GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Korean women's hockey team, thrown together in a historic combination of players from both North and South, will forever be a milestone that had ramifications beyond the Olympics.
Now only South Korea can decide if hockey truly takes root and the nation becomes a regular on the international stage — the women, sure, but also the South Korean men's team, which also made a somewhat quieter Olympic debut.
Men's assistant coach Richard Park believes hockey is poised for growth in South Korea and around Asia, which will host the next Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.
"I don't know if you're at any particular stage where you can put a term on it like 'the sleeping giant,'" Park said. "There's obviously an opportunity for growth. Hopefully the Olympics, we'll be able to use it as a springboard, or some sort of platform, and really accelerate the growth of the sport here."
South Korea built its men's and women's teams by tapping players with ties to the country and the Justice Ministry was asked to fast-track the naturalization of imported players. Two hockey arenas and two practice rinks also were built to handle all the games and practices in Gangneung.
Putting the men's team together took four exhaustive years of work by Park and head coach Jim Paek among many, a steep climb in a nation that in 2014 had little more than 100 registered male hockey players.
Building from here will mean more money and other resources and it also means offering the sport at the youth level and establishing strong junior leagues. Having a place to play for a country's top players also is a priority.
Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said China is working hard with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League and two other teams playing in Russia. Kunlun Red Star, featuring Finnish goalie Noora Raty, is an expansion team in the Canadian Women's Hockey League.
"To be sustainable we need a strong league, a domestic league," Fasel said. "We are actually working in China with that. We will also try to get the Koreans on the same path."
Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang Olympic organizing committee, noted South Korea has a junior women's hockey team.
"When they grow up, this will be much stronger than this lady ice hockey team," said Lee, who added that there are discussions about building a professional women's team after the Olympics.
Defenseman Lee Don Ku, who plays on an Asian league team in South Korea, said he sees some interest at the junior level but there are no official leagues.
"But I hope that can change in the future," Lee said.
Only time will tell if fans who turned out to cheer, chant and sing in support of the Korean hockey teams keep watching.
Playing better hockey certainly can help drive interest.
The men's team lost its first three games at the Olympics by a combined score of 14-1.
The women lost all five games, but proved to be quick learners. They were routed 8-0 in the opener by Switzerland and beaten by the same score in their second game. After that, though, came a rugged 4-1 loss to Japan that saw the team's first goal (Randi Heesoo Griffin got the honor) and then a taut 2-0 loss to the Swiss. The 6-1 loss to Sweden in the final game seemed less important than the cheering fans who stayed to watch the players raise their sticks in farewell.
Watching the world's best up close also helped.
"We saw what we should learn from them and we've actually learned some," said Eom Suyeon, just 17. "So I think these will be helpful."
Her coach, Sarah Murray, has already agreed to stay on a couple more years to help grow the sport, and she said there are plans to begin an under-18 program to develop talent.
A combined women's team also may resurface in 2022 with both Fasel and Lee supporting the idea.
"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," Fasel said. "It is a message of peace and we hope to continue that. We will try."
If the survival and thriving of hockey comes down to work ethic, Park said he believes the game will thrive.
"They have this uncanny ability to not be outworked, and that's something that's reflected in our team," Park said. "You go outside the ice rink and you see it in the people of Korea. They work extremely hard and they're very passionate in what they do. So you bring those qualities to an ice rink, there's no reason not to be able to have some success."
NOTES: In Tuesday's other game, Evelina Raselli's goal just 3:19 into the game led Switzerland past Japan 1-0 for fifth place at the tournament. Florence Schelling made 20 saves for the Swiss, who went 4-2 at the Olympics. Japan went 2-3.
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