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[PyeongChang 2018] Joint Korean hockey coach credits NK assistant for building chemistry

GANGNEUNG -- It all seemed like a disaster in the making when the South Korean women's ice hockey team of 23 was asked to play with 12 North Koreans for the PyeongChang Olympics -- only about two weeks before its first game, too.

But to hear its head coach Sarah Murray tell it, the team chemistry has been excellent, thanks to some help from an unexpected source.

The 12 North Koreans joined Murray's South Korean team on Jan. 25, and their own coach, Pak Chol-ho, traveled with them. The International Olympic Committee, when announcing the decision to form the joint team, had insisted Murray would be fully in charge, and Pak's presence on the delegation raised some eyebrows.

Sarah Murray, head coach of the joint Korean women`s hockey team, blows a whistle during practice at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 7, 2018. (Yonhap)
Sarah Murray, head coach of the joint Korean women`s hockey team, blows a whistle during practice at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 7, 2018. (Yonhap)

There were also whispers that he could be a disruptive force, as he might seek to snatch some control from Murray and act in the interest of his own players.

But Murray said Wednesday that Pak has been simply "amazing."

"Without him, we couldn't have done what we're doing," Murray said after practice at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, the venue for all group stage games for Korea.

"The chemistry is better than I could have expected," Murray added. "When I heard that they were joining our teams, I was thinking the worst case scenarios. But it's fantastic."

Murray said Pak in particular has been "very open to suggestions." When Murray suggested that the players from the two Koreas should eat together and have meetings together, for instance, Pak was on board with the rest of the coaching staff.

"In the locker room, they're mixed," she said. "They've accepted that this is our new team. This is our family."

And to demonstrate their unity to the rest of the world, the entire team will walk together in the opening ceremony on Friday. The whole South Korean and North Korean delegations will have a joint march, the fourth such occasion at an Olympic Games, but the hockey team's presence carries extra significance because this is the first joint team in any sports at any Olympics.

"I think it's important for our team to walk together and show that we're unified," the coach added.

Murray's team will have to play the very next day -- against world No. 6 Switzerland at 9:10 p.m. Saturday at Kwandong Hockey Centre. On paper, Korea will be overmatched, as South Korea is No. 22 in the world and North Korea is three spots below.

But Murray said her players are buoyed by the way they battled fifth-ranked Sweden in their first game together last Sunday. It ended in a 3-1 loss for Korea, but all three Swedish goals came in the first period and Korea battled hard over the next two frames.

"If everyone gives their best, we can give Switzerland a good game," the coach said. "Switzerland has some very skilled players and a really good goalie. We feel if all of our lines play well and we play well together and play a very good system, we have a chance."

Murray said her players are "excited" for the first game, but it hasn't quite hit her yet that the Olympic Games are just around the corner. When her goalie coach, Rebecca Baker, reminded Murray over lunch on Wednesday that the opening ceremony was only two days away, Murray couldn't believe it.

"We've just been going day by day, and looking not really that far ahead," she said of her team. "I think we feel strangely calm right now, given everything that's going on. Right now, we just need to tweak our system a little bit."

For the second straight day, Murray ran separate practices for "Team A," comprising 22 players, and "Team B," made up of all the rest. While the entry for Korea has been expanded to 35 players as an exception, the actual game roster remains the same at 22 -- 20 skaters and two goalies.

Murray said the 22 that have practiced together the past two days will "most likely" play in the Olympics, with only a couple of changes.

Under the IOC's terms on the joint team, Murray has to play at least three North Koreans in the Olympics. She has put in five North Koreans in practices this week, but said she will have "three or four" North Koreans in the Olympics.(Yonhap)
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