'You have to play together': Canadian coach skates past politics to lead unified Korean women's hockey team

When Canadian Sarah Murray came to develop a women’s hockey team in South Korea for the Olympics 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, Susan Ormiston writes.

Sarah Murray’s strategy thrown into chaos when North and South agreed to combine players

Canadian Sarah Murray is shepherding the history-making unified Korean women's hockey team. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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."

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."

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."

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.

Murray played NCAA hockey in the U.S. and was 27 when South Korea was looking for a development coach for the Olympics. Nothing in her experience or her hockey peerage could have prepared her for the particular challenges of this history-making moment combining the two Koreas in one unified team. 

Language was one. The North Korean dialect is different from South Korean so translation from English, already challenging, became more so.

Complicated logistics

"Our team meetings take three times as long because they go English to South Korean to North Korean," says Murray.

"In an attempt to help remedy this a little bit, we made a North Korean-South Korean-English hockey dictionary — words like wraparound, forecheck, D-zone — all in a three-page little dictionary."

Murray had to cut three of her own players and she has to play three North Koreans in every game.

Logistics are complicated. They suit up in the same dressing room, but travel on separate buses. The North Koreans don't room with their teammates. They're sequestered in separate accommodation.

At practice last week, the team was wearing Canadian-made CCM equipment, including pads and skates. (Chris Corday/CBC)

But Murray thinks the biggest issue is clothes.

"They can't wear American brands of equipment."

Sanctions against North Korea include luxury goods, which covers sporting goods.

At practice last week, the team was wearing Canadian-made CCM pads and skates; the North Korean coach was sporting what appeared to be new CCM blades. It's not clear whether that equipment is on loan. One report says the team's Finnish uniforms and sticks will have to be left behind when the North Korean players return home.

Diverse team

"We're learning as we go. We don't know what's going to be OK, what's not going to be OK," says Murray.

This unique team is already diverse. Two Canadians — Danelle Im and Caroline Park — and several Americans with Korean heritage were recruited years ago.

The North Korean coach is also on hand working with the team. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"I never imagined to be here in the first place in Korea and competing in the Olympics, so I'm very grateful and I'm very excited, I just want to focus on the hockey though," says Im.

Park, a forward, from Brampton, Ont., took a break from medical school to come to Seoul.

A huge promotional picture of her is displayed outside the Superstore in the Olympic plaza.

"I think at first you're not sure what to expect. You hear a lot from the news and you don't know what's going on," Park said at practice last Monday.

"But I think that when [the North Koreans] got here, they kind of exceeded our expectations. The players are just so, so nice and they're just so eager to learn."

Caroline Park says the North Korean players are eager to learn. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Murray has come to a similar conclusion. The worst was anticipating their arrival.

"Now the North Koreans are here, I love coaching them," says Murray.

"Just giving them the opportunity to learn and get better like they want so desperately. They want to get better and they love the sport."

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.