VIERUMAKI – At the 2016 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp members of the Korean women’s national team got sort of a first taste of the Olympics as they participated in mixed teams with players, coaches and staff from the top-15 women’s hockey nations.
The Korean group at the Sport Institute of Finland in Vierumaki includes head coach Sarah Murray and players Yu Jung Choi, 16, and Si Yun Jung, 15, who played each other in the Red vs. White game on Tuesday night.
“Our youngest players are turning out to be the strongest players on our team. They work really hard and are very skilled. This event here is my first chance to gauge how they are doing against the other girls and so far they blended with everyone else, which is good for us,” Murray said.
For both of the young players it’s the first time in Finland but not the first time in Europe. Despite their young age they played In April at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A in Bled, Slovenia, with the senior women’s national team where they ended up winning silver but lost the battle for promotion in a three-team tie for first place with Poland and Great Britain.
Here they had younger teammates and opponents than last spring but those are from North America, top European countries and Japan.
“I like the camp. It’s very interesting and exciting,” Jung said.
“It is fun and beneficial for me here,” echoed Choi, “although I miss the Korean food. It is sometimes a little difficult to get familiar with the players but it is fun to get to know so many other players.”
Both are normally living in the capital of Seoul with the national team but Choi is originally from Busan on the other side of the Republic of Korea.
“I started to play in Busan. My father was a teacher at school and there was a hockey team there so I got a chance to play hockey when I was 10 years old,” Choi said. “Playing hockey with teammates and practising with them is something I really liked from the beginning.”
To be able to pursue her career once she graduated from school her family even moved the 330 kilometres up to Seoul.
For Jung the career path was a bit different. She’s from Seoul and was originally playing inline hockey. “When I was 12 I switched to ice hockey,” she said and added that she liked most to body-check when she was playing in boys’ competitions.
For the women’s national team’s Canadian head coach Sarah Murray it will be the third season in Korea.
“It’s been an adventure finding out what they know, what they don’t know, living in Seoul without really speaking Korean although I’ve started classes. Everything was new and it’s been a rewarding experience,” said the daughter of former Team Canada and NHL coach Andy Murray, who lives in Seoul 11 months of the year now. “The girls and my staff are really good. It’s been interesting. I like the food, Seoul is a big city where there’s always something going on, I even took a Korean cooking class recently. And I’ve acquired the taste for kimchi.”
Until 2014 Murray was living in Switzerland together with her brother as she was playing for the ZSC Lions Zurich while her brother played nearby in the top men’s league for the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers.
“I had an interview and didn’t hear back for a while and then got an e-mail with the contract and had to make a decision whether I wanted to continue as a player or pursue my career as a coach. I liked playing and I liked my team so it was a harder decision than it should have been. When I talked to my family they said ‘Are you crazy? You have two, three years left to play. This is a national team program and the Olympics. Why are you hesitating?’,” the 28-year-old remembered.
Murray currently has 26 players in Korea that are candidates for the national team and they are working on getting passports for four players in North America with Korean roots including one who was born in Korea but adopted by an American family. “We’re trying to get all the documents ready for the Asian Winter Games in February. Fingers crossed it will work out,” she said. “It would definitely help our team. We just don’t have the numbers some of the other countries have.”
For Murray the culture and mentality in Asia is quite different. She noticed that the players don’t ask that many questions and when they are asked whether they understood everything they would say yes even if they didn’t. “They don’t want to question the authority of the coach,” she explained the reasons, “so at the beginning it was a bit complicated but we’ve gone to a point now when they’re asking questions and we manage to find a ways to communicate.”
With less than two years left until PyeongChang 2018 the dream of playing on the big stage is coming closer for the Korean players.
“Playing at the Olympics is my big dream,” Jung said. “I’m nervous when I think about it.”
“Going to the Olympics is my dream but I think I will need many, many more practices to reach that level,” said Choi. “I want to use this camp because it is beneficial to me to play with other girls from top hockey countries.”
The next big test for the Koreans will be the Asian Winter Games next year in Sapporo, Japan, where they will compete for medals against the likes of Japan, China and Kazakhstan. And in spring Korea will participate in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A where the Koreans aim for the tournament win against the Netherlands, Great Britain, neighbouring rival Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Slovenia and Australia.
“The players are excited to represent their country at the Olympics and a bit nervous. It’s just an amazing opportunity,” she said. “After missing out on promotion [last spring] the girls were really upset because they were not really prepared for the game [against Poland]. They are learning from that experience and will work harder this summer. We have a good chance that we will win our group next year.”