Six years after hosting the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, South Korean hockey fans smiled, some cried, and all cheered as the under-16 Korean women’s hockey team won the silver medal in the 3-on-3 tournament of the Youth Olympic Games last week.
South Korea lost the final game to Hungary but everyone in the arena knew the monumental step forward they had just witnessed for female hockey in South Korea.
“It was a testament that, if you invest in women’s hockey, it will work. The girls have the potential, we had a lot of opportunity to improve,” says Sang Eun Lee, an IOC Young Leader and founder of South Korea’s The Dream League, an all-female hockey league. “Looking at the game against Hungary, we learned a lot on how to improve our mentality and strength. But they obviously proved that they could do it. They weren’t sure if they could be a competitive team on the international level but the players realized they are competent, not only in The Dream League, but also at the international level.”
This moment filled Lee with pride, as she knew its significance. The former competitive ice hockey player and short track speed skater (Lee continues to play recreational hockey in her new home in London, England) made a commitment several years ago to grow the female hockey game in her native South Korea.
As a child, she played hockey mostly with boys, as there were few girls in the game and, certainly, no dedicated female league. That all changed following the success of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, when Korea made its debut in women’s hockey on the greatest stage of them all. Lee had a dream of an all-female hockey league and, with her hockey contacts on the ice and in the International Olympic Committee, International Ice Hockey Federation and in other circles, she turned that dream into reality.
She was named an IOC Young Leader for 2021-24, is also an IOC Athlete’s Entourage Commission Member and was team host for Switzerland at the 2018 Games. That and her countless experiences on and off the ice helped Lee start The Dream League in 2022 which, at that time, consisted of six female hockey teams in Korea, with players ranging in age from 10 to almost 60.
“My role was as an IOC Young Leader and that really motivated me to set the ground for The Dream League,” says Lee. “When I was a hockey player more than 10 years ago, I had a sense that we needed more games and a league, as I was always with the boys. I never saw any women’s hockey players before. This was my personal dream for a long time.”
In 2023, The Dream League more than doubled in size to 14 teams across three divisions. The first iteration of the league had the six teams all playing together, despite a gap in skill from top to bottom. The current league sees the 14 teams split into three divisions – recreational, intermediate and elite.
Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, a member of the IIHF Council, says The Dream League grew from 120 players in its first year to over 200 in the second year. She adds that ice hockey is climbing the ranks in terms of popularity amongst South Korean youth, with a recent national survey showing it as the second choice for sports, just behind soccer. This all should lead to even more success on the international stage.
“They are definitely putting themselves up for the challenges for top championships,” says Kolbenheyer. “They were promoted last year from Division 1B to 1A, so they are now among the top 16 teams. And, at the same time, they’re putting more focus on the grassroots level growth, aiming to create more local teams and letting the girls be able to play from any region or any level.”
The players on South Korea’s under-16 team that claimed silver play in The Dream League and have benefited from the training, on-and-off ice education, female coaches and so much more that makes up the league. The Dream League is built on four pillars – Dreamlinkers, which was the first women’s team in Korea to have an all-female staff; the league/games component; a girls hockey camp run with support from the PyeongChang 2018 Legacy Foundation; and, finally, an ongoing career development program.
Today, South Korea has more than 2,000 female players, rinks scattered in all regions of the country (although, Lee says more investment in infrastructure could help alleviate some of the long travel that some players face for training), and a growing list of female coaches.
The work isn’t done as Lee’s current focus is continuing to add female coaches as some of the experienced teachers are set to retire from the game.
But the foundation is set. And the success of the women’s team at the Youth Olympic Games is certainly going to lead to more success. As the movie Field of Dreams so eloquently stated … if you build it, they will come.
“You saw the crowds through the videos at the (Youth Olympic) Games. It definitely contributed a lot of interest in women’s hockey,” says Lee. “This didn’t even happen in the Dream League to be honest. It was mostly the parents and the families who would attend. I was as happy about (seeing the crowds and support) as I was about the silver medal.
“My goal wasn’t to be a great hockey player or a world champion or national champion, but I wanted to be able to make the sport better, make the sport safer and that’s where my head is at.”