Women’s ice hockey team on the rise

The women’s national team players celebrate their winning of the championship of the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Division II Group A by throwing up head coach Sarah Murray at the Kwandong Hockey Centre in the eastern city of Gangneung, April 8. This was the first time the South Korean team has won the world title. / Yonhap

Canadian coach helps athletes build mental readiness

By Kang Hyun-kyung

The status of the women’s national ice hockey team was lifted last week after it topped the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Division II Group A championship.

Next year, Korean players will compete in the upper-tier group — Division I Group B. The national team was promoted to the higher division, swapping places with the bottom-ranked country in the upper division in accordance with IIHF rules.

Some call the progress a drama as South Korea was a chronic loser in international hockey games in the past. The national team, for example, had never posted a victory in its 17 games in the past five Asian Winter Games before Sapporo.

Korea’s rise to divisional championship raises a question — how has it become so strong in such a short time span? Insiders point to three key components for the formulaic success — the head coach’s effective leadership, the players’ hard training and generous funding from the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA).

Since taking the helm in October 2014, head coach Sarah Murray has focused on fixing the entrenched system and improving the players’ skills by instilling North American hockey culture.

“Everything you do affects how you play,” she said when asked if there were any points she stressed to the players in her early days with the national team. “Like in your free time when you are at home, like what you eat affects how you play, how you sleep affects how you play.”

Murray said the players’ sacrifice in their personal lives for their team’s performance is also part of professionalism.

“Maybe you want to go out and hang out with your friends, but we have a game tomorrow,” she said. “You have to sacrifice, not going out with your friends so you can focus on it. I really talked to them about what it really takes to be elite athletes. Hockey and personal life are related, not separated. We tried to bring it all together and tried to change a little bit about their lifestyles just like North American hockey culture.”

With its relatively young hockey history and poor infrastructure, South Korea is an emerging team on the international hockey scene. There is no women’s hockey team other than the national team which was founded in 1998, a year before the Winter Asian Games in Gangwon Province. Athletes from other winter sports, such as figure skaters and short-track speed skaters, were encouraged to join the national team as founding members at that time.

The pool of female ice hockey players is still slim as there are no professional teams.

Unlike Korea, there are many hockey players and qualified coaches in North America as the sport has a much longer history there.

Murray, who previously played for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs women’s hockey program and then for a professional hockey team in Switzerland, said narrowing the gap between Korean and North American hockey culture was one of the challenges she faced in her early days with the national team.

In her first year, the Canadian coach said she had a list of things she intended to change to make the team stronger. Instead of shock therapy, she chose a gradual approach to reform the team following her father’s advice. Her father, Andy Murray, is an IIHF hall of famer and a former coach of Team Canada.

Her father’s wisdom about how to lead a team in a different culture helped her a lot. “He gave me a lot of advice just on being patient,” she said. “My father said they have been on this team for many years and I just have to come and try to change everything. This won’t help me because they are not going to respect me.”

The power of being flexible is another lesson Murray learned from her father. “If you want something to happen and it doesn’t go the way instead of having a meltdown, just kind of going with the flow and adjusting. These have been so helpful for me,” she said.

Team captain Lee Kyou-sun said a lack of competition was a factor that weakened the competitiveness of the national team in the past. “We were able to improve our skills year after year partly because we have had opportunities in recent years to play against other female ice hockey teams in North America,” she said. The KIHA sponsored their annual trips to North America.

The national team has had a stronger presence in recent international competitions. Last year, the national team rose to runner-up in IIHF Division II Group A after defeating North Korea, Britain and Slovenia.

During the Sapporo Asian Winter Games in February, the South Korean team came in 4th place with three wins and two losses. The three wins include the Korea-China game, the first time Korea defeated the Chinese team after seven previous matches.

South Korea’s march to rewrite its hockey history continued in the 2017 IIHF championship held in the eastern city of Gangneung last week.

South Korea defeated Slovenia, Britain, Australia, North Korea and the Netherlands in a row and won the division title for the first time since the hockey team joined the international competition in 2004.

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