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(Yonhap Feature) Joint Korean hockey team coming together before PyeongChang Olympics

2018/02/06 09:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

PYEONGCHANG/GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 6 (Yonhap) -- All's well that ends well.

This must be what the joint Korean women's hockey team is hoping for at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The end is still far away for the unified team, the first of its kind in any sport in an Olympic Games, and it's difficult to tell how well this squad, hastily assembled only two weeks ago, will perform at the Olympics.

But at the very least, its 35 players -- 23 from the South and 12 from the North -- have shown signs of coming together in time for the Olympics.

Up until early January, the South Korean women's hockey team was mostly an afterthought ahead of PyeongChang 2018. Ranked No. 22, South Korea only received a spot in the Olympic tournament as the host nation and wasn't expected to do much damage against three top-10 opponents in Group B: fifth-ranked Sweden, No. 6 Switzerland and No. 9 Japan. Only die-hard fans of the sport, which has never taken the country by storm, followed the progress of the team.

In this Joint Press Corps photo, joint Korean women's hockey team players huddle around the net before their exhibition game against Sweden at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap) In this Joint Press Corps photo, joint Korean women's hockey team players huddle around the net before their exhibition game against Sweden at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap)

It all changed in a hurry. The two Koreas held a high-level meeting on Jan. 9 to discuss the North's participation in the PyeongChang Games, and it was later revealed that South Korea proposed forming a unified team in women's hockey.

The government was criticized for making this suggestion without prior consultation with team officials or the sport's national federation. But the government plowed ahead, and the two Koreas reached an agreement on the joint team idea on Jan. 17. Only three days later, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave its green light following a meeting with representatives from both Koreas.

IOC President Thomas Bach later said it was "a historically exceptional decision."

   Under the IOC's terms, 12 North Koreans joined 23 South Koreans that had already been selected. Out of 35, only 22 players can dress for games -- 20 skaters and two goaltenders -- and head coach Sarah Murray, South Korea's bench boss put in charge of the combined team, must include at least three North Koreans in her lineups.

Over a span of about two weeks, women's hockey became the most talked-about sport in the country. The idea of assembling a joint team also became quite divisive: one side argued that politicians had no business forcing this on players and using the sport for their own political interests, all at the expense of precious playing opportunities for some. The other side countered that sacrificing a few minutes of ice time was only a small price for what the government wanted to accomplish -- peace on the divided Korean Peninsula.

This Joint Press Corps photo shows a sign that reads, "We are one," hung on the rails at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon during a friendly hockey game between the joint Korean women's team and Sweden on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap) This Joint Press Corps photo shows a sign that reads, "We are one," hung on the rails at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon during a friendly hockey game between the joint Korean women's team and Sweden on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap)

There were other questions posed. Is it right to simply hand Olympic opportunities to North Korean players when their team didn't even try to qualify for the competition? Or, what difference does it make to have three North Koreans in the lineup when South Korea wasn't going to win any games anyway? Isn't Seoul being naïve, letting itself be fooled by Pyongyang's charm offensive? Or, doesn't this at least represent a step in the right direction to revive inter-Korean relations?

   Against this frenzied backdrop, the 12 North Koreans players arrived in South Korea on Jan. 25.

When the IOC's decision was announced, Murray said she hoped her new players would arrive "as soon as possible" so she would have enough time to work them into the lineup. The North Koreans' arrival came so fast that it even caught IOC President Bach by surprise.

"This is a very good sign," Bach noted during his meeting with PyeongChang's Olympic organizing officials on Jan. 30. "I didn't expect the North Koreans arriving so early after our meeting (with the Koreas)."

   And perhaps even the players themselves didn't expect they would hit it off so quickly.

With most of them in their early to mid-20s, plus a handful of teenagers on the South Korean side, players from both sides have had little trouble getting along. The locker spots at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, some 90 kilometers south of Seoul, were arranged so that there would be up to two South Koreans next to each North Korean. While all practices have been held behind closed doors, Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) officials and sources with knowledge of the national team operations have all said team morale has been fairly high.

The players have become so close so quickly that they threw two birthday parties for two North Korean players on consecutive days. On Jan. 28, it was for Jin Ok's 28th birthday, followed by Choe Un-gyong's 24th the next day. The 35 players have been mingling together at the cafeteria over dinner as well.

Bach said these parties served as a perfect symbol of the Olympic spirit.

"That's the Olympic message and Olympic spirit -- making friends and celebrating together," he said. "You can see at the beginning that there may have been some skepticism among each other. These players from (North Korea) arrived, and they got to know each other. They were training together, and a couple of days later, they were celebrating (a) birthday in such a way. If someone asks you, 'What's the Olympic spirit?' This is it."

  

In this Joint Press Corps photo, joint Korean hockey team players celebrate after captain Park Jong-ah scored a goal against Sweden in an exhibition game at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap) In this Joint Press Corps photo, joint Korean hockey team players celebrate after captain Park Jong-ah scored a goal against Sweden in an exhibition game at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap)

While off-ice camaraderie is all nice, the players will still have to perform on the ice. Coach Murray previously expressed concerns about the disruption to team chemistry that the addition of 12 new players would inevitably cause. She wouldn't have had to worry about it so much if she weren't being forced to put at least three North Koreans into every game.

North Korea brought seven forwards, four defensemen and one goaltender. South Korea has 14 forwards, six blueliners and three goalies.

When the joint team made its highly-anticipated debut last Sunday against Sweden, Murray inserted four North Koreans into her lineup of 22: forwards Jong Su-hyon, Kim Un-hyang and Ryo Song-hui, and defenseman Hwang Chung-gum.

Korea dropped the game 3-1, with captain Park Jong-ah netting the lone goal for the losing side. While none of the North Koreans made much of an impact, Murray said she was still "proud of them" for their work ethic.

"I think that the North Korean players played really well. This is one of the biggest crowds they played in front of," she said of the 3,000 capacity crowd at Seonhak International Ice Rink. "Being added 12 days ago and not getting to practice together all that much, they played our system pretty well, so I am proud of them. They are eager to learn and get better."

   Before the North Koreans arrived, Murray said she had taken note of a few players on the North Korean team that participated in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament last April in Gangneung.

South Korea defeated 25th-ranked North Korea 3-0 en route to winning the championship. North Korea posted one regulation win and one overtime win, and Murray said she liked the hard-nosed style of some players.

She singled out two defenders, Won Chol-sun and Kim Nong-gum, and said these tough-as-nails players could add a new dimension to her team. But they weren't among the 12 that made the trip to the South, and it was later revealed that both players had retired.

Murray had also said she didn't think any North Korean players would be good enough to crack the top three South Korean lines and that the chemistry on those three lines was already strong.

Another point of emphasis for Murray is that she won't rotate the 12 North Korean players just to give everyone a chance, because her goal is to win games at the Olympics and she can only do so with the best players in her lineup.

In this Joint Press Corps photo, North Korean forward Ryo Song-hui, playing for the joint Korean women's team, checks Annie Svedin of Sweden during their exhibition game at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap) In this Joint Press Corps photo, North Korean forward Ryo Song-hui, playing for the joint Korean women's team, checks Annie Svedin of Sweden during their exhibition game at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Feb. 4, 2018. (Yonhap)

If Murray were to stick to her plan, she could simply pick three North Korean forwards and put them on the fourth line as a unit. That would allow Murray to keep her current blueline corps intact.

But North Korean players have a chance to make Murray's job tougher. Jong Su-hyon, who made a surprising appearance on the team's second line on Sunday, seems to be one player who has made the most of her opportunity.

She is said to have made the strongest impression during the joint team's brief training camp. Against Sweden, though, Jong only recorded one shot on goal and was bumped off the second line after the opening period.

But after the game, Murray praised Jong as a tough player who has a great vision for the game, adding that she has been a quick study. The coach said Jong will stay on the second line as long as she continues to work hard.

A strong work ethic seems to define the rest of the North Korean contingent as well.

"They are eager to learn and get better," Murray said of the North Koreans. "We have been having team meetings with them, and they ask so many questions. The meeting's supposed to be 15 minutes, and an hour later, we are still talking and we are still watching video."

   Before the North Koreans arrived, Murray had spoken of the need to have "a shared mission" if all the players were to develop a quick bond.

"We're all working together toward the same goal. I think the North Korean players that will be added to our team, they want to win, too," she said in January. "All of us coming together for the same goal of being successful at the Olympics -- I think that should be good for our team chemistry."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

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