Sometimes it’s the average people, those without fame or celebrity-status, who are the ones who can make all the difference. Usually, they go unnoticed, quietly working hard behind-the-scenes to bring light into other people’s lives. Today, though, I’m going to tell you the story of one unsung hero I had the pleasure of meeting who has been lighting the lives of hockey-playing girls in India: Neeru Schippel.
Neeru was born and raised in Surrey, BC after her parents immigrated to Canada from Punjab India. She practiced law for many years before moving to Edmonton, Alberta five years ago. She now owns multiple McDonald’s restaurants in Edmonton and is the VP of the Ronald McDonald House Board of Directors in Edmonton—a place for families to stay while their children receive important medical care. Neeru is also a hockey mom to her nine-year-old daughter, Jaya. This is exactly how she came to meet Hayley Wickenheiser—together they’re working to create better lives and hockey experiences for girls in India.
In November of last year, Neeru attended the largest North American girl’s hockey tournament with Jaya—Hayley Wickenheiser’s Wickfest tournament in Calgary. She approached Hayley after feeling drawn to the way Wickfest empowers girls in hockey and asked if she could sponsor next year’s tournament in some way—big or small. After they got to talking, though, Hayley and Neeru realized that there were much larger plans in store for them.
Fast forward to January 2018 and Neeru was on a flight to India with Wickenheiser, Andrew Ference (former captain of the Edmonton Oilers), and eight others who were on a mission to better the hockey world in India. They would arrive in the town of Leh in the Northern India region of Ladakh—a beautiful spot in the Himalayas where hockey is the only thing to do in the winter when the schools are closed due to a lack of heat. You can read about the incredible trip here.
Each year, Hayley strives to bring a girls team from another country to her Wickfest tournament: the first year was Mexico, the second year was China, and this year is India. Hayley had seen a video from Bindy Dulay of Indian girls playing hockey and knew they were the team of girls she had to meet. When Neeru found out that Hayley was interested in Team India, she knew she had to be involved. Since that day, Neeru has been hitting the ice running to help organize the initial trip to India, organizing events here in Canada to fundraise for the girls, and being instrumental in helping get the girls from India to Canada for this year’s Wickfest, along with ensuring they have the time of their lives while here in Canada.
“These are girls who are treated like second class citizens, play on outdoor rinks. They hand flood ice rinks with water buckets and wear used equipment, which at times doesn’t even fit right. Yet they forge forward and love the sport. The visit to Ladakh was the first leg of the project and now we are bringing the girls here for Calgary Wickfest 2018.”
The portion of the story that Neeru isn’t quick to share, though, is the part when she funds the initial trip to India. Instead, she’s overly grateful to the people who took time from their busy lives to make the trek to India with them, as well as to all of the people who are here in Canada helping organize events and assist the girls while they’re here: “I just want people to know that if you’re passionate about something, you can help make a difference. Whether you’re the face of your sport or just a regular person with passion—that’s all it takes. We can all do something.”
This journey hasn’t been an easy one for Neeru or the others involved. Prior to departing on the trip, Neeru found it difficult to find people to support the cause due to the location in Northern India (an area not often thought about in high regard) and the fact that it was for girls playing hockey. But throughout it all, Neeru witnessed humanity shine through in many instances: various people and companies, including McDonald’s and the NHLPA, contributed clothing and gear for the girls; the 70+ bags of equipment would’ve cost more than $8,000 to fly to India and an airline angel helped them out with this; the Canadian film crew who were supposed to join them on the trip fell through, which caused them to find a local Indian film team who turned out to be award-winning and helped them get to villages and share stories of people they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get to.
And, finally, the final destination: the Indian girls were happiest on the ice with the little equipment they had, so you can imagine their elation when they received new equipment and were coached by hockey heroes themselves. And just wait until these girls get to Canada—their first ice time when they arrive in Surrey will be the first time some of these girls have ever played with sharp skates. There isn’t a skate sharpener in Ladakh and despite some sharpening stones on the sidelines while the group was in India, sharp skates are a foreign concept to these girls.
The biggest thing Neeru learned through all of this, though, is perspective. The youth suicide rates in this particular region of India are very high, but they’re lowest amongst the kids who play hockey or skate during the long Ladakh winters. Hockey saves these kids despite their lack of access to the latest equipment, brand new sticks, and good ice times. They have a love for the game and a purpose, and that’s all that matters to them.
“My goal is to showcase all types of strong females who are not just athletes but well-versed in all aspects of life: athletes, entrepreneurs, mothers, artists etc.” Neeru says of the types of women she’s trying to bring in to meet these girls while they’re in Canada. Team India’s trip to Canada will certainly be a learning experience for them on and off the ice, and they have Neeru Schippel to thank for this.
I’m honoured to have been able to sit down and speak to Neeru and hear her incredible story. I’m also very excited to be heading down to Calgary in a couple of weeks to meet the girls and hit the ice with the goaltenders. Although, I have a feeling that I’ll learn far more from them than they will from me.
At the time of this article being published, Team India is in Surrey, B.C., hitting the ice and having the time of their lives! Neeru’s cousin, Julie Sanghera has also been instrumental in the girls’ journey as she jumped in right away to help Neeru and has been heavily involved with the Surrey portion of fundraising and hosting the girls. If you’d like to follow along with their journey in Canada, follow @Neeru31 and @Juliesanghera on Instagram.
If this story has sparked a light for the passion inside of you and you want to help out, please reach out to Neeru for Calgary inquiries ([email protected]) and Julie Sanghera for Surrey inquiries ([email protected]).