Nostalgia – My early hockey days; When playing hockey with future stars was fun

*By Prabhjot Singh

When I played hockey for the first time, it was with a Khunda – a nicely chiselled out curved tree branch that resembled a plough. And the ball used in the game was made of a worn out piece of cloth held in shape by a large number of rubber bands cut from a discarded bicycle rubber tube.

For the first several months, it was my favourite stick as boys of my age group from my immediate neighbourhood would assemble every evening for a game that would at times continue for more than an hour.  Two broken pieces of bricks or even chappals (Slippers) would serve as goalposts at either end of the uneven playfield. The game was played barefoot. Gradually we all started mastering the skill of keeping the ball close to the stick while attempting to dribble past an opponent.

Hard hitting was normally avoided as the ball would peel off with broken rubber bands scattered all over. The makeshift indigenous playing equipment, however, served the purpose well with teams of three to four players each.

Since our “khundas” looked a little crude, we could not carry them to our school – Government Model Middle School (Jhullian Wala School) – for a game during the recess break.

Our most memorable day came when we were in sixth standard. A couple of boys in my neighbourhood, who also went to the same school, were all smiles when our PT teacher asked us who all play hockey. And all the hands of boys in my Section went up in affirmation. To our great surprise we were asked to go to another room where there was a huge steel box. The school peon, Bhajan Singh, was already there.

After PT Madam arrived in the room, he opened the box and started taking out hockey sticks. Each one of us got a brand new stick. Thrilled and excited as we were, we immediately rushed to the school playfield for our first game with new hockey sticks and a leather ball. Since we were not used to holding the stick and playing with a regular ball, the first game turned out to be a mere hitting match. It was almost after a week of practice with the regular sticks and the leather ball, we all started playing well. Broken or damaged sticks were replaced on approval by the PT Madam.

Those who played football were issued a couple of balls for regular practice. Interestingly, the football team also had most of the hockey players in it.

An Inter-Middle Schools tournament was our first tryst with competitive hockey. We won the first two matches but lost the third to a better organized and professionally trained team.

However, we had consolation as four members of our team were chosen for the Zonal team that was to play in Inter-Zonal for selecting a district team. Incidentally I was one of them. Other three included Gurdishpal Singh, who ultimately went on to represent India in international hockey, Sukhjit Singh and Manjit Singh.

Hockey continued with most of us to our next institution – High School.

The intervening break between the Middle and High School saw most of us joining an evening game of hockey at the neighbouring Gujar Khan Khalsa High School. The school was later converted into an educational hub with a separate school for girls, a women’s arts college, a business school, and an English medium school besides a few other specialized institutions. 

The Gujar Khan Educational Centre is run by a Board of eminent people.

On the sprawling Gujar Khan playfields, most of the promising sportsmen and women of the area would come for training. In addition to school and college teams, outsiders including cricket, hockey, football, basketball players and athletes used the playfields for their training.

At times, the management would not take it lightly with outsiders using the playfields. The police would be called to chase away outsiders or players practicing there. It was an unending conflict as outsiders supported by their parents would maintain that the ground belonged to the society of which they all were members. Many students of the institutions run on the premises were also treated as outsiders in case they were not members of the regular teams of the Gujar Khan institutions.

This unsavoury aspect apart, it was Gujar Khan playfields that gave a major exposure to young and budding players of the area.

Several senior hockey players, including alumni of the Gujar Khan institutions, would make it a point to attend the evening game. Among regular ones were Jagtar Singh and his brother, Raminder Singh (both sons of Mr Mehar Singh, a leading criminal lawyer of his time. Both Jagtar Singh and Raminder Singh had the distinction of playing for India. Col Raminder Singh, son-in-law of Punjab CM Beant Singh had also led one of two Indian teams in an invitation tournament played at Ahmedabad. He also played for Signals and Services. Besides, he  served Punjab as Director of Sports), Gurainye (Devinder Singh Benepal, he was also in India’s camp for the 1975 World Cup but an alleged medical aberration saw him leave the camp), Golu (Ajit Singh, one of toughest hockey players of his time), Jawahari (Col Jawahar  Lal), Jagdeep Singh Phoolka (He was a goalkeeper of the 1966 Asian Games gold medallist Indian hockey team), Bau Ji, Dhiri (Randhir Singh), Dhobi (Durlabh Singh), Teja (Tejinder Singh Sandhu), Billa and Kala (brothers who played for Gujar Khan School team), Bubby (Col Jatinderpal Singh Ahluwalia, who later captained SCD Government College hockey team), Sheela (Sushil Kumar Gupta), Hari (Harjit Singh Dua of Deson group), Chhindi (Charanjit Singh), Sarabha and Bhutewalia (both from Guru Nanak Engineering College hockey team),  Kallu (Ajinderpal Singh, a promising centre half with superb stickwork),Pinky (Gurdarshan Singh Mand now settled in Surrey) besides a few others. They all used to be regular for the evening game which was played over “shakanjavi” (sweetened lemon water).

Among other known faces to play there were Shiv Jagday (who later became national coach of both Canada and US hockey teams), Rajwinder Singh (played for India in World Cup), Dr Rajinder Pal Singh Bawa (now Vice Chancellor of Chandigarh University),and Jasjit Singh.

After the game, most of them would head for the Bengali Sweets Shop in the Model Town Market and laze around there.

Other than the regular evening game, this group, which was known outside as Model Town Lions Hockey Club, also used to invite teams from outside for friendly games.

Corps of Signals (because of Col Raminder Singh) that had young MP Ganesh (who later captained India and also was the national chief coach), SN Pawar (member of the 1975 World Cup champion team), Maghar Singh and Gurdial Singh (deep defenders of Corps of Signals), was a regular. We as youngsters were lucky to watch MP Ganesh play barefoot on the dusty playfields of Gujar Khan and grow into an international star.

BSF Jammu was another team that came for friendly games…

We also used to wait for Sports School and Sports College teams from Jalandhar. Players like Hardyal Singh and his brother Hardev Singh besides Surjit Singh Rehal (they all later represented Kenya), Shiv Dutt aka Pandit Ji, Murthy and Kulwant Singh Mangu have all played at Gujar Khan school playfields.

It was on this ground that the Lions Club started organizing Major Bhupinder Singh Memorial All-India Hockey Tournament that featured almost all top teams of north India. Donations of two annas, four annas, and one or two rupees, were collected from willing hockey fans to run the tournament. There were also a few regular sponsors and friends of the Club who extended financial and moral support to the organizing committee. Prominent among them were Mr DS Bhogal, Mr Inder Mohan Singh Grewal of Upper India Steel, Mr Apinder Grewal (who later became Mayor of Ludhiana), and Mr Surjit Singh of Punjab Agricultural University (He used to do the commentary and compering).

After a few years, the venue of the tournament was shifted to Punjab Agricultural University grounds where well maintained lustful green playfields fascinated all players, officials and spectators.

After a long break, I finally moved to High School. With high first division, I was confident of getting admission in Government Model High School, Cemetery Road in Civil Lines. It was perhaps one of the best English medium schools those days.

Most of my class fellows in Model Town Model School, too, got admission there. Our school was known for its sports teams, including hockey   and basketball (both boys and girls), besides table tennis   and badminton.

In 1970, when the newly set up Punjab  School Education Board conducted its first ever Matriculation Examination, our school not only produced the State topper in Rajinder Singh Bhatia (753/900) but also had 27 students (with 625 or more marks) in the merit list. I was second in the school with 681 marks and 111th in the State. Incidentally, I was the only regular player in the school to figure in the merit list.

Earlier, the matriculation examination used to be conducted by Panjab University. But reorganization of Punjab in 1966 had the schools in the undivided State distributed among Punjab and Haryana   Boards.

Our school hockey team that had besides me (Prabha), Gurdishpal Singh (Lalli), Ajinderpal Singh (Kallu), Sukhjit Singh Raju (Sheikhu), Bhawanjit Singh Gill (Daana), Harpal Singh Brar (Palli), Manjit Singh Sidhu (Manna), Barmi brothers, Bahal Singh Jagday (younger brother of Canada’s national coach Shiv Jagday), and Simmar Pal Singh Gill (Peter) (elder brother of international Jagdeep Singh Gill), was known to play neat, clean and attractive hockey. Since the Cemetery Road School did not have any playfield of its own, we used to practice at Gymkhana Stadium which was later renovated and named after the first Sikh  Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji, to coincide with his 500th birth anniversary.

It was not only our hockey training centre but much more to us.

The most memorable was the Zonal final of Inter-School hockey in which we were to play Malwa Khalsa Higher Secondary School. Our opponents had an impressive line-up with tough players like Baldev Singh (Dronacharya award winner and famous coach of Shahabad Markanda Centre that produced scores of Olympians and internationals), Kuldeep Singh (he played for Western Railway for many years), Gurwinder Singh aka as Golu (great goalkeeper), Tara (speedy forward), besides Jasbir Nagi (we later played together for Government College, Ludhiana). Master Charanjit Singh, a tough task master, was the coach-cum-manager of Malwa School team and it also happened to be the defending champion team.

Since we were from a high-profile school, we were known to play textbook neat and clean hockey while our opponents were known for their tough and robust tactics.

The match had already evoked great response. Malwa School used to get a strong crowd support from nearby villages. We were primarily an urban school, we felt handicapped as we had no supporters.

Just a day before the final game, our team meeting was addressed by Mr. Harbhajan Singh Sandhu, father of Gurdishpal. He was then District Development and Panchayat Officer. To cheer us up, he said he would get a big crowd from nearby villages to counter the supporters of Malwa School.

As expected, there was a big crowd for the game. We started well, attacking our opponents from the right flank where Sukhjit and Peter were in great nick. Ever green Bhawanjit (Daana) did torment the opponents defence with some superb moves worked out by our dribbling master and playmaker Ajinderpal.

Ajinder would often hoodwink his opponents with his superb stick work and create openings for his forwards that would catch opponents defence on the wrong foot.

Our tactics played dividends as we took the lead in the first half. It did not deter the forward line of Malwa School. Led by brilliant Tara, it did threaten our defense.

On one occasion as Tara broke loose, Gurdishpal tackled him from the wrong side and hit him hard on his knee. Tara came down crashing, bleeding profusely from his knee. All broke loose. Crowd was on the field. Gurdishpal disappeared. We were also scared. Fortunately, some of the people brought in by the father of Gurdishpal stood cover for us.

It took a while for tempers to cool down and the game to resume. After assurance that there would be no retaliatory action against our players, we agreed to return to the field.

Though we played our hearts out, we lost the game 1-2 and not without getting Sukhjit bruised badly after he was pushed from behind on the adjoining brick-based basketball court while he was building an attack from the flank.

Barring these two incidents, the game was played on a brisk note and most of the spectators went back satisfied. We were, however, disappointed as it was our best chance to dethrone Malwa School. None of us at that time realized that school rivalries would just evaporate as we all get into college in the following year.

Kuldeep, Gurwinder and Jasbir Nagi, for example, joined Government College, Ludhiana, and we became teammates.

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It was in 1970, the year the college was celebrating its Golden jubilee, I got admission in Pre-University (Medical). It is one of very few educational institutions that used to boast of the best grassy hockey ground, exclusive football and cricket grounds, an international standard athletic track, a swimming pool, basketball, tennis and volleyball courts besides a weights training hall.

Hockey ground was so famous that it played host to a Test match against the visiting national team of  France. For its maintenance, no one was allowed to walk on its sprawling green lawns, and trespassers were fined heavily. As a hockey player, it was a dream comes true for me as I played hockey on this ground for six years. During this period, the college hockey team created history. In 1974, it won the Panjab University Inter-College championship for the first time in 54 years.

This historic triumph was not without some pulsating moments and a drama. Four teams that had qualified for Inter-Zonal that year were SGGS College, Chandigarh: Jat College, Rohtak, Government College, Gurgaon, and Government College, Ludhiana. Till then, all Haryana colleges were still affiliated to Panjab University. We played a goalless draw against SGGS College, Chandigarh, in our opening game of the round-robin league. A 2-0 win over Jaat College, Rohtak, in the second game boosted our chances as we started tasting our first title victory. In our third and final game, when we left the Hostel for hockey ground, we were all determined to score a big win as SGGS College was also expected to win its last game against Jaat College Rohtak.  To win the title, we needed a better goal average as we and SGGS College had the same number of points with one win and one draw in our first two games each. And since Jaat College with brilliant right-winger Phool Kumar, in its side, we expected it to give a tough fight to SGGS College. Our game was the first of the last day. Gurgaon College also had an outstanding and speedy centre forward Shamsher Singh. Since he was the only dangerous man in our rival team, we decided to mark him tightly.

We started very well, scoring five goals in the first 23 minutes before Shamsher broke loose and dribbled past almost our entire defense. Before he could do a shot at the goal, our centre-half, Kuldip Singh, who later played for Western Railway and Railway, physically checked him and hit him in the knee. Withering in pain, he sprawled on the field. Umpire Gurcharan Singh Bodhi (coach of the 1975 World Cup Champion Indian hockey team) gave Kuldip marching orders. Trailing by a big margin and losing their star player was too much for the Gurgaon team.

It walked out in protest saying that Umpiring was biased. Repeated requests by umpires to the Gurgaon team to return and resume the game met with no response. An SOS was sent to Dr. B.L. Gupta, the then Director of Sports. Within minutes he arrived on the ground and talked to the two Umpires. He asked umpires to blow a whistle and ask the teams to resume the game.

The Gurgaon team, however, refused to relent. After a couple of warnings, Dr. Gupta threatened to scratch our rivals for defying umpires. The threat did not work. After a few minutes of Gurgaon refusing to take the field, Dr. BL Gupta went inside the ground and called the Manager of Gurgaon to send his team. He refused. Furious Dr. Gupta then not only scratched the team but also ordered Gurgaon boys to vacate the university hostel within the next 30 minutes. We heaved a sigh of relief when we were declared winners of the game. And in the last game, contrary to expectations Jaat College beat SGGS College to confirm our number one position in the league.

Interestingly, that team had three Nagi brothers – Onkar, Harpal and Jasbir – and two Grewal brothers – Sukhvir and Jagbir. Besides Sukhvir Grewal, another member of the team, Gurdeep Singh Pannu, who happened to be a nephew of the then DPE of our college, Sohan Singh Pannu, also played for India. Gurdeep was chosen to represent India in the 1975 Rene Frank International Tournament in Madras. The tournament was held a few months after India had won the third World Cup in Kuala Lumpur. Sukhvir played for India for a number of years and had the distinction of coaching the Indian Olympic hockey team to Barcelona in 1992.

Fortunate as we were, our first year in the college saw us come face to face with many of country’s eminent personalities, including Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam, Harkishen Lal (painter), Keki Daruwala, Mohan Sehgal, and Avtar Singh Cheema, besides others. We felt proud that General TN Raina and Maj-Gen Himmat Singh Gill, bureaucrats NN Vohra, MS Gil, IC Puri, Jagpal Singh Sandhu, top police officers Joginder Singh, Rupinder Singh had been students of this great institution. To honour one of its outstanding alumni and scientists, the college was renamed Satish Chander Dhawan (SCD) Government College in 1976.

Other than winning the Panjab University Inter-College Hockey Championship, 1974 was an eventful year. I not only lost my father but also failed to get into a medical college. My career was at a crossroads.

Two days before my B.Sc. final (practical exams) were to start on March 9, 1974, I lost my father. For 18 years, he not only had his left side paralyzed by a stroke but was also without eyesight. He had lost one eye in his childhood while playing “gulli danda” and the second in a paralytic stroke. Still, I never saw him complaining. Whenever anybody asked him how he was “Shukar hai Waheguru da” would be his usual answer. A wrestler by choice and an excellent rider, he was a very disciplined man. 

His physical limitations notwithstanding, he would normally get up at 4 in the morning, take support of the wall of his room, go to the toilet and washroom, have a bath, all by himself and return to his bed. My mother used to keep his new clothes and turban by his bedside before retiring for the day. He was very particular that his pajamas and kameez were well ironed. After tying his turban and reciting “Nitnem”, he would switch on Radio to listen to Bhakti sangeet, news and other programmes. 

In between he would have his cup of morning tea and then breakfast. In the afternoon, on my return from school, I would recite the “Sukhmani Sahib” path to him before doing my homework and my evening game. I would return home by 6-6.30 to take my father to a gurdwara by holding his hand. After “Rehras Sahib”, we would return home. He would take his dinner and retire while I would go back to my friends. My father was also a keen sports lover. Though he never played or saw cricket but would invariably listen to cricket or hockey commentary on All India Radio. He was a great support to me.

Dejected by turn of events, I decided not to study science anymore. I got admission in Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar, as a student of MA Political Science. It was the first year when the Guru Nanak Dev University decided to shift to English medium for postgraduate classes. Added attraction for me was that my new alma mater had an excellent hockey team.

The college management offered me a spew of concessions and benefits in recognition of my impressive academic record and achievements in extracurricular activities. Though I had to travel every morning from Ludhiana to Jalandhar Cantt by rail and then walk to the college a few km away, the new experience was exciting.

My association with Lyallpur Khalsa College lasted a few months as Punjabi University, Patiala, decided to start a Bachelor of Journalism course by roping in one of top journalists of the country, Mr. Kuldip Nayyar, as the Visiting Head. Luckily, I got admission in the first batch.

After medical sciences, and political science, journalism was my third choice within the year, I was the youngest student in the batch, just a science graduate while some of my class fellows were pursuing, side by side, doctorate, M.Phil., or other post-graduation courses, including diplomas. Unfortunately, the University Campus, unlike Panjab University, had no sports teams.

For my Bachelor of Journalism, I chose Hockey for my dissertation. In between I not only introduced sports pages in vernacular newspapers of Jalandhar, but also started visiting Panjab University Campus in Chandigarh where the national camp for Indian hockey team for the 1975 World Cup was in progress.

Though I did not get a chance to play much hockey at Patiala, I was compensated with my visits to the Chandigarh camp of the Indian hockey team.

It was a great opportunity for me to meet almost all players in the 1975 World Cup camp. The campers were staying in the newly built Girls Hostel located just opposite the lush green playfields of Panjab University campus.

Because of the national camp, sponsored by the Punjab Government and co-sponsored by the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) and Panjab University, Chandigarh started hawking news media headlines. The Indian Hockey Federation was divided and had become defunct after Mr. Ashwani Kumar quit.

During one of my interactions with campers, a startling fact drew my attention. Only a handful of our national players held good jobs as most of them were class III employees. Harcharan Singh Boparai, HJS Chimney and Ajit Pal Singh belonged to the small band of gazette officers.

There was an interesting development in 1974. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi summoned the IHF President Ashwani Kumar to the union capital. Posted in Jammu and Kashmir as Inspector-General of Police in Border Security Force, he was on an inspection visit to Gulmarg when the message was flashed to him that the PM wanted him in Delhi by the evenings. A special chopper lifted him to Srinagar from where he took a flight to Delhi.

He was shocked when Mrs. Gandhi questioned him about “domination” of Sikhs in Indian hockey teams. His explanations fell flat. After the meeting, Mr. Ashwani Kumar put in his papers after talking to the IOA President, Raja Bhalendra Singh. It led to the emergence of a parallel group in claiming itself to be the genuine IHF.

Since the IOA had taken the control of Indian Hockey Federation, it accepted the offer of the Punjab Government to train the Indian team for the 1975 World Cup. Punjab Chief Minister Giani Zail Singh entrusted the administrative responsibility to Mr. Umrao Singh, Education and Youth Affairs Minister, besides Mr. KJS Bains and Mr. Manmohan Singh – senior bureaucrats handling the Department of Youth and Sports.

Balbir Singh Senior and Gurcharan Singh Bodhi were assigned to train the team while Dr. Surinder Singh Gill of Panjab University was assigned to look after the physical fitness of the campers. Dr. Jatinder Mohan, also of Panjab University, was associated as a psychologist while r P.N. Chhuttani, Director, PGI, deputed Dr. Rajendra Kalra for providing the medical cover to the team.

There were 42 players in the camp that started in December 1974. The number was pruned down to 24 after the month-long preliminary camp. The final selection saw 16 players being named for the Kuala Lumpur event.

And the team scripted history by improving further the color of the medal – from bronze in Barcelona (1971), to silver in Amsterdam (1973), and gold in Kuala Lumpur (1975).

And after the historic Kuala Lumpur triumph, the victorious team did visit Panjab University campus and the hostel to pay its gratitude, before girls finally moved into the rooms that earlier hosted World Cup heroes, their coaches, and other members of the training staff.

After several weeks of celebrations, life returned to normalcy. My Bachelor of Journalism had ended with distinction as I stood second overall. It paved the way for my return to SCD Government College, Ludhiana. I was back on the hockey ground though this time, many of the star performers of yesteryears had moved to the neighboring Arya College. Supremacy of 1974 was gone through Panjab University’s competition arena had shrunk by nearly half as it lost its administrative control of colleges located in Haryana.

* Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered  Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events, including eight World Cups in Hockey. He has been hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis and stories by him  please visit  or follow him on and follow him on Facebook @PrabhjotSingh.Journalist