How hockey players from a Montreal beer league ended up facing off in North Korea
A group of amateur hockey players from Canada shoot pucks in the world's most reclusive country
Like many Canadians, Jean-Marie Larochelle is used to lacing up his skates.
The Montrealer plays in a casual beer league with his buddies, Félix Moffatt and Alexandre Bergevin.
But the trio left their beer league behind for a week for a chance to play hockey in the most reclusive country in the world — North Korea.
It was Larochelle who first heard about a group of Canadians going there to volunteer as coaches. He immediately contacted the group, called Hockey Foundation, and asked to join.
"I love Korea and I always wanted to go visit the north, and to mix hockey and North Korea was the best combination for me," Larochelle told CBC News.
It was a chance to not only play in North Korea, but to help coach the country's national team.
Larochelle didn't have to do much convincing to get his buddies Bergevin and Moffatt to join him.
Bergevin didn't hesitate.
The veteran criminal lawyer has served as a member of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
"Certainly, it's the most reclusive country in the world. But if I had the chance to go into a courtroom to see how things unfold, I would," he said.
For Moffatt, who works in film production, it was an opportunity to see how people live under a dictatorship.
"We're going to play hockey. I'm not a fool, I know it's a country where freedoms are restricted and that we must think like the supreme master, but I will try to see how people live there and exchange with them."
They arrived in North Korea on March 7.
They were really good…We lost the first game 16-1.- Jean-Marie Larochelle, amateur hockey player
Once in the capital city of Pyongyang, the three were accompanied by a guide, 24 hours a day.
State television documented their every move — not just on the ice, but at tourist sites as well — and broadcast it to the nation.
"You realize you're part of their propaganda machine and you don't really have a choice but to play along. There's a bit of an unfortunate aspect to that, but for us it's not anything that was too invasive," Moffatt said.
What was most surprising to the group of Canadian hockey players though, was what they saw on the ice.
"They were really good. We were not prepared for that. We lost the first game 16-1," Larochelle said. "We learned from them, I think, and I guess they learned a little bit too from us."
Despite the culture clash and constant surveillance, it's a trip they would take all over again.
"Personally, I'd go back in a heartbeat, for sure," said Moffatt.
In fact, the three are already in talks to make it happen again next year.