By NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- It came too late to mean anything, but for one period, at least, the unified Korean hockey team played how the politicians and the fans all envisioned when they dressed women from both sides of the military demarcation line in one uniform.
By the time Team Korea skated in its final Olympic game against Sweden on Tuesday, it was playing only for seventh place. It entered having been outscored 22-1 in four previous losses.
But for the first 20 minutes, at least, this felt like a game that mattered.
Korea attacked in formation, set up in front of the Swedish net, blocked shots in their own zone and occasionally shoved opponents into the boards, shows of discipline and hunger missing from other games. Though Sweden scored first, Korea answered 31 seconds later. Behind signs of "We are one," the crowd chanted for victory. On the bench, the players banged sticks and smiled.
When Korean forward Kim Un-hyang then took a holding penalty after shoving a Swedish player, it looked less like a dumb penalty and more like a show of confidence. It was short-lived.
Sweden scored in the ensuing power play, regaining a lead it continued to build toward a 6-1 win. After Sweden's sixth goal, Korean forward Choi Jiyeon crashed into her own goalie, lying on the ground in the Korean crease for a long few seconds before slowly rising back to her feet, a picture of defeat.
After Sweden's sixth goal, Korean forward Choi Jiyeon crashed into her own goalie, lying on the ground in the Korean crease for a long few seconds before slowly rising back to her feet, a picture of defeat. The exuberance around a "Peace Olympics" - the symbolism of women together on the ice as leaders from two Koreas engaged in extraordinary talks - isn't looking much better.
The day after the Olympic opening ceremonies, North Korea's Kim Jong-un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to a meeting in Pyongyang. But South Korea says nothing has been decided on whether such a summit will happen. North Korea is back to hostile form, using its state media to warn that the United States is trying to "to end a thaw in inter-Korean ties immediately after the Olympic flame goes out."
At the hockey game on Tuesday, meanwhile, the North Korean cheer squads dispatched to the Olympics were noticeably absent.
Which, for some of the hockey players, was not so bad at all.
"To be honest, sometimes I felt like maybe they weren't here for us," Korea forward Randi Griffin said. "Maybe they weren't here for hockey. They were here for something else."
Coming out against Sweden on Tuesday, a team that beat them 8-0 earlier, Korea "really had something to prove," Griffin said.
They made the point with their second goal of the tournament.
"We kind of made history in our way, being unified, and I hope we presented ourselves well and made our country proud," said Marissa Brandt, the Korean-American on defence who skated under her birth name, Yoonjung Park.
"So it goes bigger than hockey, this whole experience for us."
As the team gathered around the faceoff circle for their normal postgame cheer - "Fighting! Team Korea!" - the stadium swelled with Hand in Hand, the official song of the 1988 Olympics that took on renewed significance for the unified team: "Hand in Hand, we can start to understand, breaking down the walls, that come between us for all time."
"Sports are - they're breaking down the barriers," said Sarah Murray, the normally-stolid Korean team coach who stood in the players' box and wept after the Tuesday game.
"We have really enjoyed working with the North players and coaches and we really do want to help them in the future," she said.
"We've been talking about doing some sort of exchange game or maintaining this connection."
Before the game, she told her players "just to enjoy the moment because we don't know. We may never play in a game with these people ever again - play in the Olympics. You'll never get this moment back. So just enjoy the moment."
But moments pass, and in a few days the North Korean players will return to an isolated country that walls itself off from the world. It's not clear what will remain.
"I can say that once the North Korean players return home, I think I'll think of them often and have some regrets," said Korean forward Han Soojin.
History doesn't offer great hope of more than that for a group of women brought together by politicians seeking a brief picture of unity. In 1991, North and South Korea played together in table tennis, and their gold-medal victory over China was notable enough to inspire a movie.
The two women who won that game have never met again.
At the Olympics this year, "there were definitely bonds that were formed, and I think if we end up playing against each other again, South Korea versus North Korea, there's definitely going to be some hugs and some smiles," Griffin said.
But, she added, "none of them have Facebook, so it might be hard to stay in touch."
Team Korea's Yoonjung Park, second from left, celebrates a goal by Han Soojin at Kwandong Hockey Centre on Tuesday in Gangneung, South Korea.
HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES