A year can make a huge difference. Women’s ice hockey in 2018 thrilled to the unlikely Olympic peace overtures between North and South Korea. Supported by a troupe of highly-regimented cheerleaders from the North, the cross-border Korean roster that took to the ice in PyeongChang garnered plenty of column inches and won more than a few friends even if it struggled to win any points at the Games.
Barely a year later, though, the Olympic experience had not left a discernible legacy. Gone were those cheerleaders; well-drilled chants and keening folk songs were replaced by the schoolkids of Dumfries waving home-made Spanish flags and shrilling ‘ES-PAN-YA’ in the accents of the Scottish Borders. World Championship Division IIA action brought the largest ever concentration of female ice hockey Olympians to Britain – and relegated them to a support act.
One of the most cherished sporting theories is that exposure to top-level competition will bring about rapid improvements for emerging nations. It’s a belief that informed the decision to allow Korea – a nation whose hockey heritage would have made it unlikely to win through an Olympic qualifying tournament – to take part in the Games on home ice. The same idea has earned China a place in 2022, men and women, regardless of their world rankings. Having mixed it with the best, would North Korea now look a class above some decidedly modest opposition in the fifth tier of IIHF World Championship play?
To be honest, no. A newly-promoted Spanish team just shaded a 1-1 tie in regulation. A second-period power play goal from captain Vanessa Abrisqueta opened the scoring and only an individual goal early in the third, well taken by Kim Kyong Rim, a 20-year-old forward from Taesongsan who didn’t make the Olympic cut, tied the game. So Jong Sim stood up well in goal as Spain dominated the shooting and played a big role in taking the game to overtime and ultimately a shoot-out.
Now came confusion. After winning the toss, the Koreans struggled to communicate with the officials about who should shoot first. When Jong Su Hyon, one of the Olympians, set off for the first attempt she was inexplicably allowed to continue despite striking the puck then retreating back over halfway before starting her approach to the net several seconds later. Fortunately for the officials, she shot wide.
More confusion came after the third round of shots: Korea led 1-0 and believed the shoot-out was over. The team spilled off the bench to celebrate the win, leaving the coaches to desperately try to restore some order. At first it seemed that the mix-up had little impact: the next Korean penalty was converted for a 2-0 lead. But Spain rallied to level it up at 2-2 – Abrisqueta’s tying effort greeted with a roar of delight – and the action moved to sudden death. The experienced Jong potted the winner to lift the team to five points from three games. It was the highlight of the trip. North Korea lost its remaining two match-ups to finish fifth in a six-team group. Unheralded Slovenia took gold, powered by the brilliance of captain Pia Pren’s first line. A handful of DPRK players may have rubbed shoulders with greatness but – so far – that has not provided a catalyst for the country’s hockey programme.
Ice Bowl, Dumfries, Scotland
April 5, 2019. IIHF Women’s World Championship Division IIA
North Korea 2 Spain 1 (SO) (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 0-0, 1-0)