An idealistic young coach from New York travels halfway around the globe to lead a ragtag hockey team in the tournament of their lives. No, it’s not the latest inspirational sports movie from Disney, but maybe one day we will see the based-on-a-true-story account of Adam Sherlip ’07 on the big screen.
In 2009, at only 25 years old, the Long Island Campus graduate found himself behind the bench for the Indian men’s national ice hockey team as it competed at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Challenge Cup of Asia tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Suffolk County, Sherlip (son of Associate Professor of Psychology Diane Sherlip, Ph.D.) had played street hockey since he was five or six, and later advanced to ice hockey, playing on the JV squad for Hauppauge High School, as well as a local travel team. His varsity career was short lived, however, as he suffered a severe back injury that would keep him off the ice for several years. Later, as a student at St. Joseph’s College, he would earn an internship with the New York Islanders.
“While walking the halls of St. Joe’s, I noticed a flier for internships with the Islanders,” Sherlip explains. “I grew up a rabid Islanders fan, and so I ripped the flier off the wall to prevent anyone else from applying for the position.”
The club later hired him as an employee for Project Hope, a nonprofit initiative aimed at enrolling Chinese scholar-athletes in Islanders-affiliated youth hockey programs in northern China. Sherlip coached youth hockey in China for the program in 2007, and later — through connections with Project Hope’s director, former Olympic ice hockey gold medalist Angela Ruggiero — he made the first of five trips to India in 2009. After linking up with the Ice Hockey Association of India, he volunteered as a scout and became the first head coach in the men’s national team’s history.
India’s first foray into the Challenge Cup in 2009 wasn’t exactly a Cinderella story. The team went 0-3 and was outscored 33-1 in those three games.
“India is not a traditional hockey market,” Sherlip says. “When you mention hockey to almost any Indian, they think it refers to field hockey, which is technically the national sport of India, even though they care much more about cricket. When you correct them and say ‘ice hockey,’ most Indians are completely ignorant to the fact that it’s even played in their country.”
The sport does have some roots in India, particularly in the northern region of Ladakh, where Sherlip first scouted players for the national team. “Ice hockey was played by the British dating back to the early 20th century in the hill station town Shimla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was the place the British Raj leaders escaped to when Delhi got too hot in the summer,” he says.
“I’ve coached there for a few years, and it’s a beautiful, unique town. Ice hockey was only introduced to Ladakh about 30 years ago by the Indian military as a way to stay active and fit in the harsh winters in that high altitude desert. … Ladakhis hibernate in the winter. School is closed, many businesses shut, and there are no crops to harvest, so hockey became the de facto winter activity (other than trekking and mountaineering for tourists).”
Sherlip faced many hurdles early on — including severe sickness, a lack of hot showers and indoor heating, and getting bitten by a dog — but culture shock was probably the toughest to overcome. “The language barrier is the most obvious challenge,” he says. “The cultural differences are equal parts frustrating, enlightening and annoying. The fact that there is no ‘hockey culture’ (an understanding of the game even if you don’t play it) in means that I’ve had to help establish that baseline requirement, while training them in a way they’ve never trained before.
“They were playing their own version of ice hockey, which ignored most rules and prevented them from being as effective as they could be on the ice. In short, they needed to learn how to play as a team.”
After his first trip, Sherlip used his experiences to formally establish The Hockey Foundation, a nonprofit that uses ice hockey to empower youth, support community development and foster international understanding and cooperation. The pilot program has been operating in Ladakh since 2010. Since then, The Hockey Foundation has donated more than 1,000 pieces of equipment throughout the region, and coached more than 1,000 kids and adults of varying skill levels on how to skate and play the same. It has also contributed books and English classes to a few schools in Ladakh, as well as a portable solar power generator.
Sherlip would return as head coach for the 2012 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, and on March 21 of that year — his 28th birthday — the team earned the first victory in its brief history. He also led India in the 2013 and 2014 tournaments. Though wins have been hard to come by, the team has shown progress in recent years. Now at age 30, Sherlip is still considering whether to return for 2015.
“Coaching Team India is obviously a challenge,” he says. “But it’s a great honor nonetheless and a challenge I try to make the most of.”
Sherlip still credits St. Joseph’s for setting him on the course for future success.
“SJC gave me freedom to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be,” he says. “I took courses that allowed my mind to grow in many directions, and build confidence to pursue my dreams.”