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Adam Sherlip: Hockey in India

Adam Sherlip

From Sheepshead Bay to India

You take three strides and you’re winded. Ask anyone who’s played in Denver, there’s an adjustment period. Now double that altitude on a frozen irrigation pond in the Himalayan mountains of India and you’ll find Adam Sherlip who since 2009 has been traveling to India to teach the sport of hockey in remote regions such as Ladakh. He arrived to find an inherent interest in hockey as natives coped with the harsh winters by shooting around rocks with sticks on the ice.

Rewind twenty years and you’ll see Adam with a similar motivation to cope with the awkwardness of teenage years by playing any form of makeshift street hockey he and his buddies could conjure up. “I was a high-school player with some talent, but I was such a nervous player, I was always in my head. If I had had encouraging coaches I could have gone much further.”

Adam’s young hockey career was cut short by injury, “We were a good team demolishing our competition. Our big competitor, St. Anthony’s, was a private Catholic school. We were neck and neck and in the last game, we had a bad game. I was really pissed. They were well-funded, reputable, state champions many times. I absolutely crushed their best player from behind. Like full-speed cross check into the boards, I knew what I was doing. I was angry. As a 15-year-old kid I thought for a second that I had killed him because he buckled and just dropped. Then logic and morals kicked in. I hadn’t touched the puck, my head was down, I was upset with myself, and I get crushed in retaliation.  I hit the ice hard and was thrown out of the game. By the time I was dressed and out of the locker room, I couldn’t walk right. The next day I had to crawl to the bathroom.”  

The injury, compounded by burnout and frustration, temporarily ended Adam’s hockey ambitions. He went to college and studied marketing. He focused on other passions like music and, well, tea. “I’d loved tea ever since I was a kid, from Star Trek the Next Generation. Capt. Picard would always order an Earl Grey, hot. And I’d drink that in my bathrobe and watch Star Trek.”  Tea consulting would actually develop as a secondary career throughout Adam’s life, correlating with his hockey travels and funding for The Hockey Foundation.

An interest in hockey wasn’t revived until Adam’s Junior year of college at St. Joseph’s.  “I wondered, ‘Why did I ever stop playing this game? This game is just bliss.  I am so happy when I’m on the ice. Even when things are shit, I’m just enjoying myself.’”

Adam began to play in men’s leagues and coach youth hockey in Queens and Long Island where he developed a nurturing style of coaching making up for the lack of guidance he had received. “So many things develop a hockey player but at the end of the day it’s comfort. Even if someone is shouting at them, the kids need to know they’re in a safe place and that someone cares about them. This is really important. I coached these two kids that were worried about fitting in to a new team and I told them, ‘The secret to fitting in is to pass the puck. You’re going to get the puck back and you’re going to make friends.’ It sounds simple, but it is a basic concept that gets overlooked especially with talented players.”

During this time, Adam walked by a campus posting for New York Islanders interns. “I grew up a die-hard fan. So I ripped the sign off the wall. I didn’t want anyone else to get that internship. It was for me.”

Adam leaves the impression of a man with serious initiative. It has clearly driven him throughout his life; however, as a young man in his twenties embarking on an internship for his beloved Islanders, his sincerity translated to impatience. “I almost got fired multiple times. I had such a brashness, a cockiness… an unawareness and stubbornness that got me into trouble.”

After a few sit-downs with intern managers who saw potential in Adam’s drive, he got the message and began to cool it. “It went much better from then on. I built a good relationship with Angela Ruggiero, who had stopped playing USA Hockey and started running Project Hope and the Islanders Children’s Foundation.”

As Charles Wang took over the team, new philanthropic programs were instituted like Project Hope, which promoted hockey in China. Adam became more and more involved in Angela’s community and exchange programs, which led to an opportunity to travel to China for Project Hope. “I was working as Angela’s assistant. We had an exchange program that brought kids from China to New York and I got to bring them around the city, putting on training clinics and taking part in tournaments with teams from Westchester and Long Island. Then we went to China and it was an amazing experience. We got to see how they were making hockey work in the schoolyards of these run down schools. There’s a lot of poverty and terrible conditions, but because these kids were getting some hockey attention, they were on the fast track to getting a better education. Coaching these kids had quite an impact on me.  We had to talk through a translator but I felt there were good things happening here.”

Angela and Adam worked to build Project Hope after witnessing its tangible philanthropic potential. They pitched a full development program concept to Charles Wang and Mike Milbury, “We brought the budget and proposal to Charles and Mike saying, ‘If we can get $200,000 to $300,000 more, this could become massive.’ We could develop programs all around China and double our presence in the provinces that we are currently in.” 

The funding was not approved and from there Adam’s dream job started to become convoluted. Angela left the Islanders to pursue opportunities to get back into the game. Then Mike left, and Charles Wang’s son-in-law came in as president of the team. “He’s a smart guy, but his only previous experience was running an Arena Football team in Hawaii.” 

Adam unofficially took over some of Angela’s responsibilities during this downward period but was unable to make much progress. “I was running up against frustrations that I created for myself by being young and brash. People told me I was right about my ideas that were turned down but those accolades were bittersweet. I would have rather been trusted, but you have to build trust and that’s my personal responsibility. I really hadn’t earned many peoples trust. Maybe it was my age.  Maybe it was the dysfunctional system. Maybe both. I had no mentor; I was trying to fight my way through by presenting myself like I was better and smarter than I really was.  But after I got back from China I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit, maybe I was rude to everybody.  Maybe I insulted everybody.’ I repeated that to Mike Milbury and he said, ‘Yeah, you do that. You don’t do that to me but you do that.’ My family actually reminded me of a quote that Mike had once told me, ‘You’re not the general manager yet.’” 

Adam was in charge of running amateur hockey programs and periodical exchange tournaments with youth players from China. However, organizational dysfunction and a growing cynicism within management troubled Adam and caused these programs to dwindle, “There was no real management happening.  On top of that, the amateur hockey programs I was trying to work on with community relations became more about, ‘How many tickets are we selling and giving away?’ I remember very specifically an instance when we ran a competition with local youth hockey clubs. The club that sold the most tickets would win their kids a trip to China. I remember we had this meeting and my director was pissed at this group, he said to me, ‘You give someone something for free and they want more.’ It wasn’t about helping people. It was a business.”

The writing was on the wall and Adam was let go in November of 2008.

“I spent a few weeks wallowing.  I had worked for my favorite team and it didn’t go well. It was miserable. I wondered if I had peaked at 24. So I wrote a list of the things I love and most wanted to do. I knew I wanted to travel. That I wanted to be involved with hockey.  I wanted to help people.  And, yes, I wanted tea to be involved.”

Adam knew hockey pro vided potential to explore all his motivating values and that’s when Angela Ruggiero contacted him out of the blue about the SECMOL (Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) school located in a region in Tibetan Muslim India. The school was trying to develop a hockey program for its students. “It was this little campus outside of Ladakh where kids, Buddhist and Muslim, could come together to live and learn.  They take care of the campus, which is not only running on solar power but they harness solar energy to eat by constructing greenhouses even though it’s a desert. The place is completely self-sufficient. They do their own farming and composting. They even learned how to compost human waste, which is not easy. During the long harsh winters the students play hockey. So they needed coaches. I reached out to the school right away, sending them all my credentials and their response implied that my credentials didn’t really matter. If could find a way to get there, I’d be the coach.”

So Adam set to blogging as ‘The Hockey Volunteer,’  detailing his goals for coaching hockey in India. By the end of ’08 he’d raised $3000 and found his way to Ladakh.

Imagine the shock of being in a distant corner of the world and finding a local iteration of hockey. Reports of the sport’s existence in India date back to 1908 in Shimla. While under British control, the expatriates would escape the intense summer heat of Delhi and relocate further north, higher up the Himalayas to Shimla where western sports were introduced. Hockey began to take hold in communities further north like Dehradun and Ladakh whose main town of Leh holds regular tournaments to this day. Ladakh has a climate conducive to hockey because it has very little precipitation but the harsh winters provide deep freezes. A frozen irrigation pond is where Adam discovered locals playing hockey with sticks and rocks. “They were just making something with no direction at all. Someone had seen a picture once and they were trying to replicate it. I saw kids using rocks and curved branches to play hockey and it immediately reminded me of being a kid playing street hockey with baseball bats and tennis balls.  You just play because you love the game.”

Ladakh is a Tibetan Buddhist region with a large Muslim minority. It takes strong-willed locals to inhabit this rough terrain with centuries of political and religious strife. “The winters are so harsh. For three months nobody does anything in the winter. They sit in their home burning kerosene, local wood and dung.  They eat rice brought up from New Delhi and a few other things they can afford. Essentially you have three options if you are growing up in Ladakh: you can be a farmer in a really tough climate; you can join the Indian military; or you do something in tourism like become a taxi driver or a trekker.”

Adam related to the therapeutic environment hockey provided the people of Ladakh and found that to be a fertile basis to teach practical skills of the sport. “I’ve always been about learning to skate. Learn to skate, learn to play. And what I’ve also had to do is teach the culture of the game. There are many times when I would go over video clips of games and use a white board to explain the rules and the culture of the game, which becomes an English lesson too. They don’t really have a problem trying new things. Sometimes good players have a problem with criticism.”  

Surprisingly, with the region’s challenges and religious tensions, Adam ran into little conflict between teams at these tournaments. “Only one team in 2009 from SECMOL refused to play in a semifinal match out of protest because two other teams from the same army regiment fixed a match. I tried to convince them to play under adversity. ‘You don’t win a game by not playing.  You use that frustration as fuel and motivation on the ice. You use discipline to fight through those challenges.  That’s hockey.’ However, there was often no tension because they are used to the diversity of the community. As Americans, many of us tend to think of places like India and China singularly, when in actuality these communities are rich with many religious, cultural, and language differences. And have lived together for centuries.”  

Though the English language is not foreign to many of the regions residents, Adam worked with an interpreter to communicate the fundamentals of hockey. “English, in a lot of communities, is a second or third language. So there is a basis of English.  But language is still a very big challenge. My assistant coach for Team India has been my translator and I’d say he gets what I’m saying about 80%-90% of the time. But we’ve been working together for years. He gets where I’m coming from and what I’m trying to convey, but even still there are times when he explains a drill exactly opposite from what I want.”

Before leaving the US, Adam had sent an email to the Ice Hockey Association of India (after finding out such an organization existed), alerting them to the fact that he’d be coaching in Ladakh at SECMOL for a month. As it turns out, the timing was right because officials from the IHAI were planning on scouting the daily tournaments in Leh.

The IHAI soon asked Adam to put together a national team for an upcoming tournament among Asian teams in Abu Dhabi. “I spent days watching everybody, taking notes, and when I gave the IHAI officials my recommendations they said, ‘Ok do you mind meeting them a little bit?  We don’t have a coach.’ And I said, ‘You know that means if I’m the coach, you need to send me to these different matches.’ ”  

With the IHAI paying the minimum of Adam’s travel expenses to go from tournament to tournament, he was able to extend his trip to five months and see the whole of India. Based on his experiences in China with Project Hope, he saw massive potential for hockey to provide opportunities in impoverished communities throughout India. “I was way south, near the tip of India.  And I knew that I could make this into an organization. I was able to do some networking. I had some clout as the National team coach. But I still knew I could do better.”

Where the Islanders’ Project Hope and community development programs fell short because of other financial priorities, Adam saw an avenue for a non-profit organization to better serve the Indian communities.  The Hockey Foundation was formed. The organization was designed to provide equipment and coaches to underprivileged communities throughout the world.  India has been the main focus for Adam over the past six years, but he’s working to extend the program to other communities.  

Working tirelessly to bring coaches, equipment, training and tournament programs to Indian communities, Adam’s immediate goal is to raise money to establish infrastructure in these communities. “I see real potential to work with other hockey charities in North America in providing exchange programs like I used to do for the Islanders.”

Adam has made annual trips to India for The Hockey Foundation and to coach the National team. It has been quite an overwhelming task to establish coaches in India on a more permanent basis as well as build exchange programs back home. “It’s my view that we can all be working together and making each other’s programs better. I’d like to cut through the competitive nature among hockey charities and collaborate to the point where the focus is mainly about helping others. We’re all working for the same goal. Actively collaborating should be the nature of non-profit work especially when it comes to endeavors like cancer research. But for something like hockey, which is far less serious, what do we have to lose?  We are only gaining by being more collaborative.”

Adam’s travels and passion to provide hockey as an opportunity to improve young impoverished lives has brought meaning and enlightenment to his drive. “The thing about India is that despite the frustrating, maddening, and illogical aspects of the country… things thrive, it’s just so vibrant. Not just colors. It’s life. You see animals everywhere. You feel like you’re in a menagerie, a zoo, but it’s real, it’s life. A colony of monkeys, wild boars, donkeys, elephants. All this is going on around you among 1.1 billion people of all different types of backgrounds. It’s alive. It can be challenging, dirty, different, and there’s so much poverty, it’s heartbreaking. But it works in its own little way and you can’t explain it. But it works. It’s a life changing experience.”

Adam’s work through the organization embodies the spirit of using hockey to ‘make life work’ for those who don’t have the opportunities that are so regularly available to many of us. The path of Adam’s life seems to have been a marriage of initiative and opportunity, which is something he is driven to inspire and provide for others.

“I want to do something for people via the game that I love because what I think the game embodies in it’s purest form rings true in life: mental and physical toughness, selflessness, honesty, teamwork… You’ve got to pass the puck if you want to be successful at this game.” •

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