The joint Korean women's hockey team is coached by ... a 29-year-old Minnesotan?

Eric Adelson
Columnist
Combined Koreas head coach Sarah Murray (L) watches a women’s ice hockey friendly game between her team and Sweden at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon, South Korea. (AP)

It isn’t often that a 29-year-old former hockey player plays a role in maintaining world peace.

But there was Sarah Murray, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, landing in Seoul after a flight from Los Angeles and being cornered by a gaggle of reporters wondering what she will do with the globe watching.

Murray is the head coach of the South Korean women’s hockey team, and when that plane landed in mid-January she was suddenly the coach of the unified Korean Olympic team. She was now in charge of both South and North Koreans, and she would have to dress at least three players from the hostile nation in every single Olympics contest. She would soon be meeting with the prime minister of South Korea, and trying to avoid the ire of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“She’s maybe more powerful than Donald Trump right now,” joked her father, former Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray. “Which is maybe not a bad idea.”

You can almost imagine Sarah Murray stopping the chaotic scene at the airport, looking into the camera and saying, “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.”

Here’s how.

Murray went to Minnesota prep school Shattuck-St. Mary’s – where hockey stars Sidney Crosby and Amanda Kessel played – and later won two national titles at Minnesota-Duluth. Then she caught on in a Swiss professional league and did some time in China as well. In 2014 she was visiting her dad at Western Michigan, where he coaches the Broncos, and she was introduced to an assistant coach of the minor league Grand Rapids Griffins. That happened to be Jim Paek, a former NHL player who was taking over as director of the South Korean national team.

Paek wanted to make a change in the direction of the women’s team, and after a few conversations, he offered Sarah the job. She had never coached before.

“She loved playing; that was the only thing that was tough,” Andy Murray said. “Given the opportunity, though, it was pretty exciting.”

She said OK.

Off she went to the Far East, charged with learning her trade and a new language. That was four years ago.

The idea of coaching in the Olympics was always out there, but not many people thought there would be a unified team. And not many people thought it would be decided only a few weeks before the Opening Ceremony.

“Initially there was a lot of concern,” said Andy Murray. “She expressed that. How would it affect team chemistry? But as we say in hockey, ‘It is what it is.’ That’s what the rule is. They’re taking the attitude that it’s best to worry about the things they can control. She told her players to keep a narrow focus.”

Sarah Murray’s Korean isn’t perfect – the players speak “hockey English,” says her dad – and now she’s trying to learn some of the North Korean dialect on top of that. She has assigned the North Koreans locker stalls in between the South Korean’s to foster unity. She has also created a special playbook for the newcomers to catch them up.

It was never going to be easy. Any Minnesotan knows the top two hockey powers are the U.S. and Canada, and so the chances of a medal for the home team are slim. (The South Koreans are not a top-20 team, despite a steady climb since Murray took over.) Every other squad will have more time to prepare as a complete team, and it’s not like there’s a women’s league in the country to begin with. Younger girls play on boys’ teams in South Korea.

Still it’s pretty inspirational, even to Sarah’s dad. After a tough stretch of games in January, Andy told his Broncos about what his daughter was trying to do as a way of motivating them to deal with unforeseen obstacles.

How will she navigate? Well, she knows she will have to dress three of the 12 North Korean players. She says she will play the best available, with no exceptions. And she will do her best to support the South Korean players who have to watch precious spots go to someone else because of geopolitics.

She also knows there will be more weirdness. She has a North Korean assistant coach joining her two South Korean assistants, so that could be complicated. And already there is a report of two North Korean men living in the team’s hockey complex … even though no one seems to know who they are.

Oh, and in case anyone forgot, North Koreans are trained not to trust Americans.

“If she doesn’t play the players from North Korea, there might be a missile coming our way,” Andy Murray offered as a joke that’s either funny or sad depending on the day.

Nearly 40 years ago, a Minnesota-born coach took over an Olympic team and fused two rivals into one squad. That coach was Herb Brooks and the two rivals were the University of Minnesota and Boston University. The result was the Miracle on Ice. Now, Sarah Murray is the Olympic coach in charge of blending rivals. It may not turn into one of the greatest hockey stories ever told, but who knows? Maybe Murray can come up with something miraculous.

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