GOYANG – In the most anticipated game for this year’s World Championship Division I Group A host, Korea will face Japan in a young rivalry between these Asian nations. Although both countries have a long ice hockey tradition it was not until recently that they have met regularly. While Japan has always been the undisputed number one in the continent in hockey, Korea has worked its way up from battling against countries like Mexico and South Africa in Division II five years ago to competing against tougher opposition for promotion to the top level.
Once Japan and Korea were up to 17 places apart in the World Ranking. Although Korea has always been ranked behind Japan in the World Championship program, the country has caught up drastically. While it was ranked 33rd overall in the World Championship program in 2005 it moved up to 21st in the last season and overtook China as Asia’s number-two ice hockey nation in the mid-2000s.
Korea’s rise culminated last season with the two countries being only one place apart. And Korea having the opportunity to host the IIHF World Championship Division I Group A on home ice this year marks another milestone on and off the ice.
However, although Korea managed to beat countries like Great Britain, Hungary or Poland in recent years, the men’s national team has yet to earn its first win against its big Asian rival in an official competition. It hasn’t done so neither in World Championship events, Olympic Qualification tournaments nor in the Asian Winter Games.
In the past the countries had mostly played in different tiers and met only in Asian competitions where the Japanese had the upper hand. Only last season did the teams meet face-to-face in intercontinental tournaments – and then even twice.
In the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament in November 2012 in Nikko, Japan, the home team needed overtime to beat Korea 3-2. In April last year at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest the teams offered another battle until the very end and with Japan winning again, 6-5.
Now they will meet again in a game that’s highly important for both teams. Japan needs the points to remain in the race for promotion after two wins from three games. For Korea, however, it’s a game for survival. After three tight losses against the top-three seeded nations the host will battle for its place in this group against Japan and Ukraine. A relegation would be a big setback after the recent improvements in Korean ice hockey and with the 2018 Olympics on home ice approaching.
“That’s the game we have to win the most,” said Sungje Park, who is expected to be Korea’s starting goalkeeper against Japan after being brought in for the second period in the 7-4 loss to Austria the day before. While Park has shared duties with Hoseung Son, former NHL goalie Yutaka Fukufuji has played all three games in the Japanese net so far.
“We have to focus 100 per cent to win this game,” Park added.
Although Japan-Korea is a fairly new rivalry in international hockey, the players have crossed their paths on the ice for many years in the Asia League that was established in 2003 to give club teams in China, Japan and Korea a stronger and more prestigious competition than in the previous domestic leagues.
For the first two years the Japanese teams dominated the league against its rivals from other Asian countries including two Korean teams but then Anyang Halla started its rise with a second-place finish in the regular season in 2006 and High1 Chuncheon followed with semi-final participations the two seasons after. In 2009 Anyang Halla won the regular-season before being ousted in the semi-finals and in 2010 the team became the first non-Japanese Asia League champion and got another title in 2011. The last three seasons were won by three different Japanese teams: Oji Eagles, Tohoku Free Blades and Nippon Paper Cranes.
This season Seoul-based army club Daemyung Sangmu, which gives players who have to join military service the chance to play and practise, joined the Asia League which now has a record number of three Korean teams.
“We play each other in the Asia League and know each other,” said Japan captain Go Tanaka. “They have skilled players and a couple of Canadian guys. They are offensively strong. We have to stick to our style and our strategy.”
While Japan wants to defend its clean record against its Asian rival, the Korean players will be red-hot to write history in front of its home crowd. For players and fans of the host nation games against Japan are an emotional affair not least due to the tainted history with Korea having been annexed by Japan for most of the first part of the 20th century.
This will add emotion and pressure at the same moment and add an extra challenge for the coaches. Mark Mahon is in his 10th season as coach of the Japanese national team while Sun Wook Byun is in his sixth season having led the national team in 2004, 2007, 2008 and since the 2011/2012 season.
“We know us from the Asia League and we watched them at their training camp [in Russia] and here,” Byun said. “We lost last year in the tournament but we have better players this year. It’s going to be a good match.”
One that may well determine in which directions these teams will go in this tournament.