GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 19: Lee Hee-Beom, President, PyeongChang 2018 Organizing Committee, Rene Fasel, President, International Ice Hockey Federation and Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, 2018 Olympic Women's Ice Hockey Tournament Chairwoman. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
News from the women’s hockey press conference
Korea's unified hockey team has won many hearts in PyeongChang - and now there are hopes that it could continue to compete in international competition.
The Unified Korean women’s hockey team could be more than a one tournament wonder – and might be back in Olympic action in Beijing in four years’ time.
IIHF President Rene Fasel, speaking at a press conference about the women’s tournament at this year’s Olympic Winter Games, was enthusiastic about the future for a joint Korean team.
“Right now we are already thinking about trying to continue,” he said. “So now we have to go to the IOC, and discuss it with North Korea. I think it would be a very good operation to do it to 2022 and somehow to go to the Beijing Olympics, to still keep the North Korean and South Korean women’s hockey team and then have this unified team as a message of peace. We should really continue that.”
Although the decision to enter a Unified Korean team in PyeongChang was only ratified in late January, it was the culmination of a serious effort behind the scenes over several years. For Fasel, that involved two trips to Pyongyang to meet with senior North Korean officials and prepare a strategy to make the idea viable in the face of significant political obstacles. It also involved tearing up the IIHF’s own regulations to allow a dozen additional players to be added to the Korean roster, ensuring that South Korean players were not abruptly dismissed from the team on the eve of the Games.
“It would be very difficult to tell five or six players that there was no place for them after they prepared for four years, so against any rule in our federation, we added an extra 12 players to have a mixed team,” Fasel added. “This team was so important for us, as it was for Korea – for South Korea and in the North. We are very pleased with how it worked out.”
Hee-Beom Lee, president of the PyeongChang organising committee, also talked up the teamwork that made the joint Korea line-up possible. For him, the key came last April when Gangneung hosted its Olympic test events and a North Korean team crossed the border to compete in an IIHF Championship.
“After those games, we found that if we had a joint ice hockey team with the North and the South, we would have a much stronger team,” he said. “But we only had two weeks to practise as a joint Korean team. It was too short to prepare well for the Games, but, as Rene mentioned, we will continue to discuss this issue in the run-up to Beijing.”
Lee also talked of plans to further develop women’s hockey in Korea. “Right now we don’t have a professional team or league for women’s hockey,” he said. “We are discussing with the government to build a professional women’s ice hockey team after the games. I believe the women’s ice hockey team will be stronger after PyeongChang 2018.”
The Korean team also helped to boost interest in the tournament. Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, tournament chairwoman and IIHF Council member, said that the games played before Monday’s semi-finals had attracted more than 60,000 spectators to the Kwandong Hockey Centre. “More than 15,000 people came to watch Unified Korea in their games,” she added. “Those are great numbers, because Korea is not a traditional hockey country but the game still has fans here. I hope that after the Olympics, people will come back to watch hockey in the future.”
There were also positives from the tournament results, with more evidence that the standard of competition is improving. “No team has scored more than eight goals in a game, and the biggest scores were against the Koreans, who have a lower ranking,” Kolbenheyer added. “This shows the development of women’s hockey. In Sochi, the biggest win was 9-0, so I think we can say that women’s hockey is developing.
“The Olympic Athletes from Russia are showing great progress and will play for an Olympic medal for the first time in history. Japan beat Sweden for its first win over a European nation at an Olympic Games.”
When the Winter Games go to Beijing for 2022 there’s also a chance the women’s ice hockey tournament may be played with more teams.
“The Chinese organizer were asking to add two teams in the women’s competition. And we will play our next Women’s World Championship with ten teams too,” said Fasel. The IIHF Congress will soon decide about the exact format for 2019 in spring and formal approval would also be needed for 2022.
For Kolbenheyer the time is right for the step following stronger competition for the spots at the spots at the Women’s World and Olympics.
“Yes, I’m sure that’s the next step we have to do in the women’s game. We had a strong Division I tournament, you never know which team will be promoted,” she said.