Korea one year on
by Martin Merk|09 FEB 2019
North & South together: two ice hockey players from the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, Su Yuon Jung and Jongah Park, make the Olympic torch’s last steps to the cauldron together. Their team was a symbol of peace and arguably the biggest story at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
One year ago, the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games were launched.  

A chilly opening ceremony held in the mountains in the east of the Republic of Korea set the stage perfectly before the first puck drop on the ice in Gangneung, the coastal city at the East Sea that hosted the ice sport events.

To mark the occasion, the Korean Ice Hockey Association is celebrating the one-year mark this weekend with a men’s and women’s Legacy Cup.

During the winter the Gangneung Hockey Centre, the main Olympic ice hockey venue, came back to life with a series national ice hockey tournaments along with the two international ice hockey tournaments in February as the highlights. The other venue, the Kwandong Hockey Centre, was as planned given to the nearby Catholic Kwandong University that now uses it as a multi-sports venue.

Dreams of a hockey hub in Gangneung

The Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) has repeatedly stated its desire for making the Gangneung Hockey Centre a hub for ice hockey.

"We all understand the importance of Olympic legacy, and we all believe this arena has to be used only for hockey," KIHA President Mong-won Chung told the Yonhap news agency. "We can't just be sitting around and waiting for the government to help us. This is our sport, and we have to take the initiative and responsibility."

"My dream is to turn Gangneung into a hockey town. I hope to see the day when people think of Gangneung, they'll think of hockey."

During its recent assembly, the KIHA voted to make the big facility with two ice rinks the cradle for the development of Korean ice hockey.
The Gangneung Hockey Centre during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: Martin Merk

Keeping Korean hockey on the rise

The Olympics have left a legacy in Korean ice hockey, not only for this facility 230 kilometres east of Seoul, where prior to the Games most of the country’s hockey was played.

With the Olympics on the horizon, interest for ice hockey increased, as did funding and support for top female and male hockey players. Since Korea was awarded the right to host the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in 2011, the men’s team has moved up within seven years from 31st to 16th place in the world, the women’s team from 28th to 16th. During this process Korea overtook Japan, the traditional number-one ice hockey country in the Far East, in men’s hockey.

While critics may say the Korean teams had a free entry to the Olympic ice hockey tournaments as a host, the Korean men’s national team qualified on the ice for the top-level 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship – even though the first experience ended with relegation.

The end of the Olympics is the beginning of a new chapter for Korean ice hockey. Former NHLer Jim Paek remains in charge of the national team program and continues as head coach of the men’s national team. The Korean club teams in the Asia League remain strong and are also an attractive destination for players from abroad. This including the recent addition to the Daemyung Killer Whales of former Russian national team player and NHLer Alexander Frolov.

The ambition in Korea remains high. The men’s teams is looking to get back to the top level at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Kazakhstan and for both the men’s and women’s team the Koreans have the qualification for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing in mind. On the women’s side, thoughts remain about icing another Unified Korean team in women’s hockey.
Farewell of the Korean men’s ice hockey team after a tight loss against Finland in the first playoff round.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Women’s ice hockey builds bridges

That brings us to another legacy. The 2018 Olympics symbolized peace on the once-troubled Korean peninsula. Before the start of Olympics, the political climate changed within a few weeks from words of war to reconciliation. The two countries agreed to send athletes from the north to the south, march together at the opening ceremony and even to have a unified team in a team sport at the Olympics for the first time in history with the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team.

Some exceptions needed to be made, including an increased roster to add players from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea without having to cut players from the Republic of Korea team that was preparing for the Olympics. It was a remarkable challenge to unite the players from north and south within a few days once they came together that ended with great team spirit and tears after the last game. A book with many images and background information from former IIHF Council member Beate Grupp, who followed the team as liaison person, illustrates the team life of this historic and unique group of young women and the legacy they left. You can find the book here.

The extra attention certainly didn’t hurt the women’s ice hockey tournament that ended with an exciting and tight gold medal game where the United States dethroned Canada as Olympic champion.

The fairy tale story of the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team was realized in its first game in Kwandong, which was attended by top-level political dignitaries from the two Koreas and other countries. The team became the story of the Games, and a symbol of peace and of the dream to live together as one people. It was a first opportunity for the politicians in a long time to talk together at high level about the future on the Korean peninsula and the north-south relationships. Their inspiration was right there on the ice, tangible proof of the potential for cooperation between north and south. 

Hockey built bridges on and off the ice, and the first discussions at the Olympics were followed by historic political meetings between the leaders of the two Koreas and the President of the United States.
Emotional farewell after the last game as the players from the north and south, who joined together for the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, had to part ways.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images

German fairy tale

There were winners on Korean ice and teams that didn’t perform as well as hoped. The tournament certainly left a lasting legacy outside of Korea. This was no more evident than in Germany, as the men’s ice hockey team claimed a historic silver medal and was close to beating the favoured Olympic Athletes from Russia in the gold medal game after having eliminated Canada in the semi-finals. They were eventually voted as Team of the Year in Germany.

Ice hockey and its athletes got more media attention in Germany, and in the country’s top league DEL the average attendance grew by over two per cent. Nine out of 14 teams have a higher attendance than one year ago during the regular season.
Fans in Korea enjoy the last game of the Olympics between the Olympic Athletes of Russia and Germany.
photo: John Huet / International Olympic Committee

Boost for women’s hockey

Women’s ice hockey is growing by leaps and bounds and the top players getting better every year.

In North America, more teams from the National Hockey League start partnering in women’s hockey. Recently some of the American and Canadian women’s national team players were even invited to the NHL All-Star Skills and showed in skating and passing skills challenges that their skill level is on par with the men’s. What an eye-opener!

In Europe and Asia the level has increased over the years and the gap to North America become smaller – visible by tighter results in the senior or under-18 Women’s World Championships or even upsets. The Finnish players were rewarded with stipends after their bronze medal performance at last year’s Olympics to be able to focus more on ice hockey and training in the years to come.

With the increasing interest in Korea, the Republic of Korea for the first time formed an under-18 women’s national team this season. It started in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Qualification and won its first tournament in a final against Kazakhstan.

This spring the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship will for the first time be played with ten teams (up from eight) in Espoo, Finland. In summer the IOC supported the increase to ten teams for the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Beijing 2022 as well.
Women’s hockey stars Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight celebrate after winning Olympic gold.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Legacy Cup going on

In the meantime Korean ice hockey fans can enjoy international ice hockey again at the Gangneung Hockey Centre. Kazakhstan won the men’s tournament ahead of Latvia while Korea finished in third place after a 2-0 win over Japan on Friday.

As of today it’s time for the Women’s Legacy Cup with Hungary, Korea and Latvia.

The message is the same then as it is now.

Dream big.