Christine Brennan

 |  USA TODAY Sports

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The most important team at the 2018 Winter Olympics lost badly Saturday night in its first game. The score was 8-0, Switzerland. It could have been worse.

As if that mattered. This losing team was the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, playing before the South Korean president and the North Korean leader’s sister and the IOC president, as well as a media presence usually reserved for a Lindsey Vonn downhill.

And then there were the thousands of fans, including the stunningly precise and endlessly fascinating North Korean cheer squad, dressed in red snowsuits and scattered strategically in clusters around the Kwandong Hockey Centre, relentless in their flawless, unison cheers.

It was a show as much as it was a game. It was about politics as much as it was about sports. It was a women’s hockey game for the history books.

When the Olympics are good, they can be great. There are moments at every Olympics that transcend those Games and become a part of lore and legend, a piece of our culture. Time will tell whether this game is destined for that fate. But it just might be.

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On Jan. 25, Sarah Murray, a 29-year-old raised in the game as a member of a prominent Canadian hockey family, ceased being the South Korean national team coach and became the coach of a new Korean team. She had just picked her 23-player squad when she was told she had to add 12 North Koreans to the roster, and dress and play three of them every game. There was no doubt that the new players were not as good as the South Koreans, and there would be the ever-present North Korean officials and handlers, giving their advice and thoughts — in other words, meddling.

Four years of planning for the Olympics, and then this?

“I didn’t ever anticipate this happening,” Murray said after the game. “I could never have guessed that this … I don’t know what to say.”

She laughed.

“It was out of our control, but I have to say we’re really enjoying working with the North Korean players. There were rumors in July of a combined team, but then the government stopped talking about it. I really wish it would have happened in July, but the chemistry on this team is better than I ever would have predicted.”

As they prepared for their Olympic opener against the Swiss, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalists, Murray found things going better than she might have expected.

“I have a lot of control, so I’m in charge of this team,” she said. “I thought I might get some pushback from the North with who I was picking and who I wasn’t picking, but they’ve been nothing but supportive.

“Our team has developed a good chemistry, and I’ve told them it’s because of you guys that the chemistry is good, not because some politician told you this had to happen. Our players are making this work.”

Forward Randi Heesoo Griffin, 29, played her college hockey at Harvard and is one of the South Koreans on the unified team. She feels for her teammates who aren’t playing because the North Koreans now are, but she has found the reactions of both those playing and those suddenly on the bench remarkable.

“I’m sure it’s hard for them, and the same for the North Koreans who aren’t playing, but they’re all supportive, with smiles on their faces,” she said. “We eat with each other in the dining hall. We are together in the locker room. We have separate dorms and separate buses, but we’re definitely making the effort to connect.”

After the game, IOC president Thomas Bach and the official entourage ended up standing on the Koreans’ bench as the players stood on the ice.

“You’re part of something bigger,” Bach told them. “This is not just a hockey game.”

“Time will tell what the larger implications are,” Griffin said. “On a human level, to get a chance to meet people who very few ever get to meet and get to know them as people is a very special experience to have.”

It’s an experience that was entirely unexpected only two weeks ago.

“I’ll walk into the locker room and they’re all laughing together,” Murray said. “You can’t tell who’s from the North and who’s from the South. They’re just girls playing hockey.”

 

 

 

 

 

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