South Korea rises in sledge hockey

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The recent World Sledge Hockey Challenge featured the United States, Canada and Russia, the top three finishers in this year’s world championships, in one of the final international events before the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

The fourth team at the tournament was more surprising.

South Korea is not known as a hockey power, but has risen quickly in sledge hockey as it prepares to host the Winter Games and Paralympics in 2018.

South Korea first competed in the world championships in 2008 and qualified for the Olympics in 2010, finishing sixth. Only two years later, the South Koreans claimed silver in the world championships in Norway, raising the hopes for the Sochi Games and beyond.

“We want to be the top team,” Coach Ik-Hwan Kim said through an interpreter. “We want to get a medal.”

The Canadian captain, Greg Westlake, who has been with the national program 10 years, said South Korea had built its program the right way.

“What I appreciate about them is they took their lumps and they kept coming,” he said. “I remember playing them the year of Vancouver and we were beating them, 16-0 and 20-0.

“They kept coming back, they go to all the tournaments, and that’s the only way to get better. They never complained. I respect that about them, and now you look at them and they’re competitive. They’re going to get that upset on the U.S. or a good team sometime soon.”

Sledge hockey at the Paralympics has been dominated by Canada, the United States, Norway and Sweden. South Korea’s involvement in the 2010 Paralympics and Japan’s silver medal in the event have increased the knowledge of the sport in Asia.

“It’s not too big in Korea, but the interest is improving,” Kim said. “A lot of people have started playing it. It’s improved a lot. They’ve created a league since the Olympics.”

United States Coach Jeff Sauer said he had seen big strides in the South Korean program.

“They’re getting better every time we see them,” he said. “They’ll be a challenge in the Paralympics.”

Predicting how South Korea will perform in a tournament is a tough task. After the surprise silver medal in 2012, the South Koreans finished a disappointing seventh at the 2013 world championships, which they hosted in Goyang in April.

They were forced to enter a qualification tournament for the 2014 Paralympics, which they won in a shootout against Italy in October.

At the World Sledge Hockey Challenge, South Korea finished fourth but stayed close to the eventual champion, Canada, in the semifinals, losing by 2-1 after giving up two goals early in the first period.

According to Kim, the big thing for his players was putting 2012 behind them. He said his team was overconfident when it returned to South Korea after its second-place finish at the world championships. It resulted in a sharp decline in its play.

With the 2018 Paralympics a little more than four years away, South Korea intends to use the 2014 Paralympics to prove its performance last season was not a fluke.

Adam Crockatt, who has been the manager of hockey operations for the Canadian program for seven years, said he had seen a steady growth from the South Koreans.

“They’re faster, they’re stronger and they shoot better,” he said. “They play better hockey systems-wise as well now. They really want to learn more from a lot of the more established countries.”

Crockatt added that with Pyeongchang, South Korea, hosting the 2018 Paralympics, the sport would receive more funding, exposure and visibility.

“When the games are going to Korea in 2018, you want to have a strong home program there, just to keep that interest high and make it really exciting for everybody,” he said.

–Dhiren Mahiban, New York Times

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