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S. Korean chances of playing hockey in PyeongChang slim after another loss

2014/04/25 09:57

SEOUL, April 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's chances of playing in men's ice hockey on its home ice at the 2018 Winter Olympics appear slim after the country suffered relegation to the third tier of international play this week.

South Korea on Thursday fell to Japan 4-2 for its fourth consecutive loss at the ongoing International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, Division I Group A in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.

South Korea clinched last place among six participants with one game remaining, and will be demoted to Division I Group B next year.

The top two teams at this championship will be promoted to the Elite Division for the 2015 world championship, while the third, fourth and fifth nations will remain in Division I Group A next year.

South Korea needed to at least stay at its current level to have a fighting chance of competing in hockey at the next Winter Games in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul. The men's hockey tournament is considered the marquee event of the Winter Olympics, and it has featured top professionals from the National Hockey League (NHL) since the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

Host nations don't automatically qualify to play in Olympic hockey competitions. Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF, has previously said he would consider giving South Korea a spot in the Olympic tournament as long as the 2018 host improved its world rankings to No. 18 by the 2016 IIHF Congress, where officials will determine the format for the 2018 Olympic competition.

South Korea is ranked No. 23, an improvement of 10 spots over the past four years.

In an interview last January with Around the Rings, a U.S.-based Olympic news website, Fasel was quoted as saying, "We will do everything possible to support the Korean federation to prepare the team for PyeongChang for 2018. It's a challenge, but it would be not good for hockey not having the national team for Korea playing in the men's tournament."

   South Korea recently fast-tracked Canadian-born players to Korean citizenships in hopes of improving its world rankings, but the country will have to wait for another chance to climb up the standings.

The loss to Japan means South Korea will finish last even if it defeats Ukraine in Saturday's final.

Hiroki Ueno scored just 74 seconds into the game, and under two minutes later, Seiji Takahashi doubled Japan's advantage by scoring on a rebound.

Midway through the first period, it was 3-0 Japan thanks to Ueno's second of the night.

Japan made it a 4-0 affair on a 5-on-3 power play late in the second period.

Michael Swift, one of the naturalized players, put South Korea on the board at 1:15 in the third period. Defenseman Lee Don-ku added another for the home side with a shot from the blue line, but South Korea couldn't get any closer.

South Korea outshot Japan 30-26.

South Korean head coach Byun Sun-wook blamed said the pressure of playing at home was his team's great undoing.

"There were off-ice issues that we had to worry about, and we gave up early goals because of nerves," said Byun, whose team has allowed 22 goals in four games.

In earlier games, South Korea lost to Hungary 7-4, to Slovenia 4-0 and to Austria 7-4.

Byun also said his foreign players' struggles played a factor. Bryan Young suffered an injury during the Asia League Ice Hockey playoffs earlier and has missed the past two games, after going pointless in the first two.

Swift has led the Asian league in scoring the past three seasons, but the goal against Japan was his first of the tournament.

"Obviously, they are better players than their Korean-born teammates," Byun said. "But they don't have much international experience, and I think, as naturalized players, they were under too much pressure to do well."

   Byun said South Korea's demotion still won't mean the end of its hopes of competing at the Olympics.

"We might have been demoted, but I think we showed why we deserve to play in the Olympics because we held our ground against teams that were relegated from the Elite Division," the coach said, referring to games against Slovenia and Austria. "We're just taking a detour toward the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.