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Unified team loses with heads held high

Joint hockey squad remains positive after only a week together
Feb 06,2018
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The joint Korean women’s ice hockey team, in blue and red, and Sweden, in yellow and blue, compete for a puck during a tune-up game at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon on Sunday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
The inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team may have lost their tune-up match to fifth-ranked Sweden on Sunday, but the squad left Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon with their heads held high after conceding only three goals despite having played together for just a week.

Sweden was always going to be a difficult game for the unified team, as South Korea is ranked 22nd in the world and the North is ranked 25th. As expected, Sweden dominated the game, scoring three goals in the first period.

The inter-Korean squad managed to avoid a shutout loss as Park Jong-ah scored 18 minutes and 15 seconds into the first period. Sweden led 3-1 by the end of the first period, and the score didn’t change for the rest of the game.

Though the joint team was well behind in shots on target against Sweden, 2-13, during the second period, they managed to shut down any attempts on goal. Once again in the third period the joint team concluded the match without allowing any further goals.

“The first period was a little bit shaky,” head coach Sarah Murray said at a press conference after the game. “We hadn’t played a game in a while. We were down 3-1 after the first and we had to fight our way back into the game. If we start on time, then hopefully, we don’t have to fight from behind.”

The joint team appeared at Seonhak International Ice Rink wearing a uniform that said, “Korea” on top of the silhouette of the Korean Peninsula. Rather than the usual Nike uniform, the joint team wore a dark blue uniform designed by Finnish brand Tackla. The classic Korean folk song “Arirang” was played before the game in lieu of a national anthem. In front of a sellout crowd of 2,900, the fans cheered for the team saying, “We are one.”

Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed the joint team to have an expanded entry of 35 players, only 22 will be allowed on the roster for each game, just like any other team. Since the two Koreas and the IOC agreed to include at least three North Korean players in each game, 18 South Koreans and four North Korean players were on the bench, while the others had to watch the game from the spectator seats.

Of the 22 players on the roster, 20 were field players and two were goaltenders. Normally in ice hockey, the first two lines are formed of starting offense players while the third and fourth line players are defensive, spending less time on the ice.

During the game, head coach Murray came up with an interesting second line. While keeping a first line of South Korean players, the second line had a slight change, with Han Soo-jin, Lee Eun-ji, Kim Se-lin and Park Yoon-jung of South Korea being joined by North Korea’s Jong Su-hyon. Murray added the North’s Ryo Song-hui to the third line and Hwang Sol-gyong and Kim Un-hyang to the fourth line.

Up until Jan. 25, when North Korea first arrived to Jincheon National Training Center in North Chungcheong, it seemed like Murray was only going to assign North Korean players to the fourth line, as South Korea had a 3-0 shutout win against the North during the Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship Division II Group A last year.

Jong was North Korea’s best player, scoring two goals and adding two assists in five games at the International IIHF World Championship in April.

“I think that the North Korean players played really well,” Murray said. “This is one of the biggest crowds they’ve played in front of. Being added 12 days ago and not getting to practice together all that much, they played our system pretty well, I am proud of them.”

Aside from the match itself, three hours before the start of the game protesters gathered near the ice rink to voice their disapproval of the unified team. Counter-protesters also gathered, with one side yelling “Pyongyang Olympics,” while the others responded, “Peace Olympics.”

Once the game was finished the unified team headed to the Olympic Village. Though they are competing together, the squad is not staying in the same apartment buildings.

The joint team will start its round robin games at the Olympics on Saturday against sixth-ranked Switzerland. They will then play Sweden on Feb. 12 and ninth-ranked Japan on Feb. 14.

BY PARK RIN, KIM WON AND KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]