Taking a cue from Asia’s oldest British-era skating clay surface rink in this Himachal Pradesh hill town, authorities in the state’s remote Spiti Valley had a natural coating of full-sized thick ice for the first time in the newly developed open-air hockey rink with the stunning backdrop of the Himalayas, thanks to the freezing cold.
The locals, mostly youngsters, are eagerly awaiting not to miss an opportunity in getting their skates on the ice in the rink set up in Kaza town, some 350 km from here, that will be thrown open for the public by this week.
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“In Spiti, every child dreams of playing ice hockey. To hone their inherent talent, we have decided to develop a rink of 60 meters by 30-meter size by giving a natural coating of thick layers of ice,” District Youth Services and Sports Officer Jiwan Negi told IANS over the phone.
The rink lies at an altitude of 3,720 meters with temperatures plummet below minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter. Local authorities have engaged the Ice Hockey Association of India to promote the highest altitude game in the world. Negi said last year on an experimental basis a tennis court was converted into an ice hockey rink.
“Seeing the response of the youngsters towards ice hockey, we have decided to set up a permanent rink this winter,” he said.
“Last year the ice hockey session was organized till February 10. This time since the rink has been made professionally, we are hopeful the ice hockey season will last for roughly two-and-a-half months. In this period, winter camps and tournaments will be held,” he said. With dreams of playing in the Winter Olympics, local lads are excited.
“Since childhood, we have been enjoying sledding on frozen lakes and streams, quite popular among local youngsters. With the construction of this rink, we are really excited to learn ice hockey professionally with a brighter future,” Class XII student Sujata Negi said.
Barring proper skates and head and protective body gears, she said two of her friends were among the first batch of nine students who were shortlisted last year by the state government for an advanced course of ice hockey in Leh.
Added another student Darpan Negi: “We have been regularly coming to the rink. Now we are really excited to see the appearance of a thick sheet of ice. We hope to see fun-filled hockey sessions this time to compete with Ladakh.”
The sports officer said the players would be provided coaching from basic to intermediate and advanced level training. “Initially, we will keep a small batch of 25 students each in the age of eight to 15 and under 20 keeping in mind health protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” he said. He said the government is also trying to rope in the Women Ice Hockey Federation to spare two-three coaches for training this winter.
“The local students have been facing constraints such as lack of infrastructure and equipment, which is quite costly. The department is initially providing the basic equipment to hone their skill with the ambition of some to do with the sport as a professional,” he said. Authorities sprinkle water on the clay ground of the open-air rink which freezes under natural conditions at the night. If the sky is cloudy, the minimum temperature normally rises, resulting in the thawing of ice.
The congenial average minimum temperature for ice formation ranges from minus 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. Last year there were 106 participants age from eight to 15, all students, said organizers. Olympian Skalzang Dorje, an instructor with the Youth Services and Sports Department, said the entire Spiti Valley “is a magnet for winter games”.
“There is so much potential each youngster at an early age picks up a ski board and hits the snow-covered slopes. Every house has a ski blade — largely developed indigenously — depending upon the financial status of the family. This ‘art’ of making blades is being passed on from one generation to another,” said archer Dorje, who competed in the men’s individual and team events at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
The concept of the natural hockey rink evolves from the skating rink in Shimla that was developed by an Irish military official named Blessington who lived during the British Raj. He had inadvertently kept a bucket of water outside his residence and in the morning found it frozen. That gave him the idea of a skating rink and he created a small one of his own. (IANS)