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 last two years challenging top American 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. s “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.”