Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik congratulates the Indian men's hockey team for storming into the Olympic Semi-finals after 41 years, in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. (ANI Photo)
BHUBANESWAR: If P R Sreejesh shielded the goal with his life during India's bronze medal-winning match against Germany, there's another man who has played a silent role in guarding hockey's interests in the country.
Naveen Patnaik, the Odisha chief minister, patronised hockey at a time the game needed it the most. Naveen had been a goalkeeper for his Doon School hockey team. It is that early love that led to his support for the game, which sees Odisha sponsor the teams right from the junior to the senior levels, both men and women.
In 2018, when Sahara withdrew, Odisha signed a Rs 140-crore deal with Hockey India to sponsor the men's and women's teams for five years. That was also the year Odisha hosted the men's hockey World Cup, which it will again host in 2023 in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, where the state government is building India's largest hockey stadium for an estimated Rs 120 crore.
Moments after India's historic win, Naveen spoke to some of the players in Tokyo over a video link. "Many congratulations to our hockey team. India is so excited, as is Odisha, of course. We are all behind you and wish you the very best," Naveen told them.
While Naveen earned plaudits for supporting hockey, nothing would have been more special than the appreciation he got from skipper Manpreet Singh. "It's a special moment for all of us. We have finally achieved our dream of winning an Olympic medal. On this special occasion, I would like to express our special thanks to the honourable chief minister of Odisha, Shri Naveen Patnaik ji, who has supported us in this journey," Manpreet said.
"While everyone was supporting cricket, the honourable CM chose hockey, and today you can see the result. I would like to say thank you so much, sir," the captain said.
Odisha sports secretary R Vineel Krishna felt Naveen's decision is both personal as well as a result of his assessment of what hockey means to the state. "The CM played hockey in school. That's how his love for hockey developed. He has been following the game ever since. But, more than that, the CM is moved by the love the people of Odisha have for hockey. This is what inspired him to promote the game," Krishna said.