GANGNEUNG, Korea – These days Goyang in the Seoul region is in the international hockey spotlight as host of the World Championship Division I Group A. But meanwhile, Gangneung at Korea’s east coast is starting to build up for the 2018 Olympics.
Like Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014, the next Winter Olympics in PyeongChang 2018 will mainly be split between a coastal cluster and a mountain cluster. Ice sports will be showcased in Gangneung, a city of 220,000 inhabitants in the Gangwon province and a two-hour journey from the capital of Seoul. It is nestled between the sea and the Taebaek mountain range that will host other Olympic winter sports in the Pyeongchang County with its popular ski resorts.
In a country most famous for having many successful figure and speed skaters among its Olympic winter athletes, Gangneung hasn’t exactly been popular for ice hockey until now. The sport is played mainly with amateur and school teams but there’s no university team or professional club. Until now the city’s only ice rink has been shared among various sports.
The next big hockey team is High1 Chuncheon in another part of the province, though High1 stages most of its home games in Goyang, the Seoul satellite city that hosts the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A while the Mekdong ice rink in Seoul and Anyang, another satellite city, are the other venues for Asia League games in the country.
Gangneung is a popular city for people from the metropolitan area to spend long weekends. It offers traditional sites such as temples and the Gyeongpodae Pavilion, hiking routes and is also famous for its Gyeongpo Beach that gets crowded in summer. Among its landmarks is the Suncruise Resort, a hotel that looks like a huge cruiser, which wouldn’t be that unique per se were it not built on top of a hill. A Unification Park spotlights an American-built warship and a North Korean submarine among other things.
Currently, Korean hockey fans are looking to Goyang where the national team is put to a test. Can they confirm their record-high 21st place overall reached in last year’s World Championship program on home ice against Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Japan and Ukraine? Although it looks difficult after two defeats, it’s the goal to improve from last year’s fifth-place finish in the Division I Group A. There has been some work done with the creation of an army team that became the third Korean Asia League entry as well as the naturalization of a second and third Canada-born player who have been in the country for several years. Also the office of the Korean Ice Hockey Association has grown.
All this is part of a long-term program with PyeongChang 2018 on the horizon. And while the national team is building up for a brighter future, Olympic facilities are soon being built in Gangneung, the official venue city that welcomes guests coming from Seoul with the Olympic rings.
But not only facilities need to be built. Also the PyeongChang 2018 organizing committee will be growing. Among the staff is Younyoung Lee, a former player of the Korean women’s national team who has been appointed Ice Hockey and Ice Sledge Hockey Sport Manager.
Lee played for the national team for five years and quit in 2009. “My most memorable tournament as a player was the Women’s World Championship event in Sheffield,” she said. “It was special because I scored my first goal for the national team.”
Among the players she competed against was IIHF Council member Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer from Hungary, who she met recently off the ice in Sochi. There Lee worked in the organizing committee’s sport department in ice hockey at the 2014 Olympics for three weeks and earlier she was an intern with the Vancouver 2010 organizers.
Although ice hockey doesn’t enjoy exactly the same popularity like in the last Winter Olympic host countries – Canada, Russia and the United States – the sport doesn’t go unnoticed with fans eager to watch national and international hockey and a broadcaster that has followed the national team not only on home ice but also last year at the Division I event in Budapest.
“We have many fans of ice hockey for example in Anyang where the rink for 2,000 spectators is always full. Korea has 90 years of history in ice hockey,” Lee said. She hopes that many people and the media in Korea will follow the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Goyang where she’s also part of the organizing committee.
After searching contractors, the first machines should come to the empty building sites next month and in October 2016 the venues are scheduled to be finished said Jungrim Koo, Project Manager in the Ice Sports Venue Team who graduated in architecture.
“Ice Hockey 1” is the project name of the venue where the medal games will be held in less than four years from now and shall offer space for 10,000 seats and a practice rink just beside. The area lies in a valley that will be labelled Gangneung Sports Complex and also includes venues for curling, figure skating, speed skating, short track and a broadcast centre in the nearby football stadium.
“After the Olympics the arena will be moved to another city in the Gangwon province but it’s not decided yet to which city. There have been discussions about Wonju,” Koo said. Wonju is the biggest city in the province.
On the road to the place where the secondary rink will be built one can imagine why Gangneung calls itself famous for pine trees. It’s the area of the Kwandong University where a gymnasium has been demolished to make space for a 6,000-seat ice rink with ten dressing rooms that’s supposed to stay there after the Olympics to leave a legacy for the university that doesn’t have an ice hockey team yet. During the 2018 Olympics, the venue will mainly be used for the women’s ice hockey tournament. An area 30 metres away on the other side of the road is made ready to build the practice rink.
Both arenas are a 5- to 10-minute drive from the Coastal Olympic Village and 15 minutes from each other. And to the bustling metropolis of Seoul it’s just a two-hour car ride. On the highway one can already see the new high-speed railway being constructed, one that will make the journey to Seoul and its international airport in Incheon even quicker.
How the arenas will be used before and after the Olympics has not yet been determined, but Lee hopes to see Asia League games in Gangneung. “In my opinion it could be used as an ice hockey venue for the Asia League,” Lee said. Maybe with a fourth Korean team in the league, by moving a team there or by simply holding games in the arenas once they’re open.
Having the Winter Olympics in Korea and being involved is an unbelievable feeling for Lee, who grew up in Seoul where the 1988 Summer Olympics took place.
“It’s our first Olympic Winter Games in Korea so we are wondering how it will be. It’s the third time only in Asia after two times in Japan, so it will be very special for us,” Lee said.