‘You have to play together’: Canadian coach skates past politics to lead unified Korean women’s hockey team – World

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When Canadian Sarah Murray came to South Korea to develop a women’s hockey team four years ago, she could never have imagined she’d be thrust into one of the biggest dramas so far of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

For the first time in more than 65 years, North and South Korean athletes played on a single Olympic team as the women’s hockey squad took to the ice against Switzerland Saturday in Gangneung. The combined team lost 8-0 to Switzerland in front of a sellout crowd.

Murray, a Canadian, is shepherding the history-making team that has found itself at the centre of geopolitical gamesmanship.

It’s hard to have … 35 players on your team coming from separate countries that don’t typically get along,” Murray said in an exclusive interview with CBC. “You have them in the same locker room, you have to play together and you get them 10 days before the Olympics. The whole situation is kind of mind-blowing.”

Pyeongchang Olympics Opening Ceremony

Hockey players Jong Su-hyon of North Korea, left, and Park Jong-ah of South Korea carry the torch during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Friday in Pyeongchang. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

On the night of the opening ceremony, at least, there was unity. Jong Su-hyon, a North Korean player, and Park Jong-ah, a South Korean teammate, took the Olympic torch up its last flight to hand off to figure skating megastar Yuna Kim, who lit the cauldron.

Murray’s carefully planned training strategy for her team upended two weeks ago when the North and South agreed to mount the unified Olympic team.

“The timing was tough. We heard in September that there were rumours about them combining with our team and we thought, ‘OK if they’re going to combine, let’s do it now.’ ”

But the North Korean players were bused across the border only 10 days before the team’s first scheduled Olympic game. That left the coach precious little time to integrate 15 new players who were complete strangers.

‘A little bit dangerous’

Murray has worked hard to elevate a young, inexperienced team. It was ranked 24th in the world when she arrived. As host, Korea got a bye into the tournament and will compete against the top seven teams in the world.

By mid-January, Murray had her roster of 23 picked out — and then politics took over. She was ambushed by the news. Negotiations over her team were being finalized but she had precious few details and no control over the final decison. Returning to Seoul in mid-January from training camp in the U.S., she spoke bluntly to the mob of Korean media.

“Adding somebody, North Korean or South Korean, so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous, just for team chemistry, because the girls have been together for so long.”

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Murray had little time to integrate 15 North Korean players with South Korean members of the team. (Chris Corday/CBC)

She said she felt her team was being used for politics.

“I didn’t really have a lot of information and didn’t realize the magnitude of the situation until I got to the airport,” Murray told CBC this week.

“I was surrounded by cameras asking about North Korea and their coming in and it was hard because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of answers”.

North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un had set negotiations in motion in his New Year’s address, indicating his support for the Olympics as a “good chance” to show the greatness of the Korean people.

A rapprochement?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in wanted their participation — not only was this the first sign of a possible rapprochement, but North Korea’s presence would also temper fears of a security threat from the North.

But the plan sparked a hot reaction.

The South Korean government “misread the public mood on this,” says Sokeel Park, research and strategy director of Liberty in North Korea, a non-governmental organization that helps North Korean refugees.

“I think a lot of the youth are particularly sympathetic to the female South Korean ice hockey players who’ve been preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at the Olympics and then these older politicians have kind of steamrolled in and  disrupted their project.”

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Danelle Im is one of two Canadians playing on the unified Korean team. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Demonstrators burned a life-sized photo of Kim Jong-un and protested at the team’s friendly game with Sweden. One survey showed 70 per cent of those polled opposed the idea of a unified hockey team.

But with the Olympics bearing down, all Murray could do was dig in.

Born in Brandon, Man., she and her brothers all played hockey, as they moved around with their father Andy, a Team Canada and NHL coach with Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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