Hockey in North Korea -The Secretive Nation
Ed. Note: Francois Lemay is a goaltending coach from Windsor, ON where he coaches with the University of Windsor Lancers and runs his own school, the Windsor Goalie School. Francois is travelling to North Korea with a documentary film crew to work with goaltenders, and to learn from and share his talents with the secretive nation’s hockey players. He is sharing his story with InGoal and will have more for us when he returns. We are grateful that he is sharing his experience with us.
Players from the Taesongsan and Pyongyang Choldo teams lined up after a game at the Pyongyang Ice Rink.
Photo Credit: Matt Reichel, ‘’Closing The Gap’’
Yes, you’ve read right, hockey in North Korea, the secretive nation. By the time you read this, I will be on site in one of the most dangerous and most unpredictable countries in the world. I don’t know what you know about the place, but chances are, you’ll never meet anyone that has been there before. If you don’t know of North Korea, google it. Seriously, google this stuff.
You may have heard of the South and North Koreas joining forces to ice the Korean Female National Hockey Team at the Pyeongchang Olympics. A few weeks before the games, it was announced that seven North Korean players would join the South Koreans, forming Team Korea, led by American Head Coach Sarah Murray, daughter of former NHL Coach Andy Murray.
Even though it’s a mostly closed country, hardly visited, North Korea has been more flexible in the last few years allowing foreigners to visit. If there is an opening to the outside world for North Koreans and hope for a Korean re-unification, it’s through sport.
In my case, hockey, of course, is my way in the hermit kingdom.
My 14-hour flight with lead me from Detroit to Dalian China, with a stop in Beijing. From there, I’ll be boarding a train that will head north and take me to the Chinese City of Dandong, which borders North Korea with the City of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River. This is where I’ll be entering North Korea, before heading southeast to the Capital City of Pyongyang.
Once in Pyongyang, I will be spending time with the Men’s and Women’s National Hockey Teams. I will be training their goalies and running clinics for kids as well. Every day, for five days. On top of the on-ice training, we will have several discussion sessions with the players, coaches, and North Korean Ice Hockey Federation (NKIHF) Officials.
I am very excited for this trip and feel extremely privileged to be able to travel to a country where a handful of North Americans only have been granted access. Am I nervous? Yes. Am I worried? Not really. Do I fear for my safety? Not at all.
I will be traveling with a film crew from Vancouver, a team of five filmmakers covering the Men’s National Team for the last two years. This will be their last trip of four before the release of their documentary, “Closing The Gap -Hockey in North Korea.’’ When a friend, who knew of my fascination with North Korea, made me aware of the project, I decided to get in touch with one of the producers. One contact form filled out and sent later, we were talking about the possibility of me joining them on their next trip.
Within a few weeks and after a few conversations, the team had agreed to take me on board. I would be the first non-crew member to join them on a trip. As of North Korean hockey, it is my understanding that I would be the very first foreign hockey coach to ever set foot there.
“The first time you visit North Korea, you are a stranger. The second time, you are a friend. The third time, you are family.”
The Soviets have heavily influenced hockey in North Korea, a game that sadly, hasn’t evolved in the last 60 years or so. Actually, what they learned from the Soviets back then is pretty much all they know about the game. Do North Koreans even know about the NHL? I don’t know, but I’ll find out. I’m very curious to know what they do know about hockey abroad. I’m also extremely curious to learn about their domestic leagues, Men’s and Women’s.
I’m hoping my trip is a huge step forward for their hockey and its development. I know my knowledge will be helpful but I strongly believe my personality and passion for the game will have an impact as well. One of the issues is that they don’t seem to know how to have fun playing the game, they play it somewhat emotionless, just like the Soviets did back then. North Koreans think the world does not care about them. I intend to show them that I do care for them, as people, and their development and progress. Those people have never spent a week in company of a North American. I intend to exploit this as well.
I am extremely grateful to be presented with this opportunity, and hopefully make a difference, even the slightest one. North Koreans say the first time you visit North Korea, you are a stranger. The second time, you are a friend. The third time, you are family. My plan is to be invited back…