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(News Focus) Forming joint Korean Olympic hockey team challenging on many levels

2018/01/13 13:05

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 13 (Yonhap) -- Forming a joint women's hockey team with North Korea at the upcoming Winter Olympics will present a series of challenges for South Korea on many levels, despite the government's pledge to minimize any negative impact.

Vice Sports Minister Roh Tae-kang told Yonhap News Agency on Friday that South Korea suggested assembling a unified Korean women's hockey team at the PyeongChang Winter Games during the inter-Korean meeting on Tuesday. Roh was on the South Korean delegation to the talks.

The proposal wasn't immediately made public on Tuesday, and North Korea, which offered to send an athletic delegation to PyeongChang for the Feb. 9-25 competition, also didn't respond to the idea.

In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, players from both South Korea and North Korea pose for group pictures after their game at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap) In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, players from both South Korea and North Korea pose for group pictures after their game at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

Roh said South Korea is taking steps to ensure the joint team won't come at the expense of South Korean players and that it has asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to expand the Olympic roster from 23 to 35.

An official with the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA), speaking on condition of anonymity, responded with skepticism, saying the idea just isn't feasible with the Olympics only weeks away.

The women's tournament opens Feb. 10, a day after the opening ceremony, and South Korea has earned a spot as the host nation.

"We would have understood it if the idea had come up maybe a year or two prior to the Olympics," the official said. "But to call for a joint team this close to the Olympics is to completely disregard the nature of this team sport."

   South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan first broached the idea of a joint women's hockey team in June last year, but was met with similar criticism to that expressed by the KIHA official on Friday.

South Korea has been pushing hard for North Korea's participation in the Olympics in the belief that the North's presence in the first Winter Olympics to be hosted by South Korea will ease lingering tensions on the divided peninsula. Promoting peace through the Olympics has long been one of the main objectives for PyeongChang's organizers, too, and a joint Korean team in any sport will surely spark interest in PyeongChang 2018, which has had trouble creating buzz.

In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, fans cheer on players from both South Korea and North Korea during their game at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap) In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, fans cheer on players from both South Korea and North Korea during their game at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

The South Korean women's team, coached by former Canadian star Sarah Murray, has been portrayed as a lovable underdog in the lead-up to PyeongChang, as the steep odds and adversity overcome by players in a nation that had never excelled in hockey became more publicized. At No. 22 in the world rankings and on the rise, South Korea has also made impressive strides on the ice, and it won the IIHF Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament with a perfect 5-0 record to advance to Division I Group B for the first time.

The run to the IIHF title also included a 3-0 win over North Korea, the world No. 25 that has been on the downslope for the past decade. North Korea didn't even compete in the Olympic qualifying tournament.

And an attempt to add North Koreans now to the upstart South Korean team smacks of political opportunism, the KIHA official said.

"Team chemistry and cohesion are absolutely keys in hockey, and no matter how few or how many North Korean players are added to the roster, it will affect teamwork," the official added. "And the government is basically asking our players to step aside for politics."

   And although Roh said he will try not to cause any negative impact for the South Korean players, having extra players will still present problems.

A hockey game will still be 60 minutes long, with 12 forwards playing on four lines and six defensemen on three pairings playing in shifts in front of one goalie. Unless Murray decides to play 30 players, at least a few South Korean players will have to sit out.

This is a sensitive issue because this will most likely be the first and final Winter Olympics for the South Korean players. The country is playing in PyeongChang as the host and despite its recent progress, it isn't yet good enough to qualify for future Olympics on merit. South Korean players won't find it fair if they're asked to abandon their Olympic dreams and make room for some North Koreans who didn't even try to qualify for PyeongChang.

In this file photo taken April 6, 2017, South Korean and North Korean women's hockey players -- in white and red, respectively -- are in action during the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken April 6, 2017, South Korean and North Korean women's hockey players -- in white and red, respectively -- are in action during the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

The talent gap between the two Koreas was apparent in that IIHF tournament last April, and bringing in North Koreans won't necessarily improve the current South Korean team.

Coach Murray has been coaching South Korea since 2014 and trying to bring new North Korean players into her current structure could cause problems. Will Murray be left alone to make her own roster decisions, as all coaches should be? Or will she be under pressure, implied or otherwise, to deploy North Korean players?

   Then there's a more practical problem: the benches at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, the Olympic host of all ice events during the Olympics, were built to sit 22 players, while the locker rooms have been fitted for 23 players each. Adding extra bodies will mean an extra headache for the Olympic organizers.

Getting other participating nations to agree to an expanded Korean roster could also be a challenge, unless all other nations get to have added spots as well.

South Korea will face No. 5 Sweden, No. 6 Switzerland and No. 9 Japan in the group stage. It's not difficult to imagine those three opponents balking at giving South Korea a few more healthy bodies when they have to stick to 23 players each.

The joint team proposal is expected to be discussed further when the Koreas meet again for working-level talks next week. The IOC, meanwhile, has scheduled a meeting on Jan. 20, to be chaired by its president Thomas Bach, with representatives from PyeongChang's Olympic organizing committee and the two Koreas' national Olympic bodies on hand. Should the Koreas agree in principle to the joint hockey team, then the issue will likely dominate the agenda at the IOC meeting.

In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, South Korean women's hockey captain Lee Kyou-sun (R) and her North Korean counterpart Kim Kum-bok (L) take part in the ceremonial puck drop before their game at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Dropping the puck are IIHF President Rene Fasel (2nd from L) and PyeongChang Winter Olympics top organizer Lee Hee-beom. (Yonhap) In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, South Korean women's hockey captain Lee Kyou-sun (R) and her North Korean counterpart Kim Kum-bok (L) take part in the ceremonial puck drop before their game at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Dropping the puck are IIHF President Rene Fasel (2nd from L) and PyeongChang Winter Olympics top organizer Lee Hee-beom. (Yonhap)

When the joint team idea first came up last June, South Korean captain Park Jong-ah said she found the whole proposal "difficult to accept this close to the Olympics," and added, "I hope the government officials will see things from the athletes' perspective."

   A month later during a media day for the men's and women's national teams, Murray also gave her two cents.

"I understand the players' concern because they've been on this team for so long. To have someone come in and maybe potentially take their spot doesn't seem very fair," she said then. "But we're trying to focus on what we can control. We'll deal with it when it happens. We've been assured that we can protect our players."

   Now it seems like the time has almost come for Murray and her charges to deal with it.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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