Hockey always had a special place in his heart. As a professional with Coca-Cola, he was always looking out for savvy marketing opportunities. This is the story of how the passion and profession of Sukhbir Chimni helped stitch a partnership for Coca-Cola and the Hockey World Cup 2018.

To understand how hockey became a passion for Sukhbir, it is important to know the role his family has had during the glorious days of Indian hockey. During that period, the sticks in the hands of his family members weaved magic on hockey fields around the world.

Harbinder Singh Chimni is not a name that many Indians may be familiar with. Yet, his exploits on the hockey field is the stuff that legends are made of. Younger fans of the sport may have to jog their memory to recollect his name from the history books. He was part of the Indian hockey team’s Olympic Gold-winning squad at Tokyo in 1964. He also has two Olympic bronze medals to his name, when he represented India at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and the Munich games in 1972.

Harbinder S Chimni
Harbinder S Chimni

As the World Cup Hockey tournament begins in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, it is also worth recounting how the Indian team dominated the world of hockey and won every gold medal in the sport from 1928 to 1956.

Harbinder’s second brother, Brigadier HJS Chimni was part of India’s World Cup-winning team in 1975, let by Ajit Pal Singh. That is the only time that India has won the Hockey World Cup.

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Harjinder Singh was the fourth of six Chimni brothers, who played for various teams in India’s domestic leagues and represented India at tournaments in different parts of the world. Three other Chimni brothers also followed their elder brothers’ footsteps and wielded the stick for different teams in the country. Given its contribution to India’s hockey, the Chimni family could have its name written in golden letters in India’s hockey record books.

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The third generation of the Chimni family getting introduced to hockey!

The passion for hockey had rubbed off on Sukhbir, fourth among the six Chimni brothers. As he studied at Guru Harkishan Public School at Vasant Vihar in Delhi, taking the hockey stick in his hand came naturally. He could see his dreams of being associated with the sport taking shape at different times during his school. By the time he had passed out of school when he was about 17 in 2001, he had already represented the Delhi team in national-level games.

Now, 17 years later, thanks to his role at Coca-Cola, Sukhbir’s dream of being associated with the sport has got a fresh lease of life. 

Connecting fans with hockey

A few months ago, a team at Coca-Cola was considering associations with sporting events to drive their marketing plans. When the team learnt about the upcoming Hockey World Cup, they decided to consider it as an option too. The hockey angle resonated with Shehnaz Singh Gill, Senior Vice President, Operations at Coca-Cola India and South West Asia (INSWA). Shehnaz too had been in love with the sport since his school days, and as he focused on his academic career in India and overseas, the passion stayed with him.

The mention of hockey kindled the old passion in Shehnaz. He called up Sukhbir since he was aware of the latter’s love for the sport, and asked him to be part of the team that was working on the potential partnership. Sukhbir’s eyes lit up as he was soon at the centre of the action, much like he would be on the hockey field. Only this time, he was going to help the fans and sport connect with each other.

Sukhbir asked Vikas Sunkad, Director Operations and the regional team at Coca-Cola if the association with the Hockey World Cup would excite them in driving engagement with the fans. Both Vikas and Debashree Gain, the Area Manager, were excited when they heard of the plan. Soon, Sukhbir and Sameer Pathak, who is part of the marketing team at Coca-Cola India and South West Asia, and also an avid sports fan, were in Bhubaneshwar helping close the finer details for a partnership with the tournament.

Several weeks after his eyes had first lit up with the call from Shehnaz, Sukhbir’s dream of further driving the association of the sport with its fans has come true. Coca-Cola is one of the sponsors of the Hockey World Cup. This is the first time that Coca-Cola is partnering with the sport after it was one of the sponsors of the Indian Hockey League four years ago.

“Hockey is the national sport of India and we have many glorious moments associated with it globally. Partnering with this prestigious event gives us a great opportunity to celebrate the sport of hockey and engage with fans across the country.”

“We wanted to bring the sport closer to the fans. Hockey has a special place in the heart of the fans and it has been a wonderful association for us,” Shehnaz said about the association.

It’s all about passion for hockey

Sukhbir’s taking to hockey was hardly a surprise for his family. There had been such a tradition of hockey in his family that every member had some association with the sport. His grandfather, a former army officer, had moved from Pakistan during partition and the family had settled in Amritsar. One of his postings was at Sansarpur, on the outskirts of Jalandhar and often considered the nursery of hockey in India, having given 14 Olympics stars to the country.

By the time he was in grade seven, Sukhbir had been consumed by his passion and he was representing his school in hockey. After an unfortunate accident when the school coach passed away, it was decided that another would not be hired. Sukhbir was asked to also be the coach of the team. “I was the coach as well as captain of the school hockey team,” he recalls.

When he passed out of school and joined the University School of I.T. for Engineering, the passion for the sport continued. It was a regular practice to go to the ground for training. It helped since he was chosen to represent Delhi Dazzlers in 2005 in the Premier Hockey League. Their team lost the finals to Chandigarh Dynamos. During those years, such was the craze for hockey that a franchisee-based league had been launched well before the Indian Premier League for cricket in 2008.

Glorious history in hockey

The hope that fans would support the Premier Hockey League was not unfounded. India’s record in world hockey is still unparalleled. But the advent of artificial surfaces like AstroTurf changed the sport forever.

Till the time the sport was played on natural grass, India reigned supreme and it showed on India’s track record. Hockey was first played in the Olympics during the 1908 London Olympics. After a brief period when the sport was in and out of the games, it became a regular feature post the Amsterdam games in 1928. It was the first time that India won a gold medal.

That was just the beginning and the talented Indian team, playing on the natural surface, enjoyed an unbeaten record till the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, beating Pakistan. The opponents returned the favour by clinching the gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics before India wrested it back at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

The Indian team, led by V. Bhaskaran, last won the gold at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, beating Spain the finals 4-3.

Football is the most popular sport and Brazil and Germany have won the FIFA World Cup five times each, during its 90-year-history. With eight gold medals between 1928 and 1980, six of them in consecutive Olympic Games, no team in history may have dominated any sport like India has.

India open their campaign for the World Cup with their first match on November 28 against South Africa. Through the 35 other matches in the tournament, Sukhbir and his extended family members will have more than just a prayer on their lips. Can India win a second World Cup title?