By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 23 (Yonhap) -- Sarah Murray, head coach of the joint Korean women's hockey team at next month's Winter Olympics, got her wish on Tuesday, with the news of an earlier-than-expected arrival of North Korean players.
Murray currently has 23 South Korean players on hand for the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Winter Games. Following an International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision last Saturday to integrate teams from the two Koreas, Murray will have to work with 12 additional North Koreans and pick at least three players from that dozen for each game. Pyongyang announced on Tuesday that those 12 players, along with a coach and two members of support staff, will cross the border on Thursday.
It hadn't been clear until now just when those hockey players would arrive. The North Korean athletic delegation, which will also include short track speed skaters and figure skaters, among others, is scheduled to travel on Feb. 1. But at a press conference on Monday, Murray said she hoped the hockey players would come "as soon as possible" so the new joint team could start practicing together.
In this file photo, taken April 6, 2017, players from both South Korea and North Korea (in white and red, respectively) 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)
The Olympic game rosters will be set at 22 players, with 20 skaters and two goaltenders. Murray has to find ways to somehow integrate three new players into a team that has been mostly kept intact for the past several years and make it all work, with the team's first Group B game just weeks away -- Feb. 10 against Switzerland.
Murray's team will have one tune-up game on Feb. 4 against Sweden, which also happens to be its second group stage opponent. It will be the only opportunity for players from the two Koreas to try to get on the same page before the real deal begins.
"We're planning to have them play," Murray said Monday of North Korean players. "They need to get experience playing with our team."
The joint team is expected to practice at the current South Korean training base at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, 90 kilometers south of Seoul. Yonhap News Agency learned on Monday that 35 new lockers have been newly installed in an empty room above the ice rink, apparently to accommodate the 35 Korean players.
The picture taken Jan. 22, 2018, shows 35 new lockers installed at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, where the joint Korean women's hockey team of 35 players is expected to train for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)
The coach also said she has put together "a ghost roster" that includes North Korean players. They're placed on the fourth line and the last defensive pairing for now.
"The chemistry on our first, second and third lines is really strong, and the North Koreans' style of play is suited to our fourth line," Murray said. "They're tough, they block shots, they battle hard, and they forecheck. I think they'd fit that role really well."
Murray also hinted that North Korean players won't just be stuck on the bottom of the depth chart and they'll have their chance to move up the ladder.
"If they work hard and they earn their ice time, and one of our players chooses not to work hard, then who knows what can happen?" Murray said.
Murray once listed a few players who made an impression on her last April, when the two Koreas met at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament. South Korea blanked North Korea 3-0 en route to winning the tournament with five straight wins, but Murray noted that the likes of defenseman Won Chol-sun and forward Kim Nong-gum played with "a lot of heart."
Murray also said she won't rotate the 12 North Korean players just so everyone will get a chance. She said she'll go out there trying to win Olympic games, not a popularity contest.
"Right now, our plan is, we're going to pick the best players. We're trying to win at the Olympics," she said. "Now our players believe they can win. So we're not going to make a line of North Korean players just so they can get ice time. We're going to put in players that are going to be successful and we're going to play to win with the roster we have."
South Korea is ranked No. 22, the lowest in Group B, behind Sweden at No. 5, Switzerland at No. 6 and Japan at No. 9. It earned a spot at the PyeongChang Games as the host but has been trying to prove that it belongs. Winning the IIHF world championship was a positive statement in that respect. South Korea led all teams with 21 goals and gave up the fewest, with three conceded.
North Korea, meanwhile, is only three spots below South Korea but has been fading. It finished fourth in the IIHF event last April with one regulation win, one overtime win and three losses, while scoring 10 goals and allowing 13.
South Korea women's hockey head coach Sarah Murray speaks at a press conference at a press conference at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, on Jan. 22, 2018. (Yonhap)