PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Their coach didn’t need to tell them that this was an historic event. Who on this planet with a TV set didn’t know that? So Sarah Murray told her squad what coaches have been telling their Olympic athletes for generations.
“We just talked to them about enjoying the moment,” Murray said Saturday night. “You’re never going to be with this group of people doing this ever again. You’re playing a game that you love.”
And then she sent the combined Korean hockey team out to face Switzerland in their opening match at the Kwandong Hockey Center and a breakthrough was made. Two countries that once were one made a symbolic step toward reunification by joining forces in a sports tournament at the highest level.
While Murray tried to downplay the global significance to her players, it was impossible for them to avoid. South Korean president Moon Jae-in was sitting in the stands with Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, titular head Kim Yong Nam, and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. A hundred red-garbed North Korean cheerleaders were shoulder to shoulder alongside them, clapping and singing and swaying. The press tribunes had filled up an hour and a half before faceoff. This was no normal Olympic hockey game.
“They worked very hard but I think they were nervous,” Murray said after her squad — wearing jerseys with the word KOREA across an undivided blue peninsula — was schooled 8-0 by the Swiss. “Coming out in front of such a big crowd and their first game on the Olympic stage . . . ”
A special moment in history as players from North and South Korea took the ice under a united flag. https://t.co/LRBxVeLEuZ— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 10, 2018
Even if the team hadn’t been commingled at the 11th hour the Koreans would have had an enormous challenge beating the Swiss, who won the bronze medal in Sochi four years ago. The South Koreans, who are ranked 22nd in the world, only qualified as the host country.
To fill out their team their hockey officials brought in American and Canadian players who had at least one Korean parent. Had they known last year that the team would be unified they could have had months to mesh their playing styles and cultures.
“We heard rumors in July that we were going to combine and then the government stopped talking about it,” Murray said. “Right now I’m really wishing that it would have happened in July. We would have had a full season to work with them. But we’re doing the best with the time that we have.”
When the unified team was announced late last month Murray, who wasn’t informed beforehand, said she feared it would damage her team’s chemistry. Instead of 23 players she would have an unwieldy 35 with the addition of a dozen North Koreans, three of whom had to dress for every game.
“Some people may say it’s hard to add 12 players to your team and make that work but the [North] girls have been great,” said defenseman Park Yoonjung (a.k.a. Marissa Brandt). “They fit in well with our team, so we couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”
In terms of quality, there wasn’t an enormous dropoff. North Korea, which has been playing in world championships since 1999, is ranked just three spots below the South. When they met in last year’s global tournament in the main Olympic arena the South prevailed, 3-0. “To be honest some of the players are skilled enough that they could be players on our team if they were South Korean,” said forward Randi Griffin, who played at Harvard.
The biggest barriers for the North players have been adjusting to a different system and learning hockey terminology. “Hockey communications are basically the same so South Koreans use English words to talk about hockey,” said Griffin. “The North Korean players have their own hockey vocabulary so that’s been a challenge.”
Team chemistry, though, hasn’t been a problem. “When I heard they were joining our team I thought worst-case scenario we are going to be separate,” said Murray. “Our players are not going to talk. But it is fantastic . . . All the meetings are together. All the meals are together. Our players are together. In the locker room they mix and talk. This is our family and this is great.”
What all of the Koreans had in common was that none of them had played an Olympic hockey game. They hung in gamely for half a period and then Alina Muller burned them for a hat trick in less than 10 minutes and that was that. The final shots were 52-8.
“I was positively surprised at how good they were, especially their goalkeeper [Shin So Jung],” said Swiss goalie Florence Schelling, the Northeastern product who was MVP at the last Games. “She had an incredible game, so many big saves. Hats off to her.”
The final two group matches against Sweden and Japan figure to be more competitive. “We told the players just because we lost the first game doesn’t mean our tournament is finished,” Murray said.
Now that they’ve made the diplomatic history they hadn’t planned on, the Koreans can go back to being simply players. What their coach told them is true. They’ll never have this hockey moment again.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.