South Korean Women's Hockey Team Full Focused Despite Distractions

Olivia Cheong, Jan. 18, 2018, 9:26 a.m.

Despite facing some unexpected distractions, South Korean women's hockey team has enough talent to keep its focus on the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Sarah Murray, former Canadian star and daughter of ex-National Hockey League coach Andy Murray, announced her 23-player team on Thursday, with 14 forwards, six blueliners and three goaltenders.

There's one caveat, though. South and North Korea have agreed to form a joint women's hockey team for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will determine the size of the unified roster on the weekend.

The game rosters are set at 22 players -- 20 skaters and two goalies -- and that is unlikely to change. The Korean team may be granted an exemption that would allow it to add a few North Korean players to its current roster, meaning a handful of players, instead of just one, will be healthy scratches during the Olympic tournament.

Whether or not Murray will face pressure to use North Korean players remains to be seen. Murray did say earlier this week that she liked some North Korean players for their hard-nosed style and intensity, but based purely on talent, there isn't anyone who could crack the top three lines for South Korea.

South Korea is ranked No. 22 but is on the rise. The country has gone from a doormat that routinely lost games by double digits to a team that ran the table to win a fourth division world title last year. North Korea, meanwhile, is No. 25 but falling, a team that relies heavily on a couple of players.

Much like the men's Olympic team goaltender Matt Dalton, the women's side features a talented goalie in Shin So-jung, a 27-year-old who played collegiate hockey in Canada and tended goal for the National Women's Hockey League team Metropolitan Riveters in 2016-2017. During days when South Korea struggled to generate much offense and spent most of games in its own zone, Shin used to be peppered with so many shots that she'd be covered in bruises afterward.

The six defensemen named to the team on Thursday will try to prevent that in PyeongChang. The blueline corps also offers some offensive skills, led by 16-year-old Eom Su-yeon. The diminutive, 158-centimeter player is the team's best puck-moving defenseman and makes up for her small stature with smart positioning. She plays on both power play and penalty kill units.

Eom is one of eight teenagers on Murray's roster. Kim Hee-won, also 16, is a massively talented forward who doesn't shy away from bigger defenders. And Grace Lee, a 17-year-old born in Colorado to Korean parents, is another skilled player and a candidate to play center on the first line between Kim and Park Jong-ah, team captain and its most gifted scorer. Centers Han Soo-jin and Jo Su-sie offer some grit up the middle.

Along with Lee, there are three other players born outside the country who are of Korean descent: forwards Randi Heesoo Griffin, Danelle Im and Caroline Park. Marissa Brandt, who was born in Korea but adopted into an American family as an infant, is on defense and will play under her Korean name, Park Yoon-jung.

Given the limited talent pool in South Korea, the national team is the only women's hockey team. And this is a tight group -- save for Grace Lee, who only made her national team debut last summer, the key players have been together for at least four years.

Fans who understand the importance of team chemistry in hockey were up in arms when the government made a push for the joint team. Officials have said there won't be any negative impact on the team by bringing North Koreans on board because hockey is played in short shifts and everyone gets a chance to take the ice.

They have failed to mention that only 22 players can be on the bench at the Olympics and there's a lot more to line combinations in hockey than just randomly sending players out to the ice.

Murray said earlier this week she was most concerned about "damage" to team chemistry that was sure to be caused by the addition of new players. But looking on the brighter side, Murray said this presented another test for her players to overcome.

"We (coaches) talk to them a lot about mental toughness. And this is a great test of mental toughness," she said. "Things that are out of your control are distractions. We can't control this situation so we just have to worry about what we can control and make sure we do our best, so that after the Olympics, we don't have any regrets and use this as an excuse as to why we didn't perform our best."

At the Olympics, South Korea is in Group B. against world No. 5 Sweden, No. 6 Switzerland and No. 9 Japan.

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