Entertainment For Korean hockey team, Japan is both measuring stick and nemesis

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A decade ago, Shin So-jung was a South Korean teenager starting in goal for her country’s women’s hockey team. Some days on the job were tougher than others; at times, Shin received pain-relieving injections in her back after lopsided losses, like the time Japan reeled off 107 shots against her and scored 29 goals. That is not a typo.

Yurie Adachi of Japan prepares to face off against Switzerland during a preliminary round women's hockey match in Gangneung, South Korea, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. Switzerland won, 3-1. play

Yurie Adachi of Japan prepares to face off against Switzerland during a preliminary round women's hockey match in Gangneung, South Korea, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. Switzerland won, 3-1.

(Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The South Koreans have made plenty of progress since then. Last February, at the Asian Winter Games, Shin and her teammates lost to Japan by 3-0.

Given how far they have come, South Korea’s players came away from that game believing they were closer than ever to besting their biggest rival.

The Japanese thought otherwise, even though they didn’t win a game in two previous Olympics. In a rare moment of boastfulness last year, the Japanese players predicted they wouldn’t leave Pyeongchang without a victory — because they were scheduled to face the Koreans in group play.

“We heard from the news cycle in Japan,” Shin, 27, said last year of the Japanese comments about getting an easy draw. “We were so mad about the articles, so we have to show them we can beat them.”

That chance will arrive Wednesday. While there have been plenty of questions about how the South Korean players are meshing with their teammates from North Korea on their countries’ combined team, few activities unify north and south like rooting against Japan.

For decades in the first half of the 20th century, Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony, a history that still causes lingering resentment in both Koreas.

In hockey, a much different kind of divide has existed. Long in Japan’s shadow, the Korean Ice Hockey Association invested heavily in building up its women’s hockey program for the 2018 Games. As the host nation, the Korean team earned automatic qualification.

It has matured significantly under Sarah Murray, the Canadian-born coach hired in 2014. South Korea spent the past two years challenging top U.S. college teams, and it captured a second-division world championship last year.

Still, Murray has often had to remind her team that there are other Olympic opponents besides Japan — it lost its first two games, against Switzerland and Sweden, each by 8-0 — even as she has come to understand how desperately her players want to beat Japan on Wednesday.

“This is my dream for my hockey life,” said Korea’s captain, Park Jong-ah, who has played on the national team since she was 14.

As the top women’s hockey power in Asia, Japan is not only a rival, it is Korea’s measuring stick for success. Japan also lost to Sweden and Switzerland in their opening two games in the Olympic tournament, but by scores of 2-1 and 3-1.

The improvement of the South Korean team could help Japan improve, by lifting the quality of play in the region. In November, at one of Japan’s final pre-Olympic training camps, goaltender Nana Fujimoto noted similarities in their programs’ ascent.

“Japan has not always been on this level,” she said. “We came from the bottom.”

South Korea’s rise has been much swifter. Japan gained an automatic bid into the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey tournament as the host nation for the 1998 Games in Nagano, but it finished last in the tournament and did not qualify for another Olympics until 2014.

The Japanese want to beat Korea to help in their quest to gain more funding for the team long known as Smile Japan. That will be more difficult than it was in the days of 29-goal obliterations, but even for an improved Korea, the Japanese still present a steep hill to climb.

“They’re small, they’re fast and they work really hard,” Korea forward Randi Heesoo Griffin said last week. “If we can keep growing as a team, that’s a model for us. That’s what we’ll look like in five or 10 years.

“Or maybe in five days.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

SETH BERKMAN © 2018 The New York Times

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