We arrived at the national camp in around 1997-98 with a massive surprise awaiting us. The federation had appointed a new member in the support staff. But that person was a swimming coach! None of us knew how he ended up with the hockey team but no one asked questions because the appointment was approved by KPS Gill (then the Indian Hockey Federation president).
There were some players in the team who needed fitness training. The IHF thought having a swimming coach would help the players. But from our perspective, it made no sense to have a swimming coach with the hockey team. So I spoke to Gill. It was a huge difference of opinion we had and became a massive issue in the media as well.
Eventually, Gill realized it wasn’t right and accepted it. To me, this incident sums up Gill’s reign as the chief of Indian hockey. I think he had good intentions at heart. But most of the times, unfortunately, he was wrongly advised by people around him. Gill was not a hockey man. But he was a very firm and fine administrator. He was coaxed into administration in the early 90s by some players.
Before him, there was a lot of politicking in Indian hockey and less governance. However, Gill brought stability. India needed a firm administrator back then and Gill changed the system.
Man of aura and stature
He had an aura and because of his stature, few would disagree with him. He commanded respect and attention. I remember at the Atlanta Games, he entered the Athletes Village in a shiny luxury car surrounded by two-three security guards.
I was the captain of the team back then so I used to have several interactions with him. Our exchanges were to-the-point. He had basic understanding of the game and wanted to do good things for the players like providing them good places to stay and reward them financially.
However, as a police officer, he did not have a good marketing brain. Gill’s rise as a hockey administrator coincided with IS Bindra’s growing reputation in cricket. But both had very different ways of functioning. Bindra was a sharp person who knew how to monetize the sport. And it was evident from the way cricket was marketed in Punjab and was made a financially sustainable sport for players.
But Gill did not have such ideas. Even if he did, he did not have the right kind of people around him to implement it. Still, he launched the Premier Hockey League in 2005. These were still pre-IPL days. So to attempt such a tournament was a big risk but Gill was a courageous man, he’d shown that before. The PHL was a game-changer and later, he was also involved in the World Series Hockey.
Gill’s enthusiasm for youth hockey, though, was unparalleled. The kind of focus, investment and exposure given to the junior players in the 90s was never seen before. He encouraged the selection of junior players in important senior tournaments, provided them proper coaching and kept them busy throughout the year. India’s performance at the junior World Cup, not surprisingly, was very good during his term. We even won it in 2001.
At the same time, though, senior hockey wasn’t in best of health. The players’ morale was down and the living conditions at camps weren’t ideal. The state units were defunct and the popularity of the sport kept shrinking. Like I said, he did not have good advisers. The sting operation on (then IHF secretary) Jyothi Kumaran eventually scalped him, too. But it wasn’t Gill’s mistake, no?
I wish he had surrounded himself with good people. People with good marketing sense. Had that been the case, Gill could have changed not just Indian hockey but even the world game. What is happening now could have happened in the 90s.
Gill had good intentions for Indian hockey. I only wish he had good advisers, too. Then, maybe, he would be remembered differently.