in January 2017.
Shedding more light on the initiative, former professional ice hockey defenceman, Andrew Ference, says the team wants to help support hockey in India and the region of Ladakh by coaching the men, women and kids with some of the skills they have learned. “They are so incredible in their dedication to play hockey and I feel that we can provide them with some structure and valuable experiences to make them enjoy the sport even more.”
For Ference, being part of this initiative was an easy decision. “I had travelled to India with my family the year before and absolutely loved it. After seeing the Indian girl’s hockey team fundraising video, I was very excited to be able to combine my love for hockey with a return trip to an amazing country for a great cause,” shares the former captain of Edmonton Oilers.
Currently, Ference is enjoying his time with the players on the ice and teaching them skating skills in Ladakh. “I also want to show them how much fun we have with the game even at the professional level. I play music on the ice, do fun drills that make skating look like dancing and so on... we have a really fun time while learning,” adds the Stanley Cup champion, who highly respects the effort these young girls have taken to play the sport. “I think it is powerful for them to see how much I respect them and their love of our sport. They have fought so hard for respect within their community and I think they appreciate seeing our genuine admiration for them.” The hardest part, however, for him is trying to catch his breath up in the Himalayas! “This region is absolutely beautiful but has no oxygen!”
To bring the India2YYC Initiative to fruition, a massive amount of preparation was done in a short time. “We have held two fundraisers in Calgary already and had to mobilize 70 hockey bags, a film crew, visas, and all travel within a six-week period,” shares Wickenheiser, while expressing her gratitude towards some amazing people who believed in the project and supported it. Organizations such as the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players’ Association) donated new equipment for the players, including sledge hockey equipment. Corporations such as McDonald’s stepped in to help fund the trip, and Canadian Tire helped with the apparel.
Wickenheiser’s project has also received support from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the City of Surrey, as well as other organizations and individuals. “The Canadian High Commissioner to India Nadir Patel has also been a strong advocate of the project and has made it clear that if India wants continued support from Canada, people must work together and support Indian Ice Hockey Federation in order to grow the game to the highest levels,” adds the celebrated elite athlete.
The response at Ladakh has been tremendous; many young women are now training and learning the sport under the guidance of Wickenheiser and other experts. “The girls and women have been amazingly receptive to our presence,” expresses Wickenheiser, “We have NHL and pro players telling the girls how important and good they are every day. We are hoping they will gain confidence to be strong to fight for their place in the game and what they want from it. That is the greatest gift we can leave with them and empower them with.” Ference credits Wickenheiser for the positive response this initiative has received from young girls. “Hayley is a fantastic ambassador for women’s hockey and is a hero to these girls. She has been fantastic to them on the ice but also off of it in some meetings,” he states.
Through ice hockey, young girls and kids are not only learning the intricacies of the sport but are also acquiring effective skills that can empower and help them in their journey into adulthood. While on the topic of empowerment, Ference points out that sports can teach many incredible lessons in life. “Perseverance, team work, confidence and leadership being among them,” he mentions, “It doesn’t have to be hockey but I think the sport does have a great culture of all of these things.”
Despite the positive outcome, like any project, there are challenges. The challenge of setting up the foundation of ice hockey in a new, unexposed region; the challenge of encouraging parents and girls to participate in the sport; and the challenge of revising societal norms such as the one that declares women have no place in sports. Wickenheiser agrees stating that there “is lots of politics about hockey in Ladakh and many groups have fought over where the funds go, but on this trip we have been able to broker some good relations.” Additionally though hockey is the national sport of India, it is not widely promoted as cricket which is a favourtie sport among most Indians. Wickenheiser is aware of the popularity and support cricket enjoys and has witnessed its influence first hand. “Cricket is popular and Sachin [Tendulkar] is a semi god,” she quips, “I actually watched a field hockey game with Sachin in Rio and saw how popular he was with the Indian population. Ice hockey is nowhere near that but in this region of India it’s very popular and we can help them.”
Based on her experience so far, the sport has been a positive influence on the kids and youth in Ladakh. “Children do not go to school in the winter here and so giving them the game of hockey keeps them out of trouble and brings joy in their lives. Our goal is a sustainable legacy. I believe strongly that hockey can change and improve lives and that is what we are hoping to do with this project,” emphasizes the best female hockey player in the world.
In November this year, these girls will be exposed to the powerful and electrifying sport of ice hockey at WickFest in Calgary. Started by Wickenheiser, the festival is a worldwide hockey celebration of the game and the young women who play it. It’s a hockey tournament and personal development weekend for girls aged 8-18. About 2,500 girls take part in Calgary each year. “When we bring the girls to WickFest, we want to not only show them how far the game has come but also how many opportunities they have in the game,” says the festival founder, revealing that WickFest will be coming to the West next year.
Now that India2YYC Initiative is in full swing, Wickenheiser hopes news about this project spreads far and wide and brings in more support and promotion. On April 20, a fundraiser gala will be organized in Surrey to raise money for these girls and for Indian ice hockey as a sport to grow. “We have also set up a fund page on www.india2yyc.com and are hoping we can gather support of the South Asian community in Canada to help our girls,” says Wickenheiser who aspires to help India build a sustainable ice hockey program so that girls get more chances to play the game and shine a light on their stories.
“Hockey is a sport that is not only really fun to play but when you play it, you become part of the family no matter where in the world you play. Hockey players don’t care what colour you are, what religion you practice or anything like that. We just care that you love and respect the sport and are a good teammate,” says Ference giving out a message to upcoming women hockey players. Wickenheiser’s message is that “the sky is the limit. It takes courage and toughness to fight for what you want but the opportunities are there. So go for it, be brave, stand tall and take care of each other. We believe in you!”
Photos: Dave Holland, Courtesy India2YYC, Andrew ference - Twitter