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(Yonhap Feature) Despite bumpy road to PyeongChang, women's hockey team remains upbeat about Olympics

2017/12/20 09:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean women's hockey team has faced more than a few bumps on the road to PyeongChang, but the coach and her players remain upbeat about their first Winter Games appearance on home ice next February.

In fact, head coach Sarah Murray is so optimistic that she has readjusted the team's goal for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Murray and her charges are far more ambitious and specific than before.

"I used to say in the past that we just wanted to have no regrets and we were going to go into every game with the intention of winning, and just be able to sit in the locker room and be satisfied and know that we prepared our best and did everything we could," Murray said in a recent interview at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, some 90 kilometers south of Seoul.

"Together, we came up with a new plan because our team is getting better. Our new goal is to advance out of our bracket," the Canadian coach went on. "It doesn't matter if we win one game or three games, or there's a tiebreaker. Somehow, we're going to advance out of our division at the Olympics. In our division, teams are pretty interchangeable. I think the work that we've put in over the last three years, especially this year, has set us up to have success in the Olympics."

   Murray's captain, forward Park Jong-ah, is even more blunt about the team's objective.

This photo taken on Oct. 31, 2017, shows Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, the venue for the women's hockey tournament at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap) This photo taken on Oct. 31, 2017, shows Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, the venue for the women's hockey tournament at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)

"Our goal is to win the bronze medal," Park said after her practice at Jincheon. "And every player is working together toward that goal."

   Murray, daughter of the former National Hockey League (NHL) head coach Andy Murray, has led the perennial underdogs to unprecedented heights. South Korea ran the table to win the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A in April, and moved up to Division I Group B, the third-highest level in the IIHF World Championship series.

Despite the progress, global No. 22 South Korea wouldn't have qualified for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on merit. It has instead been given a spot as the Olympic host, and Murray said her players are determined to make it all count.

"I definitely feel pressure because we're the host country and we want to make sure we make Korea proud," Murray said. "We've been given this amazing opportunity to be in the Olympics for the host country. We want to show people we deserve to be here."

   No matter how determined the players may be, South Korea will still be hard pressed to get out of the preliminary round at the Olympics. It'll face three top-10 nations, Sweden (No. 5), Switzerland (No. 6) and Japan (No. 9), in Group B. Only the top two teams from there will advance to the quarterfinals.

The world's top four, the United States, Canada, Finland and Russia, have been paired in Group A. The top two from that group will advance directly to the semifinals, while the bottom two will play in the quarterfinals.

In this file photo taken on Oct. 31, 2017, South Korea women's hockey team head coach Sarah Murray speaks at the National Training Center in Seoul, during the media day event marking the 100-day countdown to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken on Oct. 31, 2017, South Korea women's hockey team head coach Sarah Murray speaks at the National Training Center in Seoul, during the media day event marking the 100-day countdown to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)

Murray admitted the new goal for the team is "a challenge, something that scares the players a little bit," but at the same time, the players also believe it's something that they can accomplish.

Japan sits closest to South Korea in the world rankings, and perhaps the realistic goal for South Korea would be to beat Japan -- the countries have been archrivals in many different sports for decades -- for its lone victory at the Olympics.

But Park insisted, "Our objective isn't just to defeat Japan."

   When asked if her team was gearing up specifically for Japan with hopes of getting one sure win, Murray said she won't really focus on one particular opponent.

"Basically, our team philosophy is to make other teams adjust to how we play," she said. "We won't adjust our system to play against certain teams. We might tweak some things, but we don't really change our overall system. We're preparing our players to play against every team, not just play against Japan."

   Danelle Im, a Korean-Canadian forward representing the country of her parents' birth, sang the same tune as her coach.

In this photo provided by Hockey Photo on April 2, 2017, members of the South Korean women's national hockey team pose together after their 5-1 victory over Slovenia at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. From left: Kim Hee-won, Jo Su-sie, Danelle Im, Choi Ji-yeon and Park Jong-ah. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by Hockey Photo on April 2, 2017, members of the South Korean women's national hockey team pose together after their 5-1 victory over Slovenia at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. From left: Kim Hee-won, Jo Su-sie, Danelle Im, Choi Ji-yeon and Park Jong-ah. (Yonhap)

"Every single game we play, whether it's against Japan or any other country, we'll be focused on ourselves and how we can play our best," she said.

So this was the coach and players talking the talk. Now for the bumps.

Lofty goal aside, South Korea hasn't exactly taken the hockey world by storm since winning the World Championship Division II Group A eight months ago. Murray has taken her team through parts of the United States and Europe for exhibition games, and South Korea has gone 1-14 since the world championship.

Murray chose to look on the brighter side, saying many players stepped up to thrive in new roles in the face of mounting injuries.

"This season, we're playing the strongest teams we've played yet, and I think it's a big learning experience for us," the coach said. "So our overall record doesn't really reflect how we've improved. The players are able to play against those high-level teams. We just need to figure out how we can score."

   Murray said only thorough preparation can lay the groundwork for success.

In this photo provided by the Korea Ice Hockey Association, members of the South Korean women's hockey team practice at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, on Nov. 20, 2017. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by the Korea Ice Hockey Association, members of the South Korean women's hockey team practice at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, on Nov. 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

"Our main focus is just preparation. We have confidence because we're so prepared," she said. "Obviously, we're going to feel stressed because we're playing in the Olympics. But we're hoping that preparation helps ease the stress, pressure and tension for both players and coaching staff."

   Aside from being as prepared as they can be so they'll have confidence and trust in the team's systems, the players should also enjoy their Olympic experience, Murray said.

"Another theme for our team is to just enjoy the moment and enjoy the experience," she said. "You'll never be with this team in this game ever again. Just enjoy being with your teammates. At the end of the day, it's a game. You're doing something that you love."

  

In this file photo taken July 29, 2017, Park Jong-ah of South Korea (R) scores on Sweden during the teams' friendly game at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken July 29, 2017, Park Jong-ah of South Korea (R) scores on Sweden during the teams' friendly game at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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