When Korea faced off against Kazakhstan for the team’s final game of the 2023 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division I Group B tournament in April, Suwon Ice Rink was filled to the brim. The crowd that came out to watch Korea’s national team was so big, rink staff had to actually turn people away. Two thousand three hundred people packed the arena, and with the exception of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, it was the biggest crowd women’s hockey in Korea had ever seen.
To top it all off, Korea won not just that final game, but the entire tournament, earning promotion up to Division I Group A for the first time—and this all took place at the new home of women’s hockey in Korea.
Suwon City’s ice rink was developed and built to continue the legacy of the unified Korean women’s hockey team that competed at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics. In October following the Games, Korea’s first professional women’s hockey team was created, and a multimillion dollar facility was commissioned to be built as their home at Gwanggyo Lake Park. It opened in January 2023, with the Division I Group B tournament being the first event hosted in the arena.
“It means a lot to Suwon City and also Korea Ice Hockey Association because this is part of a legacy,” said Kwangeun Choi, General Manager of Korea’s national team program. “It means that women’s hockey is growing and there might be a better future for women’s hockey in Korea, since we have the team and the arena.”
While Suwon City’s rink is used for public skating and by other user groups, the professional team takes priority, and gets first pick of ice times. The goal is to see this model mimicked elsewhere in the country in order to facilitate a professional women’s league. Currently the professional team travels a few times a year for tournaments in Japan or Europe, and has played in a U15 boys league and the Handon Women’s Ice Hockey League (also known as The Dream League).
“We hope the other provinces and cities see women’s hockey has some kind of future so they might found a new women’s team,” said Choi. “Ultimately we [would then] have our own league. If we have four women’s teams, then we have a league. And if they all get paid, just for playing hockey like our Suwon City players, that’ll be absolutely stunning.”
With funding from the city, the players on Suwon’s professional team are paid to play hockey full-time, and the team has become a significant training avenue for the national program. Fourteen players who competed at the recent World Championship play for Suwon City, including Korea’s leading scorers Heewon Kim, Soojin Han and Jongah Park.
“I definitely see the impact [of the Olympics],” said Choi, reflecting on the legacy of PyeongChang 2018. “During that time we only had 2000 players that are registered. Now we are reaching over 4000 players that are registered. Women’s hockey—we had pretty much 240 players at that time, but now there’s 500 easily.”
The Handon Women’s Ice Hockey League, an initiative launched in 2022 with the aim of growing women’s hockey in Korea, is another example of the recent advancement of the sport. The inaugural edition of the league had 120 players, and when teams take to the ice this summer in Suwon for the league’s second season, that number will have doubled.
While the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) has continued to face challenges, they’ve also seen how committed investment and thinking outside of the box can make a difference.
“A lot of people really underestimate Korea,” said Choi. “I’ve been working here over 13 years now, and that was my first impression. Once they come and see how we organize and how we play hockey, they have a good impression of hockey in Korea.”
In addition to being the home of Korea’s first professional women’s hockey team, and the location of a history-making performance by the national team, KIHA hopes that Suwon could be a consistent host of World Championship events.
“Then hockey in Suwon and Korea could grow as kids are seeing the World Championship,” said Choi. “That has to be our ultimate goal.”