NIKKO – Before the start of the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament Group J in Nikko, Japan, there was a sense that it would be a two-horse race between host Japan and Great Britain.
After all, these two teams compete in the Division IA level, Romania is one division lower, and the upstart Korean team only just won promotion and wouldn’t be a challenge. Or would they?
As Great Britain found out in the first game, they were. Korea came back to upset the Brits in a shootout, then nearly did the same to Japan a day later.
By comparison to the top-ranked nations, Korea doesn’t have a strong ice hockey team, something Korea Olympic Committee (KOC) President Park Yong-sung admitted back in March 2012 when discussing the preparations for Korea’s own Olympics, being held in PyeongChang in 2018.
But he has to be pleased with the efforts made in a short span of time. Only a month later Korea defeated Poland on the opponent’s ice in Krynica in the final game of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B, coming back from two goals down to win 3-2 and earn promotion to Division IA, one level below the top.
With that victory, Korea also moved up three spots in the IIHF World Ranking. This is a very positive first step for the men’s team, since moving up the rankings is the only way they will be able to qualify for the 2018 Olympics. But in order to make it to the Olympic tournaments, the men’s team currently ranked 28th and the women’s team currently ranked 26th still have to improve their positions significantly.
A tall order, but not impossible. And with the strides the Korean program has made in both the men’s and women’s ice hockey, there is a push by the Olympic committees and the government to make the teams into contenders in time for the show in PyeonChang.
For the advancement of the sport, the organizing committee has committed to building two rinks, at Gangneung Sports Complex and Yongdong College. The government has put aside funding for the programs, and the Korean Ice Hockey Association couldn’t be happier.
“We have been encouraged with the advancement of the program in the past few years, and being awarded the 2018 Olympics, it can only benefit the Korean ice hockey landscape and hopefully make us into an even better team going forward,” said head coach Sun Wook Byun.
One obstacle to player development has come from a source that not often intercedes with hockey in other nations. Every male Korean between 18 and 35 is required to serve approximately two years in the military (between 21 and 24 months, depending on the military unit).
There are few exceptions to this rule, and none for hockey players (members of the South Korean football team did earn an exemption after earning the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics). However, the Korean government has relaxed the military conscription to allow for conscripted players to continue to compete and hone their skills in military leagues.
Later on this year, the Korean U18 team will travel to the Czech Republic for a month-long tour featuring a series of games against Czech teams.
“Getting guys out to play overseas is really important for us,” said Korean forward Wooje Sung, who lived and played in Calgary, Canada, before returning to Korea and now playing for the national team. “It’s good to let them experience other styles of play and see how they can match up against players their age from other countries.”
Korea’s rise has also been helped by the Asia League, which has been a key driver for talent development, especially at the national level. Anyang Halla, one of the two Korean teams, won its first league title in 2010, the first non-Japanese team to be crowned champion of the Asia League since it was formed in 2003. Playing regularly against Japanese teams, in essence an extension of the national team, has allowed for much needed experience for the players to compete at a high level.
13 of the 22 players competing in Nikko are from Anyang. Five came from the other Korean Asia League team, High1 Chuncheon, and four play minor league hockey in Finland.
“It’s a natural evolution, when you are the best team in your region of the world and you’re constantly playing down, you’re going to eventually better your neighbours,” said Japan head coach Mark Mahon. “Look at Denmark as another example, and how they use their Scandinavian neighbours to develop their players.”
“It’s the same here, originally the Asia League had a Russian team (Amur) that was one step up for us to play against, since they left we’ve been playing down, and it’s good to see Korea improve because it pushes us to want to stay on top of the mountain.”
No more was this apparent on Saturday in Korea’s second game against their Asian rivals, a hard fought match that saw the Koreans come back to tie the game with 12 seconds left in regulation only to lose in overtime.
While the loss dimmed their chances of moving on the Final Qualification stage for the Sochi Olympics, the future is still bright for Korea, with the prospect of contending at the Olympics on home ice, something unheard of in years past, now a goal to be worked towards in the “Land of the Morning Calm”.