Recently, NHLOA Alumni Referee Mike Leggo came out of retirement for a special game. With the help of the nonprofit organization “The Hockey Foundation”, Mike found himself blowing his whistle at over 14,300 feet in altitude establishing a new World Record.
Unlacing my skates after a Monday night pick-up game I hear “…hey Ryan says he is going to play hockey in India and they need a referee” and so began my journey to India and the Himalayas with the Hockey Foundation to establish a Guinness Book of World Record highest altitude hockey game.
The Hockey Foundation is a nonprofit organization that promotes the grass roots growth of hockey around the world. It’s dedicated volunteer staff is an impressive, eclectic group of hockey loving individuals who have found a united cause and with their collective energy have achieved amazing results. They have been traveling to the Ladakh area of India for nine years and helped coach and establish the Indian national team and the foundation for participation in IHHF sponsored tournaments. Many ex pats and diplomats in Asia from Canada and the US have traveled to Leh to play hockey in various tournaments over the years. The altitude of Leh is 12,000 feet and the world record attempt would be over 14,300 feet. The Foundation had to find a flat natural surface where they could install boards, make ice, paint lines and face off circles while gathering timers, referees, off ice officials and everything else required to put on an official game. The remote village of Tangste about a three-hour ride from Leh would provide the accommodations and a lake near the tiny village of Chibra Kargyam would provide the ice surface. But first we needed to get acclimatized to the elevation touring and running hockey and officiating clinics in Leh.
The Ladakh area and the city of Leh is in a tough neighborhood in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state is bordered by China (Tibet), Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is relatively isolated and home to a thriving domestic and international tourism and trekking industry, only accessible by air in the winter months and to my untrained anthropologist eye it appeared the Ladakh people were more culturally and physically inclined to be like their Tibetan and Asian neighbors than those on the Indian subcontinent. There is a strong Buddhist presence in Leh and an active Tibetan refugee community, all contributing to the laid-back atmosphere with the residents and merchant’s familiar with western tourists. Colorful Buddhist prayer flags adorn the highest points on the cliffs and above the streets and alleys of Leh. Buddhism is prevalent in Leh and one of the surfaces we played on had a large picture of the Dali Lama posted on a tree behind one end of the rink, which was reminiscent of the iconic portrait of Queen Elizabeth overlooking the ice at the old Winnipeg Arena.
(Picture:Dali Lama watching over the ice in Leh, India)
Like many high-altitude rookies, my athletic arrogance questioned if it could be that difficult walking or climbing at altitude. The answer is a definitive yes, it even makes a makes a difference climbing a flight of stairs. The first two days I just felt “off” others fared worse. I felt well enough for a short walk around dusk on the first evening but found myself a little disoriented and after an uphill walk, the wandering cows, dogs and donkeys hanging about helped convinced me to return to the hotel. The animals have free reign in the area and although it was initially disconcerting, if you ignore them they ignore you.
The first few days players and teams were filtering in from Germany, Austria, Japan, India, Singapore, Slovakia, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, the US, Canada and more. The diverse group was the best of a group of adventurous hockey nomads who travel to tournaments around the world playing hockey in exotic and fun places. It was an honor to meet and spend time with so many extraordinary “ordinary” people.
The strategic importance of the Ladakh area means there is a comprehensive military presence and the military actively participates in hockey. There are several hockey clubs in Leh including the Indian Tibet Border Police (ITBP), the Indian Army, Ladakh Winter Sports Club and the Ladok Winter Sports Club.
The ITBP team’s “home ice” is a frozen creek next to the Indus river. The picture-perfect setting has towering Himalayan glaciers as the backdrop as the water roars by capturing stray pucks. I accompanied coaches from the Hockey Foundation to the Border Police team practice helping run drills and having fun interacting with the players, we formed a hockey bond immediately which was cemented with a hot cup of tea after practice while standing next to the iconic Indus river, I knew then the hockey portion of trip was going be as special as the adventure part.
No ice surfaces in Leh have boards but instead rely on 2” x 8” lumber to keep the pucks in play, if the puck is shot higher than eight inches it goes out of play. This limits strategy for players but is great for officials as they can just step over the boards to get out of the way. The lack of boards was an impetus for the World Record game as it required an ice surface with boards. The Hockey Foundation was able to secure some boards from Austria and have them shipped up to the site for the game and then back to Leh marking the first regulation ice surface in India complete with boards, an important step forward for hockey in India.
The following day the ITBP team scrimmaged against Team Geronimo from Germany and Austria. I refereed the game calling offsides and penalties which became penalty shots to keep the game flowing, the players loved the idea. Before the game the Border Police players asked many questions about rules, the goal crease area, interference in front of the net, slashing and more. Recognizing their eagerness when I called a penalty during the scrimmage, I demonstrated why it was a penalty and what would be an acceptable alternative, all players on both teams seemed to enjoy the mini-clinic and my first foray into officiating in India began.
Like North America everyone in India seems to have a cell phone so after the practice while enjoying a nice hot tea we had the coach download USA Hockey coaching and officiating apps. It was the first of many surreal moments, sitting on a driftwood log, next to a frozen creek hard by the Indus river in the Himalayas talking hockey. The Indian Tibet Border Police Team and the Indian Army Team compromise most of their national team. They play with purpose, have a developing sense of organization and are feverish skaters who play with passion and purpose. They have an excellent work and tried to learn and get better. It was inspiring, I knew I had come to the right place for the right reason.
We played hockey in the morning before the sun softened up the ice and played tourist in the afternoon. We visited monasteries and former palaces perched precariously on the cliffs, they were carved into the hillsides to deter centuries of intruders and conquerors. We climbed steps chiseled into the mountain or shuffled our way up rocky paths to reach the various Buddha statues, monasteries and palaces. Colorful prayer flags dotted the hillsides. Every stop was inspiring and humbling and had their own spiritual significance and view of the surrounding peaks. The markets were bustling, chaotic and charming, offering everything from tourist trinkets and clothing to medication and everything in between, just wandering around the markets was an event itself.
(Picture:Reflecting at a monastery overlooking Leh, India)
One afternoon I stumbled upon a Buddhist temple and service in progress, the crowd gathered outside the temple listening to the rhythmic chanting over the loudspeakers as a few cows and dogs lingered among them. I sat quietly among the worshippers unsure of protocol trying to respect their silence as children played on the steps of the temple. Some spun prayer wheels with beads and others squatted silently in meditation. Once the service ended, a few monks exited the temple as the crowds gathered around to touch them or share a few words. I found a discreet spot and watched the process play out as the monks climbed the small hill I was standing on to a waiting Jeep where they exited the temple area. As the Jeep carrying the monks passed by me one reached inside his robe pulled out a cellphone and made a call – technology and ancient traditions meet. In Buddhist temples and for statues and prayer wheels, it is customary to walk around three times clockwise representing speech, body and mind. Ladakh is replete with historic monasteries and Buddha monuments including the summer residence of the Dali Lama. Hank, a gentle, interesting man originally from Holland, now an Indian citizen became our informal tour guide and resource point helping us understand the traditions thru the eyes of a “local”.
In the evening, we had a chance to gather at the hotel and chat about our collective adventures including the status of hockey around the globe. It was eye opening to learn about hockey everywhere. The amazing group of hockey adventurers had played or ran clinics in Australia, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, India, Japan, North Korea, Turkey, China, Russia, South Africa, the Canadian Arctic and the inner city of New York.
We operated an officiating clinic during our stay in Leh for about forty officials, players, coaches and club directors. The NHL officiating department and Tom Masters the departments video guru compiled videos of rule interpretations and some teamwork building videos that we watched and analyzed. We also gave each table an enlarged scoresheet and walked through each part. The administrative part of the game including officiating and scoring need to grow with the game. The group was receptive and poured over the scoresheets with interest. A question and answer session followed with some tables having a person interpret the nuances of what we were saying to others in their native Ladakhi language. We also talked extensively about concussions as the Headway and Hockey Foundations have teamed up to raise awareness about concussion prevention and protocol. An issue in the developing areas of the game is to keep the players safe as the speed and potential for contact necessarily increase along with skill level. Part of the important work of the Hockey Foundation is to teach the players how to play with passion and skill while respecting the opponent, the safety of all participants and respect for the rules and history of the game. It was a great event and along with my fellow officials Michaela a female official from San Diego, Michael a veteran official from Austria and Adam Sherlip the executive Director of the Hockey Foundation we covered lot of ground in a couple of hours that seemed like minutes.
(Picture: Officiating clinic in Leh, India for about 40 officials, players, coaches and club directors)
The following day we hosted an ice session where we worked on puck drops, positioning and signals. Players manager and coaches joined in and we really felt like we made a difference and that was rewarding. Just in time as the next day we were off to set a record.
(Picture: Officiating ice session clinic in Leh, India)
Our host village of Tangste is located a terrifying/exhilarating three-hour ride along what appears to be an ancient goat path slightly widened to fit military transports with boulders haphazardly strewn about by Mother Nature and the Indian Army. The road was primarily gravel except for the ice and snow. During the journey we crossed the Changla Pass the second highest road in the world at 17,688 feet and it was literally downhill from there as the drivers seemed to have a bet going as they raced along, oblivious to the danger, deftly squeezing by military convoys truck by truck and racing each other at every chance. I sat in the front seat, gripping the door handle while Hank and Adam casually chatted in the rear seat, oblivious to our impending doom, having experienced the roller coaster ride before. As we arrived at the final military checkpoint at Tangste we gathered by the side of the road amazed we survived the journey and happy to be alive.
(Picture: The Himalayan Highway)
We were welcomed to the community center, which would serve as our dining hall by children in traditional garb and assigned our guest’s houses in the village. My house had ten people sharing two rooms. It was cozy but all part of the adventure. There was no running water and an elevated pit was the restroom. A good sleeping bag and long underwear kept us comfortable in the chilly Himalayan nights. With no noise, electricity or air pollution the sparkling stars lighting up the pitch-black sky. Night time on the roof of the world was very tranquil.
Breakfast and dinner was served in the dining hall although for breakfast my roommates and I ate trail mix and granola bars. The food was traditional, no beef but some chicken, lots of noodles, rice, lots of stuff I did not recognize followed by tea. The broth soup and tea were great, other than that I ate noodles and rice as the local food was not to my liking, but others enjoyed it very much.
Electricity in the village was supplied from 6pm until 10pm so the few lights in the dining hall and our guest room came on at six and when they went off it was bedtime – a village wide clapper. While we had electricity, we gathered in the dining hall around the propane heaters and talked hockey, life and our different adventures and the novelty of what we were doing in such a remote place. I enjoyed talking about my experiences, trading stories from my NHL bubble for the stories of the hockey adventurers who lived and travelled around the world to places far off the beaten path.
The talks in Tangste and Leh let me know that You Can’t Do That is a global hockey interest story thanks to You Tube. I told the story of You Can’t Do That many times on the trip; an accidental early flip of the microphone switch while finishing a cordial discussion with Dallas Star Shaun Horcoff is now my international calling card. The most popular questions were about various players and teams and coaches. I always try to answer every question honestly; many people never think about officials until they interact with us socially and then their genuine interest and curiosity about the “secret side of the game” always comes up. I always appreciated the chance to be part of the traveling circus that is the NHL and enjoy relating my experiences feeling that if the roles were reversed, I would be interested to know more. I am always humbled when I share stories, the genuine interest and curiosity of people reminds me how fortunate I have been.
The World Record Game site in Chibra Kargyam was a twenty-minute ride away along another trail littered with boulders and gravel that thankfully lacked the cliff hanging drama of the ride to Tangste. The incredible members of the Hockey Foundation team managed to build an Olympic size regulation rink, with all the markings, at over 14,300 feet in the Himalayas and it was jaw dropping to see for the first time. The first day we went up to the rink site while others played hockey with the locals on the frozen ponds of Tangste.
(Picture: Hockey game being played in Tangste village)
We double checked all the line markings, the goal crease as the rink crew was putting up the sponsors sticker signs covering the boards and I was very proud to see them paste an NHLOA sponsor banner to the boards. The boards and the (stickers) were to be trucked back to Leh to be installed in an under construction outdoor rink pavilion. It will be the first set of boards and complete rink surface in Leh and will provide a generation of Ladakh hockey players a new way to enjoy and learn the game. Real boards make a huge difference and using them for the game and then donating them to Leh was a very important part of the trips legacy.
(Picture:Spectacular view of the rink build for the World Record game in Chibra Kargyam)
The World Record game began just after 9:30am, the game was three stop time twenty-minute periods, it was between the Ladakh Team (mostly the Indian national team) and Team Hockey Foundation a vagabond collection of players, coaches and volunteers from the Hockey Foundation from across the globe. My officiating partners for the game were Michaela, Michael and Yangill a proud Ladakh hockey official. The Ladakh team played well boosted by a partisan crowd of over 100 villagers lining the boards and hills cheering every scoring chance, hit, fumble, save and great penalty call. The Hockey Foundation players were using oxygen between their short shifts, the Ladakh players had no issue and kept the game close until the third period when Team Hockey Foundation pulled away and won the game 6-2. The World Record game featured a few penalties including an unsuccessful penalty shot in the third period for the home team. The game also featured a You Can’t Do That penalty announcement as I felt it was in order since my calling card preceded me to the event. To meet the Guinness World Record standard as an official game a small army of volunteers acted as official scorers, shot recorders, game timekeepers, penalty box attendants and goal judges standing around the rink, frozen but smiling, an essential part of hockey history in the making, it was a very rewarding for everyone to be part of something so difficult but obviously special.
(Picture: All of the World Record game participants)
After the game, I skated across the lake, in places the ice was fractured and heaved but managed to make my way across the lake to where a flock of pashmina sheep and a herd of yak grazed, I took a few minutes to soak it all in looking back at the rink in the distance and savoring the moment. It was surreal taking stock of the situation – I was in India, in the Himalayas, next door to Tibet, 14,373 feet above sea level skating on a frozen lake and just finished refereeing a game in an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records – hockey has given me so much it is hard to put into words and it is why I was so glad to have made the trip to be able to give back to the game that has given me much, a moment of reflection that is forever imprinted in my mind.
We played games into the afternoon, enjoying the remote and unique experience. The effect of the altitude became more apparent as the day progressed, following lunch in the tiny village, we descended back to Tangste still marveling about the event and how we came to be there. The next morning some players wanted to play another game at the site so they headed up as we headed down. The return trip was slightly less terrifying, I was crammed into the equipment truck, tucked against the inside door, again listening to the soothing voice of Hank as our tour guide. A hot shower and soft bed were the priorities back at the Grand Dragon Hotel in Leh, it was also the first chance in a few days to check in with home to confirm we were safe.
The following day the group met in the hotel lobby to inventory and gather the over six hundred pieces of equipment being donated across Ladakh. It was gratifying knowing that it would be put to great use reinforcing the Hockey Foundations mission of growing the game. The NHLOA donated official’s jerseys and equipment and USA hockey donated rule books and whistles to the cause. In a touching moment, the goalie for the Slovak team dropped off his full equipment bag with a note saying he played his last game on the trip and to please make sure his equipment found a good home – a touch of class and a great way to retire from playing.
Leaving Leh from the heavily secured airport on a military base, the European groups were mostly headed home but the North Americans were taking advantage of being on the other side of the world. Some were staying in Ladakh or India, some to Indonesia, the Baltics, Paris or London on their way home. I was off to Delhi, the city of Agra and the Taj Mahal with the Hockey Foundation group.
The trip from the airport to the villa in Delhi was as a tad less scary than the one to Tangste. The three lane roads accommodated an eight-wide eclectic mix of buses, trucks, three-wheel motorized taxis, pedi cabs, cars, motorcycles, people pushing carts filled with fruit, wandering cows, dogs and pedestrians. Honking the horn is expected and encouraged. A woman controlled about 20 goats as shuffled along the sidewalk to a small pasture, a man pushing a cart piled high with fresh fruit occupied one lane behind a cadre of motorcycles, bicycles and buses jimmying their way into the smallest openings, the rule of thumb being if you could get an inch ahead of the next vehicle/cart/yak – you had the right of way into their “lane”. It was chaos that somehow managed to work, an apt snapshot for the hugely diverse country.
A modern toll road makes the three-hour trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal less frenetic. The pace of Delhi eventually gave way to the Indian countryside with dykes and creeks irrigating wheat and grain fields, with camels, donkeys and yaks providing the power. The Taj Mahal and Red Fort are a popular attraction and our visit on a Saturday was no exception. The crowds were a colorful mix of tourists, pilgrims, worshippers and locals, different languages reverberating off the ancient walls making it seem even more exotic. The size and scope of both attractions accommodated everyone and allowed us to wander, appreciating the time and place. While a picture may say a thousand words, experiencing a place in person drinking in the sound, scents and views may render a picture mute. We stopped for a late lunch at a café after our driver made a U-turn, crossed four lanes of oncoming traffic and slipped into the parking space – just another day of driving in India. Following lunch, we visited a market in Agra where we were surprised to see monkeys patrolling the trees, roofs and walls, the locals warned that they were unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Of course, that only made us want to see them up close and sure enough some scrambled and others got into aggressive postures as we approached. We took our pictures and retreated not wanting to become another idiot gringo who was attacked by a monkey.
My final day in India I walked around the neighborhood near the villa in Delhi and found young men playing cricket on a makeshift field thought at that moment, up in Ladakh, young men and women were playing ice hockey on another makeshift field with equipment donated by a group of hockey loving voyagers and cracked a smile. We had accomplished what we set out to do, strangers brought together by hockey in the strangest of places - on the roof of the world.
There are many great people from across the globe I met on the trip and I feel privileged to have been part of the group. The dedication of the Hockey Foundation volunteers and staff is very impressive. For more information including video by The Hockey Foundation please visit http://hockeyfoundation.org/ to help support their goal of changing lives one puck at a time.
For an article by Ronnie Shucker a professional writer, my roomie in Tangste and the player who scored the first goal at 14,373 feet please visit: