This Filmmaker's On A Mission To Save India’s National Ice Hockey Teams

This Filmmaker's On A Mission To Save India’s National Ice Hockey Teams
Word Press

Snow dusted stupas and empty streets, vacant of the usual stream of tourists, mean Leh’s winter is in full form and ice hockey season is on. At 3,500 metres high, Leh would be home to world’s highest ice hockey rink, if the playing surface was actually a rink. Instead a large, frozen pond features the figures of Leh’s many ice hockey players, all desperate to both enjoy the game and improve their skill in the brief two months the ice holds.

Year after year ice hockey has grown to be a more integral part of Ladaki life, it is a sport they deeply care about and are good at; the problem is you’d be hard pressed to find an Indian outside of Leh who knows this haven for ice hockey exists. Yet India’s nascent ice hockey culture is very real for the players who continuously sacrifice time and money just so they can play the sport they love. Leh’s frozen ponds are the facilities for India’s Men’s and Women’s National Hockey Teams, and filmmaker Mithun Bajaj wants these diehard hockey players to get a real rink.

Image source: Mithun Bajaj

Mithun was surprised to learn that India not only had ice hockey players, but a national ice hockey team, last year when he watched a short Al Jazeera feature on the nascent scene. However, he was disappointed that these players, so full of heart, barely received any support from the Indian Govt. in terms of facilities, infrastructure or funding. So what would any self-respecting filmmaker do?

He grabbed his camera and set out to tell the story of these remote hockey-heads, working hard to gain the respect and backing of our nation. The name of their story, Fighting On Ice.

Fighting On Ice -- Teaser

Mithun set off to Leh with only a camera assistant and has taken on filming, directing, coordinating, interviewing, editing and producing this much needed documentary. Over a year has passed since Mithun started this ambitious project to chronicle the journey of the India’s National Ice Hockey teams, with 70 % of the documentary finished, pending the shooting of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia Division I to be held 22-30 April in Kuwait City and plans to interview the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Minister.

In Mithun’s teaser of his documentary the 2016 Captain Tsewang Gyaltsen of the men’s ice hockey team has frustrated words for the minister, confused as to why ice hockey is a marginalised sport in India; especially since our nation as an unique opportunity to develop a grassroots program for a new sport, which would be a great forum to expand India’s world of sport and expose new talent. “To be quite honest I don’t remember any initiative through the government through which we got equipment, for our safety.” He continues, “The Indian government is only supporting cricket, and if I talk about J&K sport, Jammu and Kashmir as a state, I think as a state government they should help develop the sport...I’m very disappointed (in them), they should be supporting us.”

The lack of interest and funding surrounding ice hockey in India is one of the main reasons Mithun is determined to make his film and expand the image of India. You see, Mithun is a self-proclaimed fan of cricket and Bollywood, but is concerned that the popularity of these well-established entities is resulting in the neglect of upcoming sports and independent film, which in turn pigeonholes India’s priorities as a nation. The disparity is as clear as day. For example, Puma recently signed a 100 crore deal with Virat Kohli, whilst the entire National Ice hockey teams merely gets a few lakhs as a travel stipend and zero brand sponsorship. Puma is a great sports company and Virat is a great cricket player. That is taken for granted, but these poor hockey players are being taken for a ride. Everybody says they like cinderella stories, but if sports brands, ambassadors, figures as well as the government don’t get behind our nation’s athletes, how will they ever preserver?

“You know it’s not all Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar,” says Mithun. And just to be clear he is not bashing cricket or Bollywood, he’s just saying India needs to, “widen the gap between cricket and bollywood”. Moreover, he adds that ice hockey offers a different kind of competitiveness and dynamic compared to other sports played in India, and thus would offer sports fans an option that differs from the sometimes boring norm of Indian sport. When smaller South East Asian Countries, like Malaysia and the Philippines, are able to fund Ice Hockey teams and a very, large nation like India neglects funding, it looks bad and gives off a tainted image of the country. And it’s not like the money isn’t there. According to The Times Of India, the 2017-18 Sport Ministry budget is Rs. 1,943 crore, receiving a Rs. 350 crore hike from last year. The article goes on to explain, “A mere Rs. 50 lakh has been allocated for identifying and nurturing sports talent in the country”. Moreover, “No change has been made in the allocation for sports in the Jammu and Kashmir”.

Although we do not know the exact figure given to the national ice hockey teams, we do know it is a low figure, which is why most of the two national teams’ funding comes from crowdfunding, the players themselves and people like Harjinder Singh, General Secretary of Ice Hockey Association of India. As stated in a well-written article by The Logical Indian, Harjinder Singh “had essentially been self-funding the team’s efforts thus far and had even dug into his personal savings for the sake of growth of this sport in our country”.

In Mithun’s opinion one of the most uplifting points in this documentary was when The Logical Indian and the Ice Hockey Association of India teamed up on social media, managing to raise 32 lakh in just 9 days. According to The Logical Indian this impressive funding round was used as a stipend to cover the training expenses, accommodation, airfares, visas, team jerseys, and equipment for the Women’s National Ice Hockey Team during their trips to Kyrgyzstan and Thailand.

A quick training session in Kyrgyzstan on an international-sized artificial ice hockey rink, instead of a frozen pond, did wonders for the Women’s Team. They immediately build up their confidence on the slick surface allowing them to walk away with two international wins in Thailand, against Malaysia and Philippines. We hope the Men’s Team will be given a similar chance do some quick training on an international-sized, artificial ice hockey rink before their International tournament in Kuwait. That being said, it is rather despicable our national teams have no proper ice rink to practice on. It’s not like we are Jamaica in the largely fictional Olympic bobsled movie Cool Runnings. India can afford to give its players a better facility than a frozen pond, and allow these determned atheletes the oppurtunity to practice year-round.

Image source: Mithun Bajaj

Mithun is excited to film the men’s tournament in April, and although he hopes they prove themselves on the rink, he believes their first real win will be adequate funding. They have won internationally before, however as previous coaches have commented that the squad often loses composure when competing internationally. Mithun believes financial backing worthy of a national team will give them the confidence and support they need to play a composed game as they will be free to solely concentrate on the game at hand, instead of fixating on the consequences a loss could have on Indian Ice Hockey. Once again, a real ice hockey rink would help.

Image source: The Logical Indian

Imagine if Virat Kohli had to worry about getting kicked off the team every single time he batted; if he had to worry about how much of his own money he had to put into the team while supporting his own family; if he had to worry about his team not existing the next year? Maybe he could, after all he is the man, but it wouldn’t be good for him and that’s not how sportspersons representing the nation should be treated.

“Every Indian has to understand India didn’t start winning at in the start. Sachin and Virat didn’t begin their career scoring a century every match. If we don’t invest in other sports for the next 50 years we’ll only be known for one sport, which is good, at least we dominate in one sport, but it would be better if we expanded our sports funding and mindset,” explains Mithun.

Soon Mithun will be wrapping up his documentary, which is still in need of funding, and start to send out the documentary to various film festivals. Although the film will probably get more traction in film circles abroad, Mithun made this documentary for Indians to see, and he hopes he finds a way to maximise domestic viewership of the film — “My objective is to get behind the sport, whether it’s the Indian public or private sector...the main thing is, I want Indians to see this documentary, to expose them to a new sport in the country.”

If our National Ice Hockey Teams can win internationally with the pitiful amount of funding allotted to them now, imagine if we actually got behind our Nation Ice Hockey Teams with the support our Nation’s athletes deserve. If you’d like to help Mithun spread the word and support our National Hockey Teams please reach out to him via email,