The river ice wasn't always in great shape and the boards were just sandbags and wood. But in the early 1950s, Canadian soldiers at war in Korea suited up for a series of hockey games on a rink built just a few kilometres away from hostile Chinese forces.
The hard-fought games – the men occasionally came to blows – were a footnote to a war that claimed 516 Canadian lives. More than 25,000 Canadians served in the Korean War.
But the historical image of artillery echoing while infantrymen chased pucks is a tale of Canadian pluck, one with new resonance amid a hockey resurgence in South Korea. Canadian-born hockey players with South Korean passports will skate for both the Korean men's and women's hockey teams. Canadians coach both teams, hired under a government program to build talent and avert Olympic embarrassment.
The Imjin River hockey games in the 1950s similarly had roots in government damage control, after the Canadian military decided after the Second World War to provide their own troop-welfare programs, a task that had previously fallen to the Red Cross, the Royal Canadian Legion and others. But troops in Korea began to complain that the military was doing a poor job of it – an issue serious enough to provoke debate in the House of Commons. In response, defence minister Brooke Claxton flew to South Korea in late 1951 and promised soldiers movies, 20 cigarettes a day and sports equipment, according to Deadlock in Korea: Canadians at War, 1950-1953.
"There's no way to aggrandize it. It was essentially a distraction," said Ted Barris, the book's author.
The troops "wanted more than just coffee and cookies. So hockey gear seemed the appropriate thing."
Soon after, planes began to deliver skates, sticks and protective pads. Army engineers sprung into action, using sandbags and bits of wood to fashion shin-height boards around a small cleared surface on a tributary of the Imjin River in northwestern South Korea.
Dennis Moore was on the front lines when a commanding officer grabbed him and told him he would be suiting up. A sergeant with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry who had played left wing in high school, he was thrilled to get a personal escort by a major.
Then he caught sight of the frozen river.
"I saw the rink and I pretty near fell out of the jeep," he said. A heated dressing tent had been set up. Hundreds of soldiers crowded around to watch. And the ice itself: "it was just like a piece of glass," remembers Mr. Moore, 87.
The game play was a little less clean. "We went at it pretty good," he recalls. The soldiers organized a few teams according to their regiments, and rivalries erupted on the ice.
At one point, Mr. Moore checked a player with the Royal 22e Régiment, the Van Doos, and sent him flying over the low boards. The player leaped back up and the two traded blows.
The soldiers had stacked their guns in a nearby vehicle before playing, although the referee carried a pistol. "But I didn't see him going for his 9 mm," laughed Mr. Moore, who retired in 1983. "We didn't even get penalties, looking back on it."
He believes he is the last of the Prince Patricias still living from those games, which have been commemorated in Canada and South Korea in recent years.
The ice rink in the midst of a war zone attracted its share of attention. American helicopters hovered overhead to watch. At one point, Australian soldiers formed a team of their own, though they struggled to skate.
No one can quite remember how close the rink was to the front lines, but it was likely within range of Chinese artillery and certainly within earshot.
"I'm asked an awful lot, weren't you ever scared? And what I always say is, 'well, who would ever think of attacking 30 Canadian soldiers with hockey sticks in their hands?' " said Mr. Moore.
Canadian soldiers played hockey games in the winters of 1952 and 1953, although it's not clear exactly how many matches in total.
In early 1952, the Van Doos were on reserve, a pause to regroup from the front lines, when Claude Charland, then a lieutenant in command of an infantry platoon, was called to duty on the right wing. For a moment, he said, the war disappeared.
"It was like the players forgot about everything else," he said. There was no room to think about "attacks here and there, or bombs here and there. When the game was finished, we all hoped there would be a next one."
Afterward, spectators dissected the games with the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for playoff hockey "It was a tremendous morale booster," said Mr. Charland, 88.
The Canadian forces brought hockey into Korea in other ways, too. They sent Detroit Red Wings defenceman Red Kelly to visit the troops; he narrated for them films of the team's winning Stanley Cup run.
The Canadian troops spent much of their time in Korea during a protracted stalemate during negotiations of an armistice agreement, although firefights and bloody raids still took place. Hockey wasn't their only sport. Soldiers also fashioned a volleyball court and baseball diamond, and at one point staged a military-themed track-and-field day whose events included precision tossing of (inert) grenades.
And the soldiers were far from the first Canadians to bring slap shots to Korea.
Hockey had actually come to the country much earlier, played by university teams. The Korean Ice Hockey Association was first established in 1928. It's believed Canadian missionaries played a role in bringing the game to the country, just as U.S. missionaries spread baseball, a sport that has grown far more popular in modern South Korea.
In a strange twist, Canadian soldiers may actually have played a bigger role in boosting Japanese hockey. At the time of the Imjin River games in 1952, a senior officer told the men the best team would be sent to Japan to play against the national team there – a rare chance for a week away from the battlefield.
"And, of course, this is why people gave it all they had," said Mr. Charland.
The military eventually delegated an all-star team instead. Mr. Charland was among those flown to Japan. Standing barely 170 cm, he was startled to find taller, blue-eyed players on the other side. "They had come from the north part of Japan," in areas with mixed Russian heritage, he said.
The Canadians lost the first two games, but won the second pair.
"The Japanese were very diplomatic about the whole thing," Mr. Charland says.
The same could not be said about the Canadians, whose passions over the Imjin games still run hot enough that Mr. Moore and Mr. Charland recently got into a heated exchange over the results.
In the final game of 1952, the Princess Pat's beat the Van Doos. "The games we played, we won," Mr. Moore says, adamantly.
Nearly 70 years later, Mr. Charland isn't prepared to admit defeat.
"Of course the Pats won the tournament," he said.
"But we have a saying in the regiment: the Van Doos never lose. We may not win. But we never lose."