Once doormat, S. Korean women’s hockey earns historic wins, confidence in Sapporo

SAPPORO, Japan -- South Korea, once the perennial doormat in women's hockey, wrapped up its Asian Winter Games tournament Saturday having earned some historic wins and much-needed confidence.

South Korea routed Hong Kong 14-0 to finish the round-robin play with three wins and two losses.

Coached by former U.S. collegiate star Sarah Murray, South Korea arrived in Sapporo never having won a game at seven previous Winter Asiads. The country had been outscored by 242-2 in 15 contests.

South Korea opened the tournament with a bang, hammering Thailand 20-0. Then against the tournament favorite Japan, world No. 7, the 23rd-ranked South Korea battled hard in a 3-0 loss.

The very next day, running on fumes, South Korea lost to No. 18 Kazakhstan 1-0, which essentially ruled out its medal chances.

South Korea regrouped and defeated China 3-2 in a thrilling penalty shootout, as Park Jong-ah, the team's 10th shooter, scored the winner. It was South Korea's first win over China in eight meetings.

Then came Saturday's breezy victory over Hong Kong, which had earlier lost to Japan 46-0 and to Kazakhstan 19-0.

It's the kind of pain some South Korean players know all too well but is now increasingly becoming a distant memory.

Murray said South Korea remains a work in progress and needs to be more consistent with its efforts.

"The lesson we're taking away from this is you can't take a day off," she said. "Even if you had a late game the night before, and you have an early game the next day, there's no excuse. You have to play hard and give everything you've got every time you're on the ice."

The coach was referring to playing Japan and Kazakhstan on back-to-back days. The puck drop for the Japan game was 7 p.m., and South Korea had to come back the following day at 3:30 p.m. for Kazakhstan. Murray said the players were perhaps more tired mentally than physically.

"Now we're wishing that we would have played one of the games harder than we did," she added. "We want to make sure we play every game hard so we don't have any regrets at the end."

To that end, Murray said her players will have to improve their physical strength through "a whole lot more off-ice strength and conditioning."

"With that, a lot of pieces of our game will change," she said. "We'll do better when we're battling in the corners, our shots will be better, and our passes will be harder."

If South Korea had focused on the short-term goal of winning a medal here, then the players could have perhaps taken their foot off the pedal against Japan and conserved their energy for Kazakhstan.

Murray said, however, the Japan showdown was South Korea's statement game. Because South Korea earned an automatic spot in next year's Olympic tournament in PyeongChang as the host, while Japan played its way into the competition, Murray said the game was a chance to prove South Korea was a deserving Winter Olympics contestant.

"Japan was our gold medal game. In our minds, we thought we could play with them," she said. "That was the biggest test to show how far our team had come. We'd been telling ourselves we were going to beat Japan. And even after the game, the players thought they should have beaten Japan."

Murray brought a brash, young 20-player roster that featured eight teenagers. Three of the players were born in 2001, barely old enough to make their international debuts in Sapporo.

And they weren't just filling up roster spots, by any means. Eom Su-yeon, who turned 16 on Feb. 1, plays on the top defensive pair with captain Lee Kyou-sun, the team's oldest player at 32. Lee Eun-ji, who will turn 16 next month, is the first-line right winger.

Forward Kim Hee-won, still just 15, plays on the second line. All three of them are on the power play unit.

"It's pretty unbelievable that they've started on the national team so young," Murray said. "They made a lot of progress. Their confidence is getting a lot better. I think it was great for them to gain experience and also to learn from our mistake in one of our games, and to be emotionally and mentally more stable and consistent."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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