SAPPORO, Japan – The Korean women's hockey team will face a special challenge next year when they take the ice as the home team at the PyeongChang Olympics. While qualifying for the games as the host nation has its benefits, it also comes with expectations.
This is not lost on the players, who know that they have a high honour in playing in the marquee event in their native country.
Korea coach Sarah Murray said her team values the opportunity it has been given.
I think after watching the Olympic Qualification tournament in Tomakomai (Japan) they realized how hard these other teams have to work to be in the Olympics, stated Murray after Korea's 1-0 loss to Kazakhstan on Tuesday at the Asian Winter Games. "We have been told for four years, 'Oh well you guys just get to go.' It was almost heart-breaking watching Germany and Japan in the last game and knowing that one of those teams wasn't going and they had to wait four more years."
Korea did not play in this month's qualifier, but had exhibition games against Germany and Austria in Japan to prepare for the tournament in Sapporo.
I think the girls felt it in their stomach almost, how lucky we really are to be going to the Games, commented Murray. "They always knew it was special, but watching those two teams battle it out, they really appreciate it now."
Murray, now in her third year as coach is based full-time in Korea, has seen her team make significant progress during her tenure.
I think we have grown a lot, she said. "In my first year we did a lot of very basic skills, like the technical, tactical, how do you make a pass. Teaching passing and how do you pass it hard. This last year we have been really focusing on systems and playing together as a team. We did basic stuff at the start and now we are trying to fine tune it a little bit."
Murray says her players take their work very seriously.
Our girls play hockey as their job. We're an 11-month team.
Murray, who hails from Brandon, Manitoba, says she feels as Korean as her players.
Last summer, I was watching the Summer Olympics and I called my Mom and said, We won gold in judo!
My mother said, 'Canada won a gold in judo?' and I said, 'No, Korea won gold in judo.' It's funny, I feel very Korean even though I'm very Canadian.
The Korean team does have a distinctly Canadian feel to it.
Captain Han Soojin, who has been on the national team since 2009, went to high school in Vancouver for three years. She recognizes the duty that comes along with being the host nation in the Olympics.
It's a big honour to be held in my country, Korea, and as a hockey player. I am very proud to be an Olympic player, said Han. "Our team has to be ready for it in order to achieve something."
Han noted that there is some anxiety with the anticipation of what lies ahead, but doesn't see it as a negative.
The team feels pressure, but good pressure, the 29-year-old said. "It is really good to play in our home country. The team is nervous, but like a positive nervous."
Caroline Park was born in Toronto to Korean parents and began playing the sport at eight. She has dual citizenship in Canada and Korea.
The forward played college hockey at Princeton and is also medical student in New York training to be in orthopaedics.
Despite not growing up in Korea, Park understands what next year's Olympics mean to her teammates.
It's obviously very exciting. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Park stated. "I think the girls are really looking forward to it. It's a chance to play in front of their families, so I think it's great."
The 27-year-old Park took a leave of absence from medical school and hooked up with the team at a training camp in Minnesota.
We will have the World Championship [Division II Group A] in April in Korea, so I will stay with the team through then and then go back to school, Park said.
Park's story is very interesting and shows how dreams can become a reality.
The Korean federation contacted me after I graduated from Princeton, she recalled. "What's funny was that one night a few years before that, I was watching hockey on TV and there was a little snippet on the Korean team. My dad said, 'Wouldn't that be great if you played for them.' "
Not long after that the process began and she has now been on the national team for five years.
Someone from the office reached out to me and asked if I would like to try out for the team. That was back in 2012 or 2013.
Park is not completely fluent in Korean, but communicates well with her teammates.
I can understand everything. Speaking is a little rough. I can speak enough to get by, but it is broken Korean, she commented. "I think understanding Korean really helps in terms of being able to blend in with the team and understand what's going on. The team has been very welcoming ever since I first flew out to Korea. They are a really great group of nice girls."
Park says she wants to continue being associated with the sport even after the Olympics.
I don't want to give up hockey, she said. "The team was joking around and saying I should come back and be the team doctor."
Goalie Shin Sojung, who plays for the New York Riveters in the National Women's Hockey League, is relishing the chance to compete at home in the 2018 Winter Games.
I'm very excited about PyeongChang because I always had a dream to go play in the Olympics since I started to play hockey at seven, said Shin, who attended St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.
The 27-year-old Shin is already a 15-year veteran with the national team, having joined the squad when she was just 12. She admits there is pressure, but is encouraged by what the squad has accomplished in the past few weeks.
We feel a little bit of pressure as the home team next year, Shin stated. "We have played Germany, Austria, and Japan, which will be very similar to the teams that come to PyeongChang. We have confidence after these games. We can play with the high-level teams even though we are ranked 23rd. We are so excited to play in the Olympics."
Shin hopes the incremental improvement of the team will continue for the next 12 months.
We are getting better day-by-day, week-by-week, she said. "I think we are more excited than nervous. I hope we will be better in another year. We hope to have good results here to let people in Korea know about women's hockey. We want to show people in Korea what we can do in the Olympics."