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(Olympics) (Yonhap Interview) Everyone gained something from joint Korean hockey team: head coach

All Headlines 07:00 February 24, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- It wasn't easy at first to bring the women's hockey teams from the two Koreas together only days before the start of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but in the end, everyone involved gained something from the experience, the team's head coach said.

In a roundtable interview with South Korean journalists on Friday, Sarah Murray said North Korean players had access to the kind of information on hockey they never had before.

Murray's 23 South Korean players were joined by 12 North Koreans on Jan. 25 for a historic combined team. The Koreas had never before fielded a unified team in any sport at any previous Winter or Summer Olympics.

Sarah Murray, head coach of the unified Korean women's hockey team at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, speaks during a roundtable interview with South Korean journalists at Team Korea House inside Gangneung Olympic Park in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 23, 2018. (Yonhap)

The team lost all five games it played, by a combined score of 28-2, but there was more to the Olympic experience than winning and losing.

"For the North (Korean players), it was giving them new opportunities and new systems," Murray said. "They wanted new information because they don't have a lot of access to different information. They just absorbed everything."

Murray has frequently praised the North Korean players' work ethic and their willingness to learn, which in turn fueled the coaching staff's desire to teach them.

And the addition of extra players meant extra competition for South Koreans, who never before had to worry about their ice time.

"We don't have a lot of players in South Korea, so they've been playing with the same lines for the last 10 years," Murray said of the South Korean players. "(Having North Korean players) added a level of competitiveness to our practices that we didn't have before. But it was really fun for (South Koreans) to play with different players."

Murray, South Korea's coach since 2014, said she herself learned a great deal.

"For me, it was a really good learning experience on how to bring two countries together through sport," she said. "I couldn't even have imagined it would work this well."

Murray and some of South Korean players had reservations about combining the teams so close to the Olympics. Murray said the decision to bring the teams together was reached only two days after she made her final cuts for her 23-deep team. And given the provision that she had to dress at least three North Koreans for each game during the Olympics, Murray said the biggest challenge to running the combined team was to tell three South Korean players that they wouldn't get to play every game at PyeongChang 2018.

Murray had also been concerned about team chemistry, but she said, "After 2 days, it already felt like one team."

"The coaches talked to the (South Korean) players that this whole situation was out of our control, and we were part of something that's bigger than ourselves," she said. "I think when the South Korean players started to get to know the players from the North, they changed their minds on their own. They really enjoyed playing with them and being with them. I know, at the beginning, there were a few players that were really against it, and I saw them sitting together at the same table, laughing with the North Korean players and hugging them."

Sarah Murray, head coach of the unified Korean women's hockey team at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, listens to a question during a roundtable interview with South Korean journalists at Team Korea House inside Gangneung Olympic Park in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 23, 2018. (Yonhap)

She is the daughter of former National Hockey League (NHL) head coach Andy Murray, who has coached Canada to three world championships. Sarah said her father "has been a great resource for me to call if I have any problem" and she had some good advice from him during the Olympics.

As a defenseman, Murray won two national championships with the University of Minnesota Duluth, and later played professionally in Switzerland before taking over South Korea as coach.

Still just 29, Murray had several former college or professional teammates and opponents playing for Canada, the United States and Switzerland at the Olympics here.

Did watching them play make Murray miss her own playing days?

"After coaching for two years, I kind of lost that spark to play a little bit because I really enjoy coaching and working with the girls," said Murray, who actually floated the idea of becoming a player-coach for South Korea when she first arrived.

With her playing days behind her now, Murray wants to focus on her South Korean team. She has the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championships coming up in April, and South Korea will be playing in the third-tier competition, Division I Group B, for the first time.

Then there's the future of the unified team. Murray said ideally, she would need at least four years of joint training to make the combined team really work -- "If we had more time, we could have done something really special," she said -- and she isn't sure if she would coach a combined Korean team again if the situation were similar to this time.

But Murray said coaching these players at PyeongChang 2018 was "a really special experience."

"The experience I had with North Korean players and what we did was amazing," she said. "I feel so honored to be a part of it."

Players on the joint Korean women's hockey team gather around center ice after their final game of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 20, 2018. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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