India’s Hockey Presence Continuing to Grow

Team India coach Adam Sherlip discusses hockey’s continuing development in India and reveals plans for more games in Canada as Team India prepares for an exhibition game against the ECHL’s Brampton Beast.

The Indian National Hockey Team may not be a mainstay on the international hockey scene, but the program, under the leadership of Brooklyn-native Adam Sherlip, has taken major strides forward over the last seven years.

The team made headlines in September with the announcement that they would play an exhibition game against the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, the first international exhibition in ECHL history.

Team India is flying in a 12-man roster that will be filled out through tryouts for their match against Brampton, which will be followed by a game against the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno, Sherlip revealed in an interview with The Hockey Writers on Friday. They also plan on putting together a final North American game in Vancouver later in the month before the team returns to India. Details on those games are forthcoming.

The games are fundraisers for hockey in India. “The Ice Hockey Association of India tapped out their bank account to fly to Canada,” Sherlip said, noting that the goal is to “leave [the Association] in a stronger position” after the trip, both financially and in terms of excitement for the sport at home.

Building Up the Game

Sherlip’s appointment as the long-time coach of Team India — starting just before the IIHF Asia Challenge Cup in 2009 — was unlikely.

He heard about outdoor hockey taking place in the Himalayas while coaching in China and working in amateur hockey development for the New York Islanders. As he says, he found out about hockey in the Himalayas “by accident.”

The idea of outdoor hockey in the mountains was so alluring that he planned a visit and decided to contact the Ice Hockey Association of India while he was in the area. The meeting led him to helping scout to build a national team. That process led to the Association to ask him to train and coach the team.

In conjunction, The Hockey Foundation, of which Sherlip is the founder, began working with kids in India and donating gear. To date the Hockey Foundation has donated over 4,000 pieces of equipment. That helps clear a major hurdle to hockey’s growth in India, where equipment is prohibitively expensive due to the need to import the equipment, among other financial limitations including exchange rates and the economic situation of prospective players.

Team India
Team India practices before their trip through Canada. Courtesy of The Ice Hockey Association of India.

Equipment isn’t the only hurdle for Sherlip and the Ice Hockey Association of India must face. Limited ice time and financial resources are chief among the concerns to building a robust program. India has few indoor rinks, with most hockey taking place outdoors in higher altitudes for a limited window of time every year.

Team India got in just five practices before heading to Brampton, all at an indoor rink at a mall in the outskirts of Delhi. “The last time most of these guys skated was when they were on the ice in Kuwait in April,” Sherlip said, referring to the 2015 IIHF Challenge Cup where Team India went 0-0-1-4, after taking Oman into overtime.

The team’s growth has been considerable. Coaches and players Team India has consistently played against over the years have noted “how dramatically India has improved over the years,” Sherlip said. “We’ve heard that now two, three years in a row.” Though, he adds, “you wouldn’t know it by the scoresheets.”

Canada Bound

The team could afford to bring over 12 players from Team India and will fill out their roster both in Brampton and Calgary through tryouts before the game. All players trying out have a strong connection to India, even if they wouldn’t technically be eligible to play internationally for the team under IIHF rules.

But that’s not a concern for Sherlip, who is less interested in fielding a powerhouse with passport-holding Indians who have grown up playing hockey abroad, and more interested in making sure that the team is built of homegrown talent to continue to build up the program to the point where they are truly competitive in tournaments like the Challenge Cup.

“[We have] received hundreds of messages from people saying ‘I want to play for Team India.’ The obvious answer is, yes we know that they are great compared to what we have, but we need to develop domestically because that’s the right thing for the program.”

The team has benefitted from the development that has taken place with the Association’s focus on young players. “We’ve definitely had to tell the old guys that we need to make room for the youth movement of India. We’re trying to push the age [of the team] down, not because of anything other than we want to see what some of these younger kids, who’ve had a little more training from us directly, can do.”

Part of that growth will, according to Sherlip, need to be an adjustment of expectations during the two month “season” of hockey which is “mostly reserved” to the Himalayas, where every weekend “is a local tournament,” with a focus on playing games, instead of practicing and internalizing international rules.

And that’s really where the team is at. “I’ve got to teach the penalties. I’ve got to teach the symbols for penalties. I’ve had to explain about line changes and too many men. That’s where we’re at with some of our players. Sometimes that’s forgetfulness, because it’s not second nature.”

Nonetheless, Team India hopes to be competitive when they take on Brampton, with Sherlip planning on mixing the roster to ensure that Team India players are mixed with players who join the team from tryouts.

“My biggest job is to make sure that the guys flying over from India leave motivated, optimistic. We’re teaching. It’s developmental. Even at the highest levels of hockey you’re always teaching. Everything is about teaching.”

In the end, the goal of the fundraising and awareness-raising is to leave the Ice Hockey Association of India stronger than it was at the start of the summer, because the interest in the game is increasingly rapidly. That sustainability will help move hockey in India to the next level.

“I’m fairly confident that if not right now, then by next year India will have its first women’s team participating in the Challenge Cup of Asia,” Sherlip said. “Part of that is having a sustainable program that has the funds to send the women abroad. Every year up until 2015, Indian players have had to pay their own way to represent their country.”

If the funding comes into place, expect Sherlip and the Ice Hockey Association of India to continue India’s growth on the international stage. The interest is there and you have to root for any team whose players grew up playing on outdoor rinks. “They love the game. They do. They love it so much.”

Team India holds tryouts on Saturday October 3 and will take on the ECHL’s Brampton Beast on October 9.