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Symbol to hockey nation? Korea’s challenge now what’s next

February 20, 2018

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2018 file photo, North Korea's Jin Ok (32), of the combined Koreas team, joins teammates Park Yoonjung (23), Park Ye-eun (11), Kim Selin (8), and Kim Heewon (12) during the third period of the classification round of the women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. The Korean women’s hockey team coming together for the Pyeongchang Games helping countries separated for decades to come together - if only for a few weeks of games - is a moment for history. Now only South Korea can decide if hockey fever takes root and the country becomes a regular on the international stage, or if all this effort was simply to put on a good show as Olympic hosts. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Korean women’s hockey team, thrown together in a historic combination of players from both North and South, will forever be a milestone that had ramifications beyond the Olympics.

Now only South Korea can decide if hockey truly takes root and the nation becomes a regular on the international stage — the women, sure, but also the South Korean men’s team, which also made a somewhat quieter Olympic debut.

Men’s assistant coach Richard Park believes hockey is poised for growth in South Korea and around Asia, which will host the next Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

“I don’t know if you’re at any particular stage where you can put a term on it like ‘the sleeping giant,’” Park said. “There’s obviously an opportunity for growth. Hopefully the Olympics, we’ll be able to use it as a springboard, or some sort of platform, and really accelerate the growth of the sport here.”

South Korea built its men’s and women’s teams by tapping players with ties to the country and the Justice Ministry was asked to fast-track the naturalization of imported players. Two hockey arenas and two practice rinks also were built to handle all the games and practices in Gangneung.

Putting the men’s team together took four exhaustive years of work by Park and head coach Jim Paek among many, a steep climb in a nation that in 2014 had little more than 100 registered male hockey players.

Building from here will mean more money and other resources and it also means offering the sport at the youth level and establishing strong junior leagues. Having a place to play for a country’s top players also is a priority.

Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said China is working hard with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League and two other teams playing in Russia. Kunlun Red Star, featuring Finnish goalie Noora Raty, is an expansion team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

“To be sustainable we need a strong league, a domestic league,” Fasel said. “We are actually working in China with that. We will also try to get the Koreans on the same path.”

Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang Olympic organizing committee, noted South Korea has a junior women’s hockey team.

“When they grow up, this will be much stronger than this lady ice hockey team,” said Lee, who added that there are discussions about building a professional women’s team after the Olympics.

Defenseman Lee Don Ku, who plays on an Asian league team in South Korea, said he sees some interest at the junior level but there are no official leagues.

“But I hope that can change in the future,” Lee said.

Only time will tell if fans who turned out to cheer, chant and sing in support of the Korean hockey teams keep watching.

Playing better hockey certainly can help drive interest.

The men’s team lost its first three games at the Olympics by a combined score of 14-1.

The women lost all five games, but proved to be quick learners. They were routed 8-0 in the opener by Switzerland and beaten by the same score in their second game. After that, though, came a rugged 4-1 loss to Japan that saw the team’s first goal (Randi Heesoo Griffin got the honor) and then a %href_on(file:

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