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South Korea women’s hockey team ‘misses’ playing with North Koreans

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Something is missing as the South Korean women’s hockey team prepares for its lower-level world championship tournament next month.

North Koreans.

“Right now, we have some injured players, and having the North players would definitely help our roster have more numbers,” Sarah Murray, the Minnesota native who coaches the South Korean team and coached the unified Korean Olympic team, said Wednesday, according to Yonhap News Agency. “But we just miss practicing with them. They brought a different level of intensity to practice and it was just fun to have them around.”

South Korea plays at the third-tier worlds in Italy in two weeks in a six-team group with China, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Poland.

It earned a spot in that tournament by topping its group in the fourth tier last year, including a 3-0 win over North Korea at a PyeongChang Olympic venue.

If South Korea tops its group this year, it moves to the second-tier worlds in 2019, one level below the ultimate tournament with the likes of the U.S. and Canada.

Murray initially had mixed feelings about North Koreans joining her team for the Olympics. The joint Korean team went winless in five games, giving up 28 goals and scoring two.

“We have really enjoyed working with the North’s players and coaches, and we really do want to help them in the future,” Murray said after their last game in Gangneung, according to The Associated Press, adding that a possible “exchange game” was discussed to maintain the connection. “They want to get better, they want to keep learning from us and we want to help them. And there are things that we can learn from them, too.”

North Korea’s team is scheduled to play in the fourth-tier worlds that start next week in Slovenia. A joint North-South team could return for the 2022 Olympics.

“I think that would be good to do it in 2022, to go to the Beijing Olympics, to keep the North and South Korean team,” IIHF president Rene Fasel said at the Olympics, according to the AP. “It is a message of peace, and we hope to continue that. We will try.”

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Korea Olympic hockey coach: No pressure to play North Koreans

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Sarah Murray, the Minnesota-native coach of the unified Korea Olympic women’s hockey team, reportedly said she has been assured she has “ultimate control” over playing-time decisions regarding South and North Korean players.

“We’re not going to make a line just to make a line of North Korean players just so they can get ice time,” Murray said Monday, according to Yonhap News Agency. “We’re going to put in players that are going to be successful, and we’re going to play to win with the roster we have.

“As far as I know, I have complete control, and I am going to play the players I want.”

When the IOC approved adding 12 North Koreans to the South Korean Olympic women’s hockey team on Saturday, it created a unique situation.

Olympic women’s hockey teams can dress 22 players per game. Murray now must choose 22 players out of 35 — rather than 23 — for each game in PyeongChang.

And at least three of those players must be North Korean, meaning at least four South Korean team members must be deactivated for each game. Normally, Olympic head coaches must deactivate one player per game, the third-string goalie.

“We didn’t really have a lot of say in it,” Murray said, according to Reuters. “We’re just happy that we don’t have to play six [North Korean] players, and this was the best case scenario for the options that were given to us.”

Murray, 29, won two NCAA titles as a player at Minnesota-Duluth. Her father, Andy Murray, spent 10 seasons coaching the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues in the 2000s.

A Murray-led South Korean team beat North Korea 3-0 in a lower-level world championship tournament game in South Korea in April.

Now, players from both of those teams will seemingly be vying for ice time in PyeongChang in three weeks on the first unified Korean team in any sport at the Olympics.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s so historic, to have two countries so divided come together through sports,” Murray said, according to Yonhap. “I think the story is great, and to be a part of it is important. But at the same time, it’s mixed feelings because it’s at the expense of, ‘We don’t get to play our full roster.'”

Before the unified team announcement, Murray reportedly said it would be a distraction and present challenges.

“I think there is damage to our [players],” Murray said last Tuesday, according to Yonhap. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.

“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long. Teaching systems and different things … I’d have about a month to teach these (new) players the way our team plays. That makes me a little nervous.”

Actually, less than a month. Murray said Monday that she doesn’t know which 12 North Koreans are joining her team or when they’re arriving, according to Yonhap.

“We don’t have a lot of days leading up to the Olympics, and we can’t waste any extra energy being angry,” she said, according to the report.

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