If there was ever a place where creating a small pad with a two-inch ice surface should be a cinch, you’d think Antarctica was the one. Yet the frozen continent, seemingly a natural home for winter sports, has thus far remained resistant to any kind of organised competition.
The history of sport at the South Pole is limited. A famous football match involving scientists at a Soviet research base, which was captured on canvas and formed part of the pre-Olympic ‘Soviet Sport’ exhibition at Moscow’s Institute of Russian Realist Art. A chapter in that epic of cricketing perversity, ‘Penguins stopped play’. And that’s about it. Skiing and skating remain conspicuous by their absence.
Until now. Ryan Bahl, 28, inspired by a dispute with the Guinness Book of Records, is out to stage the first ever recognised, properly organised game of ice hockey on the biggest lump of ice on Earth. The dream started out as an attempt to prove a point. “the whole project almost started out of spite,” he smiled. “I spoke to the Guinness Book of Records thinking that I might be the first, or the youngest, to play on all six continents. They told me they couldn’t recognise six continents as an official record because it didn’t include Antarctica. So I guess this started off with me trying to prove them wrong.”
Bahl’s globetrotting career has taken him from his birthplace in San Diego, California, to hockey arenas big and small everywhere from New Zealand to Patagonia, with stints in solid European leagues in Sweden and the Czech Republic going alongside experience in Hong Kong and Turkey where the game is little known. Along the way, he and his wife Michaela – also a keen hockey player – have been caught up in a wide world of passionate hockey fans. Once the Antarctic idea went live, that world responded enthusiastically – 20 or 30 emails a day started arriving from friends, acquaintances and total strangers. The project quickly grew to be more than just Bahl’s dream of playing on all seven continents.
“I’m keen on promoting the idea that people can get out and try new things, whether that’s playing pro hockey in Europe or getting involved in amateur tournaments like the Copa Invernada in Chile,” Bahl said while playing for Port Stanley Penguins at last July’s tournament in Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia. “It’s cool when people can get out of their regular bubble, experience new cultures and meet new people … and there’s nothing better than a game on Antarctica to prove that there’s literally no borders or limits to where you can play hockey.”
“Also, hockey was traditionally played outdoors on frozen ponds. But if we don’t protect our environment, future generations may not have the same opportunities to play outdoors. Even here, when I came this time last year we had a foot of snow everywhere and it was white wherever you looked. Now it’s just rainy and muddy out, totally different. So, any additional money we can raise will go to wildlife organisations in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands to help conserve the environment.”
But what about the ‘first ever’ tag? Surely people have suited up and chased a puck across the ice before, even if it was just a way to blow off steam at a research station? The different, this time, is that it’s going to be done to a recognisable, professional standard.
“I’ve seen pictures of guys in Antarctica skating, stick-handling, playing with pucks and stuff, but we’re calling this an official game,” Bahl added. “So we need a proper rink – boards, clean ice, referees, all that kind of stuff. We can’t be sure that it’s the first time hockey will be played on Antarctica but I think it will be the first ever official game.”
A proper set-up incurs proper costs, though. Simply plonking a couple of nets on a more-or-less flat bit of ice won’t do. A rink is set to travel down from Canada, while about 25,000 gallons of water are needed to create a two-inch ice pad large enough for three-on-three action. The project is likely to cost around $100,000, while demand among the hockey community could make this a regular event – more than 600 people from 32 countries have already registered their interest in taking part.
For the latest details on Bahl’s Antarctic project, check out www.antarctichockey.com or follow the project’s Facebook page.