International Ice Hockey Federation

Korean Hockey Magic

Korean Hockey Magic

From 2016 to 2018, Korean women take huge steps

Published 08.02.2018 17:38 GMT+10 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Korean Hockey Magic
To have the Republic of Korea play against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the Korean peninsula at the Gangneung Hockey Centre in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships Division II Group A was historical. Now even more history will be written when the players play together as unified Korean women’s ice hockey team at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Photo: Young-Chul Song
From on-ice progress to off-ice diplomacy, the Korean women’s national team has had a remarkable run from 2016 to today. They even had a movie made about them.

Leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, we’re looking back at some of the biggest developments in this sport in an ongoing series called “Korean Hockey Magic.”

Let’s be clear: Korea is a newcomer to international women’s competition. It suffered its worst loss ever to China on 31 January 2003, falling 30-0 at the Asian Winter Games in Aomori, Japan, and iced a team in official IIHF competition for the first time in 2004. The strides the Korean women have made since then are impressive. It’s no wonder they became the subject of a 2016 feel-good sports movie.

Take Off 2 (also known as Run-Off) could be dubbed Korea’s answer to The Mighty Ducks. Directed by Jong-hyun Kim, it was a sequel of sorts to 2009’s Take Off, which focused on the Korean men’s ski jumping team. With liberal doses of laughter and tears, Take Off 2 tells the story of how a motley crew of athletes, including a former short-track speed skater and a middle-school student, first came together to form a national hockey team in 2002.

Of course, to quote the great Australian poets in AC/DC: “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.” For years, the Korean women struggled against international opponents. In 2011, the year PyeongChang was awarded the 2018 Olympics, they were still stuck in the fifth tier of the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship program where they played the likes of New Zealand and South Africa. But since then, they’ve made steady progress.

One big catalyst was the 2014 hiring of Sarah Murray as head coach of the national team. Murray, now 29, is the daughter of Andy Murray, the former NHL coach who became an IIHF World Championship legend with three gold medals for Canada (1997, 2003, 2007) and was named to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2012. But it’s not just about her bloodlines: she put in her time before getting this job. A two-time NCAA champion as a forward with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Murray also played and coached youth hockey in both Switzerland and China.

“When I came to Korea, I didn’t really know what to expect,” she told IIHF.com. “My first impression of these girls is that they love to play the game. They all show up to the rink smiling and eager to learn every day.”

Climbing the ranks steadily, Korea finished first at an April test event for the PyeongChang Olympic venues, the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A. The host nation posted a perfect 5-0 record and 21-3 goal difference, and Do-hee Han was named Best Goalkeeper, while Jong-ah Park finished second in tournament scoring with 10 points. It is the first time the Korean women’s team got promoted to the Division I.

Another important symbolic highlight was the game against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The two Koreas had never faced each other in a game on the Korean peninsula before, and this opportunity to create a small diplomatic bridge was arguably more important than the final result, a 3-0 win for the Republic of Korea. Afterwards, the teams from the north and south got together for a group photo.

Just having these teams compete against each other in the Korean peninsula itself was historic. And after that experience it became even better. When the governments of the Koreas discussed having North Korean athletes at the Olympics, they remembered the women’s hockey teams. On 20 January 2018, North and South Korean officials met with an IOC delegation in Lausanne, Switzerland and agreed to ice a unified Korean women’s team at the Olympics.

“This would have seemed impossible only a few weeks ago,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “Today is a great moment for the Olympic Movement, because the Olympic spirit has brought us all together.”

It marks the first time in Olympic history that the two Koreas have created a combined team with athletes from the north and south on the same etam. An official announcement clarified the procedure: “This unified women’s ice hockey team will be created by adding 12 players and one official from the National Organizing Committee of the DPRK to the existing ROK Olympic squad of 23 players. With respect to fair play and the other competing teams, only 22 players will be entitled to play in each game, as is the rule for all participating teams.”

“This initiative by North and South Korea offers a tremendous opportunity to use ice hockey, one of the core team sports of the Olympic Winter Games, as a tool to foster create new connections and develop closer bonds across the Korean peninsula,” said IIHF President René Fasel. “The IIHF will work with all the participating teams to make sure this endeavour for peace through sport is a success.”

Competing at the Olympics in Group B against Switzerland, Sweden, and Japan, the unified Korean team will face a challenge as tall as Gangwon Province’s famous Taebak Mountains. But if history provides any indication, they’ll respond with courage and determination.

Previous stories from the series:

 

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