GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — With the nation’s most accomplished hockey player standing behind the bench as coach and curator of the moment, South Korea celebrated the first Olympic men’s hockey game in its history Thursday night in front of a flag-waving crowd cheering nearly every moment.
Hosting the Olympics was step one of a long process of getting Korean hockey up to par to even play at this tournament, which was the job of two-time Stanley Cup-winner Jim Paek. The Seoul-born Paek, who moved to Canada when he was 1, expected to be filled with every possible emotion at reaching this stage. The opener against the Czech Republic was highly anticipated by the host nation and the cheers continued until the final moments of what ended up being a 2-1 loss.
“It’s incredible how far Korean hockey has come, how they’ve opened their minds to this wonderful sport is fantastic and to be a part of this is incredible,” Paek said this week. “It’s a dream.”
Fans filled 10,000-seat Gangneung Hockey Centre almost to capacity to witness history, and they cheered even when Korean players were simply carrying the puck up ice. They roared at shots on goal and went wild when home-grown veteran Minho Cho notched another milestone by scoring South Korea’s first Olympic men’s hockey goal just over seven minutes in.
The goal came right in front of North Korea’s cheerleaders, who made an unexpected appearance. Unlike Korea’s unified women’s team that is made up of players from South Korea and North Korea, the men’s team does not have any North Koreans on it and the appearance to back such a team was believed to be a first for the high-profile cheerleading troupe.
The men’s team has 18 South Koreans and seven North Americans — one from the United States and six from Canada — who are dual citizens.
After it was over, the players lined up at center ice and bowed to the crowd, first to the end containing the cheerleaders, then to the other end, filled mostly with South Korean fans. The cheerleaders continued to chant even as the arena emptied.
Korea’s fledgling hockey program not that long ago did not even have a skate sharpener and made players return equipment at season’s end. With Paek in charge since the summer of 2014, Korea moved up two levels in international hockey and became a respectable, professional organization. The International Ice Hockey Federation required a plan for South Korea to have a team in the Olympic tournament on home ice.
Fans carried flags and wore jerseys of the national team and some clubs in the Asian League. As they did at figure skating and women’s hockey, the North Korean cheerleaders — dressed in blue and white tops and red pants — waved flags showing the Korean Peninsula and danced, swayed, sang and chanted in unison.
At times, South Korean fans joined in on cheers, including one that translated to “win.” At other times, competing chants were heard in the arena.