Korea No. 1 in Far East
2018 Olympic host notches historic win vs. Japan
26 April could become kind of a holiday for Korean ice hockey. For the first time in history the men’s national team beat Japan and with seven points from the first three games will end this year’s World Championship program above their Asian rival, who has been winless in three games and will have to play for survival against Italy and Poland.
“It was our first win against Japan and I’m very happy and thankful to all the staff and coaches who helped us. We have improved every game here,” said Sanghoon Shin, who was named best player of his team after the game.
“We believed in ourselves that we could win. We had a strong will to win against Japan. That’s why we won.”
In 1982 Korea played its second IIHF tournament at the World Championship C-Pool in Jaca, Spain, and lost its first official game against Asian rival Japan 25-0. Since then the Koreans have improved gradually and managed first wins against Hungary and Poland in recent years but never to beat Japan. They had an overtime loss in 2012 and 6-5 and 4-2 losses the two seasons after. But now, 34 years after the blowout in Jaca, it was Korea’s time.
Whether this is a changing of the guard in Asia, a one-time fluke or a diversified head-to-head race for Asian supremacy in the years to come will be shown by time. But that a Korean win could happen has been as much on the horizon as the next Olympics in PyeongChang after the development in Korea in recent years and didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. It was more a when than an if question.
In two decades the Koreans managed to move up from the fourth to the second tier of World Championship completion. Eleven years ago Korea was still 33rd in the IIHF World Ranking. Currently they are 23rd and were even 21st two years ago.
The period of improvement coincided with the founding of the Asia League that started 2003/2004. The Japanese saw a departure of teams from their own professional league and saw a continental league as the solution. Korea’s Anyang Halla joined in 2003 and one year later teams from China and Russia’s Far East. In 2005 High1 joined as second Korean team and in 2014 Daemyung Sangmu was formed with hockey players having to serve in the army. All three club teams play in Seoul region and after the 2018 Olympics the Koreans hope that a fourth team will be founded in Gangneung to use one of the Olympic facilities.
All four countries involved benefit from the Asia League but none of them improved as much as Korea did during the 13 years. The league opened new business opportunities for hockey, a higher level of competition for Korea and with the growing number of teams more roster spots to develop Korean players. Not few Japanese credit their help through the Asia League as reason for the development. That during the last few years six North American players from these teams were naturalized to play on the Korean national team, obviously didn’t hurt the improvement of the national team either in the short run.
For one of these imports the game against Japan started like it finished against Poland. Playing 5-on-3 Michael Swift netted his fifth goal of the tournament at 4:18 from the right face-off circle into the top-right corner. 74 seconds later the Koreans converted the second penalty as well with a goal from Kisung Kim, who was right in front of the net with the puck after a short and quick pass from Sangwook Kim.
“It’s really fascinating to win this game. To have three early goals really helped us a lot. We tried to avoid thinking too much about Japan and history because if you think too much about it, it ruins the game,” Kisung Kim said. “It’s a really great moment to step forward for Korean hockey.”
At 11:10 it was even 3-0 for Korea. Hyung Yun Shin conquered the puck in the neutral zone and initiated a 2-on-1 by Minho Cho and Sanghoon Shin, who scored his team’s third marker of the day after Cho’s horizontal pass forcing Japan coach Greg Thomson to use his time-out and take out goaltender Shun Hitomi to bring in Takuto Onoda.
“We were not prepared the first 15 minutes. We lost every battle. Due to the penalties it was quickly 3-0,” the Japan coach said about the reason for the loss. “I really feel mentally and physically we were not in the game the first 15 minutes. As the game went on we started to get more into the game but Korea was the better team. A game starts at the beginning of the game and not 15 minutes into the first period.”
Korea was still dominating for most of the rest of the period and the second period and had a post shot during a power play early in the second frame.
When Sangwoo Sin was assessed a major penalty for checking to the head against Takuro Yamashita, the Japanese got their big opportunity to fight back but the five minutes expired without creating much danger for Matt Dalton, who got the third start in Korea’s net.
During the last period the Koreans made their own life difficult by taking unnecessary penalties but despite four penalties in five minutes against Korea, the Japanese were not able to convert the power plays into goals.
The Koreans were closer to scoring the fourth goal than the Japanese to stage a comeback or at least spoil Dalton’s shutout for most part of the game and undoubtedly deserved their historic success in today’s game.