My inspiration to venture to North Korea started with the very popular article by Peter Cox who wrote, “My Week With The North Korean Hockey Team.” After reading his article I remember avidly searching for footage of the team playing at the international level. Many videos showed them handing sticks off between teammates because they didn’t have enough equipment for everyone, but still competing at the world stage. All in all, this just inspired me to find a way to go there, one that was not the typical tourist experience, but rather a way to engage more with the locals. Finally, after years of trying to find an opportunity, I had found a way through ice hockey.
During my week in Pyongyang we played games against the men’s national team. When were not playing, I was coaching and running drills for both the men’s and women’s teams. I was truly impressed with the level of their hockey knowledge, they caught onto the drills right away. More so the women than men, as they are far better listeners. The drills were not complexed, flow drills, battle drills (something they loved), and some tactical drills. Translating on the ice is often a struggle when coaching around the world, but by using simple words, demonstrating the drills and drawing them out on the board it was able to go smoothly. Initially I had found the players to be very straight-faced, hard working and disciplined.
Last year when this team went, they were unable to coach the women’s team, whereas we were successful this year. In fact, they were adamant in wanting us to come back next year and do the same. Furthermore, they even wanted us to set up an exchange for young hockey players between Canada and North Korea, something that will take tremendous effort.
One of the coolest parts of the trip was being able to ask the officials to get changed with the North Korean team prior to our “friendship game” (where we divide the two teams in half and play a fun game). Despite not having fluent English conversations we were able to joke and laugh with the guys and really bond with them. Afterwards, I really noticed a difference in the way they acted on the ice, it was with far more warmth and joy. Therefore, I think we managed to breakdown some barriers.
The only disappointment was not getting the chance to coach and run drills with a children’s team, which to my knowledge, has never been done before. In order to have this opportunity we would have to write an official letter outlining our objectives and goals, where we would then submit it to officials. We did not have this done in time before leaving for the trip, but we have made it our goal for next year.
We have been told that there are 1 or 2 outdoor ice rinks in each province of the country during winter months and I have overheard about 2 or 3 indoor rinks in the whole country. Another desire of mine would be to travel to some of these villages, bring hockey gear, coach and play hockey. This is something very far off and would need extensive permission from higher up, but not impossible, as some foreigners do get this opportunity. As for gear, they had all matching Bauer gear with gloves, pants, etc. Most sticks were broken, severely broken, with rivets and pieces of wood holding them together. Once the games were done, coaches and players would come to our dressing rooms and trading their national jerseys for sticks, skates, and tape. We did have the opportunity, through The Hockey Foundation, to donate three sets of kids gear to help build and develop their hockey programs. We hope this will help because coaches have mentioned that due to sanctions, accessing gear remains one of the greatest challenges for expanding their hockey programs.
One night I sat at dinner with the head coach of the men’s national team. Through a translator we were able to talk hockey. We discussed Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and all of the greats, we talked about hockey gear, championships, etc. Hockey strategy was one of the conversations we couldn’t have, as they see it as very secretive and do not want to discuss such things with foreigners. I found it funny, because everyone knows that if you watch a team play for a day then you will clearly see the strategies they use, and I noticed that they don’t change them at all. I did offer to print and send him hockey drills from Canada in the future, in order help his team out in future seasons, he was greatly appreciative of the gesture.
In addition, he was able to tell us that the team practices twice a day, six days a week. They take one month off in July and they in August they head up north to start training for the upcoming season. The players do not get payed, he was saying, but if they are to win international tournaments then they will get money from the government.
In many ways, my week with the North Korean team was very similar to that of Peter Cox. Ice hockey and sports has allowed for many opportunities around the world, similar to the way Dennis Rodman has used basketball and sports as a way of diplomacy.
All photos by @pdp_photography