GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Sarah Murray certainly could be forgiven if she wanted to take a break.
The Canadian signed up four years ago for her first coaching job to guide South Korea’s fledgling women’s team through its Olympic debut at the Pyeongchang Games. A challenging enough task essentially from scratch. Then political negotiations turned her hockey team into something that transcended sports as North Korea was allowed to add 12 players to her roster only days before the games began.
Creating the first combined Korean team ever to play at an Olympics meant that every lineup change by Murray was dissected — by fans of unification and by foes cautioning against any step that might be seen as a softer stance between countries still technically at war. All of that was ladled onto a team simply hoping to be competitive on the world stage.
Murray isn’t going anywhere.
“I’ve been asked to stay on two more years with these guys, and just after everything we’ve been through and how much progress we’ve made in the last four years, I definitely want to stay on for the next two years,” Murray said Saturday after practice. “We’re going to start a U-18 program and see how that goes.
I’d like to help these guys as much as I can.”
Coaching does run in the family.
Her father, Andy, coached the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings in the National Hockey League, and he currently coaches Western Michigan’s hockey team. She turned to her father for advice once she learned her team suddenly had 12 new players.
“I don’t really think there’s a lot of coaches that have experienced a situation like this to reach out to,” Murray said after a 4-1 loss to Japan. “But yeah, definitely my dad is a huge mentor for me. As soon as I got the final decision, I called him and told him, ‘I’ve got 12 new players coming in.’ And he has experience coaching in Europe where the players didn’t speak the same language as him, and he had imports on his team same as us.”
Still, her father’s advice couldn’t help prepare the 29-year-old Murray for everything.
She has faced a horde of reporters and cameras prying into just how her patchwork team was handling the new players — and the scrutiny. Korea was the only team pulled into the larger media tent for a news conference after a loss to Japan with questions and answers repeated in English and Korean.
The young coach who won two national titles as a player at Minnesota-Duluth has appeared to be completely at ease, though the relief that came with her team’s first goal was clear to see. She has handled the attention with a bit of humor and by staying focused on hockey and her team.
“The chemistry on the team is better than I could have ever predicted,” Murray said. “They laugh together, they eat meals together, I’ll walk into the locker room and they’re all laughing together.”
She credits her players with helping teach the North Koreans enough to be ready for the Olympics and it’s working to some extent: Randi Heesoo Griffin, an American playing for South Korea, says she heard her North Korean teammates saying “line change” and “faceoffs” on the bench against Japan.
“The South players helped the North players,” Murray said. “They would sit next to them and teach them. After two days, the Northern players knew more than our players did. They’ve been really working hard. It’s the players that make this work.”
Yes, the players from both countries spend time together and the topics often include boyfriends and families. Due to language differences , a translator helps explain anything more complicated. That’s partly why the Korean team practiced in two groups with Murray focusing more on the players she can dress for games instead of the entire 35-woman roster.
“I didn’t expect them to be the same as our players,” she said. “And when you see them sitting together at lunch, you can’t tell who’s from the South and who’s from the North. They’re the same.”
Next up is a classification game Sunday against Switzerland, which beat the Koreans 8-0 in the preliminary round . The Koreans still are looking for their first Olympic win, a tall order after being outscored 20-1 in three games. Their first Olympic goal against Japan may wind up as the stirring memory along with making history by playing together.
Murray still has her sights set on a win. She also believes the nerves that came with their Olympic debut are gone. The crowd may include the North Korean cheerleaders singing and chanting, but the dignitaries who were there for the historic opening game aren’t expected to return as Korea wraps up play in the next few days.
“I just think our girls are more emotionally and mentally ready,” Murray said.
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