Despite their teams' underdog status at next year's Winter Games on home ice, coaches of the South Korean men's and women's squads on Wednesday seemed undaunted by the challenges ahead.
Jim Paek, ex-National Hockey League rearguard now coaching the men's team here, and Sarah Murray, former standout in U.S. collegiate hockey leading the South Korean women's team, attended a press conference in Seoul, marking the 200-day countdown to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Both teams will compete in the Olympics for the first time, having received spots as the host. The men's team, ranked 21st, has been grouped with Canada, the undisputed world No. 1 and two-time reigning Olympic champion, along with the Czech Republic (No. 6) and Switzerland (No. 7).
The women's team, world No. 22, will also take on three top-10 nations in the group stage: Sweden (No. 5), Switzerland (No. 6) and Japan (No. 7).
South Korea has made significant progress in both men's and women's hockey, though the Olympics will be an entirely different animal. But Paek said the objective is to win as much as possible.
"My expectation is gold, absolutely," said Paek, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "Why do we even play if we don't prepare to win the gold? In order for us to be successful, we have to think and act like an elite team. Win or lose, I don't have the crystal ball. But I know we've prepared extremely hard for the last three years."
|Jim Paek, head coach of the South Korean men's hockey team, speaks at a press conference at the National Training Center in Seoul on July 19, 2017. (Yonhap)|
The women's team has also moved up in the world championships ladder. In April, South Korea ran the table to win the IIHF Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament, and earned a promotion to the next level of competition, Division I Group B, for the first time.
Murray, daughter of the former NHL head coach Andy Murray, said her team will have its chances to surprise people.
"We're going to go into every game with the intention of winning," she said. "In our group, if you have a good goalie and have someone score lots of goals, there are chances of things happening. We're going to play to win and make sure we won't have regrets after the game."
Both national teams have a series of friendly games and international tournaments coming up before the Olympics. They will all play higher-ranked nations, and the men's squad, in particular, will face the top three in the world, Canada, Russia and Sweden, at a tournament in Russia in December.
Though the NHL has decided not to send its players to PyeongChang and the top pros likely won't play in that competition in Russia, South Korea will still be hard pressed to keep Canada in check.
But this is how Paek sees it: bring it on.
"I hope Canada thinks (it can win handily) so we can slide in there and beat them," Paek said with a smile. "We've earned (our way) into that elite level of hockey. We understand that it's a different world, but we're going to try to make them chase us. I believe we can do that."
The tough pre-Olympic schedule runs the risk of having South Korea go into PyeongChang on a long losing streak. But Paek, ever the optimist, says he doesn't have a problem with that possibility.
"If we lose by 100 goals or whatever before the Olympics, that's okay. You have to fail in order to get better," he said. "Our men have grown mentally tough and nothing will bother them. They're never too high and never too low. And our skill level has grown a tremendous amount. If we have failure now, hopefully we'll learn from that and that will allow us to do well in the Olympics."
|Sarah Murray, head coach of the South Korean women's hockey team, speaks at a press conference at the National Training Center in Seoul on July 19, 2017. (Yonhap)|
"It's going to be some of the best hockey we're going to play in the history of our team, and we see it as a good test," she said. "It's a chance for us to learn and get better. We'll see what we need to improve and change."
Murray also noted that the top-ranked countries, which previously didn't want anything to do with South Korea, have started calling first to schedule games.
"Because of our success and the way we've improved the last three seasons, now they're calling us, asking us to play against them," Murray said. "It's a huge shout out to our players and what they've done these past three seasons. We've improved so much." (Yonhap)