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Joint Korean hockey team to play at least 3 N. Koreans at PyeongChang Olympics

LAUSANNE -- The historic joint Korean women's hockey team will feature at least three players from North Korea, as per a decision reached by the International Olympic Committee on Saturday.


Following a meeting with representatives from the two Koreas, IOC President Thomas Bach announced that an additional 12 players from North Korea will join the current South Korean Olympic squad of 23.

This will be the first unified Korean team at an Olympic Games.

The two countries have previously fielded joint teams at the world table tennis championship and the world youth football championship.

The actual game day rosters in women's hockey, however, will remain unchanged at 22, in "respect to fair play and the other competing teams," according to the IOC.

South Korea's bench boss Sarah Murray will serve as the head coach of the unified team, and the IOC said Murray will select at least three players from North Korea for each game.

The IOC said the team will be represented by the Korean Unification Flag, which bears the image of the Korean Peninsula in blue against a white background, and will use the acronym COR. The team's anthem will be the Korean folk song "Arirang."

"This team will be a great symbol of the unifying power of Olympic sport," Bach said, while also thanking the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for its "enthusiastic cooperation."

The Koreas agreed to put together the joint team on Wednesday, amid much controversy south of the border. Seoul faced backlash from the public for its hasty push to include North Korean players on the women's hockey team, with critics saying that South Korean players would be robbed of their chance to play in the Olympics and that the government was only using the sport to achieve its political objective.

Officials have said they will try to reduce the negative consequences for the South Korean team, but under the IOC's decision, at least three South Korean athletes will have to watch from the stands each game.

Murray earlier said she was "shocked" that joint team talks were ongoing so close to the Olympics. She said it would be "dangerous" to team chemistry, which has been built over the past three or four years as the same core players have competed together, if new players were added to her squad.

South Korea's first game is against Switzerland on Feb. 10, the day after the opening ceremony. Murray's team is also scheduled to face Sweden in a tuneup game in two weeks.

The North Korean delegation is scheduled to arrive in PyeongChang on Feb. 1, which would leave very little time for its hockey players to work out with the South Korean team and build chemistry.

South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan, who attended Saturday's meeting, said he hopes North Korean hockey players will arrive before the rest of their national delegation and start training with South Korean players as soon as possible.

The two Koreas faced each other last April during the IIHF Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament in Gangneung, the same city that will host all the Olympic hockey games. South Korea prevailed 3-0, a result that doesn't fully indicate the lopsided nature of the contest.

South Korea went on to win that tournament with a perfect 5-0 record, a national team on the rise at world No. 22. North Korea, which finished fourth last April, is currently world No. 25 but has fallen on some hard times of late.

Murray said she noted some "hard-nosed and intense" players from North Korea but said none would be good enough to crack the top three lines on the South Korean team.

Murray, the daughter of former National Hockey League head coach Andy Murray, said she hoped she wouldn't be pressured into playing North Korean players because she wanted all her starters, whether from the South or the North, to earn their playing time.

"I am hoping we can just play the way we play and not have the influence of, 'I need to play this player,'" she said on Tuesday after returning from a U.S. training camp. "I just want the best players to play. If you play your best, then you earn your ice time. Whether you're South Korean or North Korean, they have to earn their place."

Murray did say at the time, "If we add two or three players, it should be okay to manage that."

While Murray may have been diplomatic earlier in the week, other South Korean hockey officials reacted to Saturday's development with frustration.

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is "technically impossible" for Murray to check on 12 new players this close to the competition.

"For Murray, she's busy enough checking on her own players and monitoring their form," the official said. "And to ask her to work with these North Korean players puts way too much pressure on her shoulders."

One national team source, who also requested anonymity, said North Korean players will feel pressured to perform because they're joining a team that has already been together for a few years and will face stiff competition from higher-ranked opponents.

"On paper, we're still behind our group stage opponents, Sweden (world No. 5), Switzerland (No. 6) and Japan (No. 9)," the source said. "We've got our work cut out for us, and this won't make things any easier."

Another national team source said the hockey community will have to move forward now that the joint team is set in stone and nothing can be done to change it.

"Our players have put in so much work over the last four years, and we now have to create an environment where they can concentrate on their training," the source said. "Coach Murray has to be able to decide on her own which players to play, without any political pressure. I also hope our politicians will stop sending distracting messages, like North Koreans will be helpful to the team and South Korean players actually want to play with North Koreans." (Yonhap)

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