The Black Army Team

New Korean club surprises in Asia League with 17 soldiers

04.04.2014
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Daemyung Sangmu players salute on the ice in military style at an Asia League game. Half of the Korean national team consists of players from the new army team. Photo: KIHA

The Asia League featured three Korean teams for the first time this season. The new club, Seoul-based Daemyung Sangmu, is making history as part of the Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps.

It’s not a team like any other in the Asia League where most clubs are owned by a company. And since it’s an army team, it cannot count on import players for obvious reasons. Despite that, and despite having only 17 players on the roster, Daemyung Sangmu was Korea’s strongest team in the league with a second-place finish in the regular season and making it all the way to the semi-finals.

For Korean ice hockey the club is a new concept compared to the two other professional teams, Anyang Halla and High1 Chuncheon. It’s a concept aimed at improving ice hockey in the country that will host the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang. Until 2013, compulsory military service in the country took many talented players away from the sport for a long time.

Now the army is part of the solution, and like the former glory days of CSKA Moscow (labelled “Red Army Team” in North America) in the Soviet Union, Sangmu includes some of the best players of the country who combine serving for the army and playing at the highest level of hockey in the country.

Despite the semi-final loss against eventual Asia League champion Nippon Paper Cranes from Japan, the team with its thin roster managed to surprise everybody.

The pre-season predictions for the team were rather poor when Daemyung Sangmu announced their participation with a roster including two goalkeepers, five defencemen and ten forwards. They ran short compared to their opponents because of their special situation and started the season with two injured players who they were not able to replace. Kisung Kim, who played in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest, had a shoulder injury and Sinil Suh was diagnosed with knee problems.

With just 13 skaters, Sangmu lost its opening game to Korean rival Anyang Halla 6-1. The next day, however, Sangmu came from behind to win its second game 5-4.

Then the team left for Japan where they posted a 2-1 record against the Nikko Ice Bucks and a 1-2 record against the Tohoku Free Blades. It was the start of the “Miracle of Sangmu”.

The most surprising result came when they won all three games against later champion Nippon Paper Cranes during a stint in Kushiro, Japan, last October – the first Korean team ever to do so.

One of the most incredible moments of Sangmu was a game against the Tohoku Free Blades in Tokyo in January. With only 12 skaters available, they blanked the Free Blades 5-0. With its strong performances, the army team did not only surprise people in its own country but also the Japanese hockey community. From 31st December to 26th January the team had a streak of eight wins despite having never having all 17 players available at once due to injuries.

When the playoffs started with the semi-final series against the Cranes, Sangmu had only 12 players on the ice. Yoowon Lee had been out with a knee injury since November and Woosang Park suffered an injury in practice just before the playoffs. Sangwoo Shin injured his shoulder at the end of the regular season, and Wonjoong Kim and Hyunmok Hong played the games despite knee problems.

Despite tough circumstances, Sangmu posted good results in its 45 games, and forged a close-knit dressing room In the process.

“Most players in Sangmu are also members of the national team and they have much experience. They had to play many games and were able to learn how to play with not enough players available,” said Donku Lee, who logged over 30 minutes of ice time in every game, and added that the big number of veteran players helped handle such situations and reach good results.

The military spirit is another character of Sangmu. Being soldiers, their life is controlled so they had to repeat training and rest over and over again according to protocol, which resulted in strong endurance and recuperative powers in a short time.

“On a regular team you need energy within a short time. However, Sangmu has not enough players so every player gets a lot of ice time,” said Donku Lee.

“I lost weight to improve endurance. When a game starts, I do not even know how tired I will be but after the game I’m totally exhausted. It’s important to recover in a short time. I got used to this pattern now.”

Each Asia League team can have three non-Asian players. Since Sangmu belongs to the Korean army, the team didn’t have this possibility. However, it didn’t seem to hurt the team and the players gained confidence from playing among fellow countrymen in important game situations.

“Other teams are dependent on their import players on the power play or penalty kill. Unlike them, we had the opportunity to learn handle these situations without import players,” Donku Lee said. “We believe we can bring good results without import players. This experience will hopefully help us in international games because we might be the underdog in the Division IA but it will not be easy to defeat us.”

Sangmu was established in July 2012 in view of PyeongChang 2018. It was the time to remove a major obstacle in improving Korea ice hockey. The intention was that Sangmu would help in prolonging players’ careers, because before its establishment, Korean ice hockey players had to leave their team latest in their late 20s to fulfill the two-year military service. After two years, most of them would not come back. Losing such players at the peak of their career hurt the national team.

The team came together for the first time in December 2012 with ten players. After a four-week military training, Sangmu started its first team practice. The first effects were already visible when the players participated in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.

Yongjun Lee, Woosang Park, Kisung Kim, Wonjung Kim, Yoonhwan Kim and Sungje Park were among the players in Budapest who went to the Sangmu camp before. And all of them were key players. Kisung Kim led the team in scoring with four goals and two assists. Goalkeeper Sungje Park was one of the key players in Korea’s first ever win against Hungary (5-4).

Sangmu added seven players in June 2013 for its premiere in the Asia League including Minho Cho, Donku Lee and Hyunho Oh, who played in Budapest too.

The success of Sangmu is not limited to the Asia League. Last November, Sangmu won the national championship and in February got the gold medal from the national winter games.

Now as Sangmu’s key players have proven to be strong competitors in the Asia League, they will face a new challenge across the city border of Seoul in Goyang at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A. Half of the Korean national team players comes from Sangmu, and after surprising Asia the players want to surprise the world with power and strong team spirit.

The Korean military slogan “Never move back even if we die” is aimed at representing the army players’ fighting spirit as well. The road to making it to PyeongChang 2018 won’t be easy but the players will never step back no matter how hard the situation is.

Now Sangmu is expected to show their passion and talent on the international stage too.

JUNGMIN KIM

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