TORONTO, ON – Jan 14, 2017 : Ontario University Athletics Women’s Hockey game action between the Ryerson Rams and the Waterloo Warriors.
(Photo by Alex D’Addese/Ryerson Rams Athletics)

With news of North and South Korea creating a united  women’s hockey roster at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Ryerson women’s hockey alumna and South Korean player, Danelle Im, is caught in the middle of history.

Im will be part of a hockey team that unites sworn geo-political enemies, at a time when international tensions are especially high.

When Im, a Canadian-Korean, was recruited via the internet to play for South Korea (host of this year’s games), she had no idea her situation would become even stranger.

On January 17, the BBC reported that high-ranking officials from both countries met at Panmunjom, a village which acts as a point of truce between the two countries, to discuss plans to unite the teams and allow North Korean cheerleaders, musicians and taekwondo athletes to cross into South Korea to participate in Olympic events. The Korea Ice Hockey Association announced its men’s roster late Thursday night.

Three days later,  Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), confirmed that 22 North Korean athletes will compete across three sports at the Games.

The IOC called the announcement the Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration, which will send North Korean athletes, officials and media to the opening ceremonies to march under a united Korean flag. North Korean athletes will now participate in women’s hockey, figure skating, short track speed skating, cross country and alpine skiing.

The announcement makes what is already an exotic experience for Im a real milestone in sporting, and possibly international, history.

“This is a crucial time and I think the last thing [the South Korean women’s hockey team] wants right now is distraction,” Im said before the IOC confirmed the unification of the roster. “We just want to focus on our games and practices.”

The unified women’s hockey team increases in size to 35 players to include 12 North Korean players. Given the possible competitive advantage of a larger roster, the IOC ruled that only 22 players, of which a minimum of three must be North Korean, will play in each game. Team selection is at the discretion of South Korean head coach Sarah Murray.

Ahead of the IOC’s announcement, Murray told the Canadian Press that she has mixed feelings about the idea to add North Koreans to the team. Murray said there could be “damage” to her players if the joint roster was assembled.

Im said she could sympathize with coach Murray’s views regarding the well-being of the South Korean players.

“I can see where [Murray] is coming from,” Im said. “I understand the symbolic importance of this issue and I hope that the political decision makers do think about how hard the South Korean players have worked.”

Im also added, “It is late in the game to be adding new players. To have this possibility within 21 days [of the games starting] is not the best for us, but we’ll make it work. Whatever happens, we’ll make the most of it.”

No other changes were made to the unified Korean women’s hockey roster.

Im spoke with the Ryersonian from the South Korean women’s team training camp in Jincheon, approximately 90 kilometres southwest of Seoul, South Korea’s capital city. The team recently returned from a training camp and exhibition games in Vadnais Heights, Minn., where Im said the team learned a lot from the trip.

Last April, The Color of Hockey reported that Im, “was one of several hockey players with Korean-sounding last names and living in North America who received invites to help the Asian nation quickly build Olympic-level women’s and men’s ice hockey from teams almost from scratch.”

Im said her improbable path to the 2018 Olympic Games has made her thankful to be part of the team.

“[This opportunity is] truly a gift,” she said. “I just want to make Korea proud and do my best on and off the ice.

“It’s been a great journey with this team and I’m really thankful to be here. My goal is to give it 100 per cent, be a good teammate and have a good time.”

Approximately 300 North Korean cheerleaders, musicians and taekwondo athletes could join the Olympics, according to the BBC. As host nation, South Korea’s men’s and women’s hockey teams were automatically granted entry to the tournament.

Anders is a freelance photojournalist from Toronto. Photo pits, arena sidelines and music studios are where he's happiest.

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