INCHEON, South Korea (AP) – Wearing a powder-blue logo of a map symbolizing peace between the Koreas, the most talked-about team at this year’s Olympics finally saw game action Sunday in a friendly that drew thousands of spectators in a country that never previously showed much passion for ice hockey.
The North and South Korean women’s hockey players, who only began practicing together about a week ago as a combined team, showed plenty of fight in their first competitive test, crashing the boards and throwing their bodies to stop pucks and opponents, but never really threatened in a 3-1 loss to world No. 5 Sweden in Incheon, South Korea. The Koreans will play Sweden again on Feb. 12 during the Olympic tournament.
But the outcome didn’t seem to matter to the capacity crowd of 3,000 at the Seonhak International Ice Rink. Fans waved miniature white-and-blue flags showing a unified Korean Peninsula – the same mark on the players’ uniforms – and chanted “We are one” while screaming whenever the Koreans got on the break. The arena thunderously erupted when South Korean forward Park Jong-ah cut the deficit to 2-1 during the first period.
The Korean players stood to the Korean traditional tune of “Arirang” at the start of the game, instead of their respective national anthems, and received warm applause as they left the arena after the contest.
“I think that the North Korean players played really well – this is one of the biggest crowds they played in front of,” said Sarah Murray, the joint team’s Canadian head coach. “Being added 12 days ago and not getting to practice together all that much, they played our system pretty well, so I am proud of them.”
The team’s North Korean coach, Pak Chol Ho, said the Koreas “can do anything if they do things as one.” He left the postgame news conference without taking questions.
The joint Koreas team highlights a series of conciliatory measures the war-separated rivals took for the Pyeongchang games, which South Korea sees as an opportunity to revive meaningful communication with North Korea following an extended period of animosity and diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear program.
The Olympics begin Friday, with Pyeongchang, a relatively small South Korean ski resort town, hosting the skiing, snowboarding and sliding events, and Gangneung, a coastal city about an hour’s drive away, hosting the hockey, skating and curling events.
North Korea plans to send hundreds of people to the games, including athletes, officials, artists and a 230-member cheering group. Skeptics think the country is trying to use the games to weaken U.S.-led sanctions and pressure and buy more time to advance its nuclear weapons and missiles arsenal.
The decision to create the joint hockey team, which wasn’t reached until January, triggered heated debate in South Korea, where many people thought the South Korean players were being unfairly asked to sacrifice playing time to their North Korean teammates, who are seen as less skilled and experienced.
Murray, who coached South Korea before taking over the combined team, had also expressed concerns over team chemistry.
Sunday’s friendly was Murray’s only opportunity to experiment with potential lineups in game situations before the start of the Olympics. She previously said the North Koreans’ hard-hitting style would be suited for her fourth line, a group of players asked to provide physical play in short bursts while giving their teammates with greater scoring responsibilities a chance to rest.
But after seeing them in practice and now in game action, she sees potentially bigger roles for some of the North Koreans, including Jong Su Hyon, a forward who Murray says has broken onto her second line.
“They are eager to learn and get better,” Murray said about the North Koreans. “We have been having team meetings with them and they ask so many questions. The meeting’s supposed to be 15 minutes, and an hour later we are still talking and we are still watching video.”
The Korean players, at least on the surface, appear to be getting along. They arrived at the arena Sunday relaxed and playful, stretching and jumping in the hallway to get loose before gathering in a scrum and shouting “Team Korea!” Seven of the players later formed a circle and started kicking around a rubber ball, giggling whenever the ball bounced away from them.
Amid a heavy police presence, hundreds of supporters began gathering outside the stadium hours before the game despite the icy weather, including dozens who danced to music in matching white parkas and hoodies with the peninsula logo and shouted “Win, Korea!”
“I don’t even care about the results, I just want to cheer for them and see them work together and help each other out on the ice,” said Kim Hye-ryeon, 42, who brought her two children, 8 and 6, to the game.
Kim Won-jin, a 33-year-old who made a several-hour trip to the game with his wife and 3 1/2-year-old son from the city of Daejeon, hoped the Korean players had overcome any uneasiness they may have had over the distribution of playing time.
“If we ever get unified again, these young players of the South and North will be able to look back and be proud that what they did contributed to a historic change,” he said.
Not everyone was happy. Across the street from the arena, dozens of anti-Pyongyang activists glumly waved South Korean and U.S. flags to denounce what they said had become the “Pyongyang Olympics.” They roared as one of the protesters ripped the banner of the peninsula logo atop a van.