The father’s daughter who became hockey mom and wife of a firebrand | Sunday Observer
Nimal Etipola:

The father’s daughter who became hockey mom and wife of a firebrand

25 September, 2022
Golden hockey couple Tissa and Nimal Etipola

Tissa and Nimal Etipola could be considered the golden couple of Sri Lanka hockey. Tissa never played hockey at school despite hailing from Matale and represented Sri Lanka. Nimal, the daughter of the father of Sri Lanka hockey Walter Jayasuriya, raised the profile of women’s hockey in the country as a coach, umpire and administrator.

As destiny would have it, they literally crossed sticks when they played hockey for BRC (Burgher Recreation Club) but the similarity ends there. Although they joined hands in holy matrimony because of hockey their love for the sport differs.

“I played soccer not hockey at St. Thomas’ College, Matale. It was when I joined the Army I started playing,” said Tissa who also played rugby for Army with the likes of Denzil Kobbekaduwa and SP de Silva.

“I also started to play rugby in the Army. I made a mistake really without continuing rugby and playing hockey. I got sick of playing hockey,” said Tissa who got fed up with the sport while serving as hockey secretary of CH and FC and was slapped a five-year ban for allegedly hitting an umpire.

“I have not seen a rugby, hockey or football match for donkey’s years,” quipped the 82-year-old who completely switched off from sports in disillusionment.

A member of the Kandy Lake Club rugby team comprising Farook Dole, Maurice Silva and Didacus de Almeida that beat clubs like CR and FC, Havelocks and CH and FC in 1967 before being disbanded, Tissa was one of the best hookers in the country but was never called up even for trials.

“I was considered the second best hooker in Sri Lanka but never called for trials. Mike de Alwis and Rajkumar were there. I was not even called for the Capper Cup (Up Country v Low Country) match.

“EW Balasuriya (Kandy Lake Club president) was very wild. That was because rugby was controlled by the upper class. All these changed when Isipathana came on to the scene,” recalled Tissa without pulling any punches and who first saw a rugby ball at the Army Training Centre in Diyatalawa.

An aggressive left-inside, he became a hockey international representing Sri Lanka during the tour of India in 1966, toured Pakistan in 1968 for the pre-Olympic tournament and the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games.

His hockey alliance with Nimal blossomed when the Visakha team came to practice at BRC. “I met her at BRC where they came to practice. She was the first captain of Visakha and played for BRC as a school girl. She was also vice-captain of the Sri Lanka Hockey President’s XI in 1972 during a mini-Olympic tournament featuring South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and three teams from India that took part,” recalled Tissa proudly.

The youngest child in a family of four, Nimal Etipola reminisced how she started hockey at Visakha, Sujatha and Musaeus. “My father is the one who brought hockey to Sri Lanka. I started at Visakha in 1964 and after that I went to Sujatha and later Museaus as a teacher,” said Nimal who was in the BRC Ladies wing for 15 years.

“It was because of my father (Walter Jaysuriya) I started playing hockey. He said to do something and gave me five hockey sticks at Visakha where they did not have hockey. Those days school was till 3.00 pm and we used to play hockey during the lunch interval from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm. The Principal, an Indian lady, asked us ‘what is this game’. We were scared but fortunately the husband of the Prefect of Games was a Wesleyite and a friend of my father. Because of that we started hockey at Visakha. We even went to Matale. When they heard Walter Jayasuriya’s two daughters were coming, they got scared but we lost only by two goals,” recalled Nimal joining Sujatha after the OLs, where she started playing and coached for the first time in her career.

“Those days the standard was higher than nowadays with players like Trixie Jayasuriya and Marlene Machado playing but there were no internationals,” said Nimal who became the first woman national umpire in 1981 and national women’s coach in 1988.

She also served as secretary of the Colombo Schools Hockey Association, Western Province Schools Hockey Association and the Sri Lanka Hockey Federation and attained the unique distinction of being a Life Member by the University Sains of Malaysia for the Penang international tournament in 2015 for which she took teams from Sri Lanka.

A motor bike accident which resulted in a leg injury reduced her association with the sport but has not dampened her enthusiasm to author books about the history of hockey in Sri Lanka. She feels hockey has become fast and dominated by Europeans because the rules of the sport have changed.

“Now there is no offside law and you can lift the ball,” said Nimal who laments the lack of stick-work in the sport. She is proud of the fact that three of her students Ruwaiza Sela, Achala Perera and Manoji Pradeepika are still going strong representing Sri Lanka in the Women’s Masters World Cup but is sad to see the sport declining.

“There is nobody to support them. It’s not like those days. There is not even a ball to give anybody. Even ground boys are not looked after,” she said.

Nimal’s husband Tissa was more scathing and outspoken in his criticism of hockey officials.

He claimed that Dr C Duraisingham who played football and switched to hockey played a controversial part. “He used to favour people. For the 1970 Asian Games the number one goal keeper was Johnny Martin but he was not sent because he was just out of school and had many more years ahead of him,” said Tissa.

He recalled a bizarre incident when a player was left behind at the airport when he was about to board the plane in favour of another player before a tour of India by the Sri Lanka team.

He also related why people denied St Benedict’s, BRC and Sri Lanka hockey legend Dennis de Rosayro from becoming president of the Sri Lanka Hockey Federation (SLHF) about two decades ago. “Everybody expected him to become president and bring the standard up but they didn’t want him because with him they won’t be able to do hanky-panky like robbing or going on tours,” said Tissa.

Tissa Etipola also slammed the formation of paper associations affiliated to SLHF for votes. “Kilinochchi, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Nuwara Eliya, Kegalle, Batticaloa hockey associations are formed only in name. They don’t play hockey at all,” he pointed out.

He insisted on relating a black mark in his career where he was suspended for hitting umpire A Mylvanagam with his stick during a Mercantile match. “I can’t remember what happened. They say I hit him. I have to raise the stick to hit him. I can’t remember doing that. ‘Myla’ was a good friend of mine. He had five sutures. He didn’t report the matter and didn’t come for the inquiry. I also didn’t go,” said Nimal, who was suspended for five years. “The umpires were against me but I apologized to him. He (Myla) said ‘not to worry putha’. He was so close to me. We were very good friends,” he said.

Tiss continued to play rugby for Havelocks and returned to play for the Mercantile HA team. “Subash Fernando captained the team. Both Jeganathan brothers, Mervin and Otto Preena were the youngsters in the team. We won the Levers tournament,” he said recalling the injustice meted out when replicas meant for the champions were not given to them since they were not the favourites of the organizers.

No wonder he is disillusioned with the sport of hockey in the country.