In North Korea, legend has it the late dictator Kim Jong Il once shot a 38-under-par round of golf and dropped anywhere between five and 11 holes in one, depending on which version of the story you hear out of the Hermit Kingdom. But in South Korea, the country's newly minted Olympic hockey team nearly engineered a sporting feat that might have seemed just as implausible for Canadians.
For more than half the game against Canada on Sunday, the South Korean team – a mixture of homegrown locals and North American journeymen playing on acquired passports – held the Canadians to a single goal. It was only the third Olympic game Korea had ever played, after revamping its national program a few years ago specifically for the Pyeongchang Games. And they spent much of the contest within reach of an upset.
"They're a great team, we expected that," said Canadian forward Eric O'Dell. But what the Canadians didn't expect, he acknowledged, was that the game would stay so close for so long.
Though Canada went on to win handily, scoring three goals in the last 26 minutes to take the game 4-0, the Koreans did enough to make Canada feel uncomfortable throughout. In the first and second periods, Korea was a few bad bounces and Canadian miscues away from making hockey history and sending Canada into a panic about the state of our national game.
With no National Hockey League players at these Olympics, the tournament is anything but a best-on-best affair. It is the rest on the rest, and the players Team Canada has assembled are still trying to figure out what type of team they are. After opening the tournament with a 5-1 win over the Swiss, Canada fell 3-2 in a shootout to the Czech Republic on Saturday. Their third and final game of the seeding round was supposed to be the easiest one by far.
But despite being outshot badly, Korean goaltender and Southern Ontario transplant Matt Dalton kept the game close, facing 49 shots, compared to the 19 seen by Canada's Kevin Poulin.
The Korean goalie admitted later the thought of an upset had definitely crossed his mind during the game.
"As the time keeps going, you're thinking about it, that's for sure," Dalton said.
He stopped 17 shots in the first period alone, including 10 in the first five minutes. Christian Thomas opened the scoring when he snapped a shot over Dalton's shoulder roughly eight minutes in.
"After the first period, I was trying to get some salt tablets or something, my legs were starting to cramp up," Dalton said.
Having fended off the early barrage, Korea managed to settle down, and Canada struggled to score, including a missed breakaway by Wojtek Wolski late in the period.
Korea nearly tied the game in the second period while shorthanded, then almost scored on a pair of passing plays when Canada left two Korean shooters open. Minutes later, a dump-in attempt took a bad bounce off the boards and ended up in front of an empty net with Poulin out to play the puck. Derek Roy cleared it away before the Koreans could tie the game.
It was only after O'Dell caught a lucky bounce of his own, when Dalton misjudged a point shot and the puck ended up on the Canadian forward's stick at the side of the net with Dalton looking the other way, that Canada began to pull away.
"It was pretty easy, but I was still kind of gripping the stick a little tight there," O'Dell said. "You don't want to miss that tap-in. But it was definitely nice to get it."
The games will get much tougher for Canada from here. Based on how the seeding round has finished, Korea will now face Finland in a qualification playoff and the winner of that game will play Canada in the quarter-finals.
Assuming Finland advances, Canada's most likely route to the gold-medal game will be through Finland first, then likely Sweden, which has either the Swiss or the Germans to contend with in its quarter-final.
After losing 8-0 to the Swiss the night before, the Koreans had something to prove in front of a hometown crowd that cheered almost non-stop – for goals, for breakouts, and for hits.
"I think they were just excited we got it out of the zone," Dalton said.
Before the game, the scoreboard in the Gangneung Hockey Centre instructed fans on the rules of hockey and played a short slideshow on the history of the game, explaining that the oldest-known hockey stick was from Canada. At the end of the game, the Korean players lined up on the ice and bowed to the fans – a tradition Korean coach and former NHL player Chisun (Jim) Paek said was a show of respect. Moments later, the Canadian players skated around the ice saluting the Korean fans with their sticks in the air.
"It's special," Dalton said of being able to play Team Canada. He is one of seven players – six Canadians and one American – who were invited to join the Korean national program to help grow hockey in the country. "If you asked me five years ago if I would be playing in the Olympics against Team Canada, I'd say you're crazy."
Though the Canadians have only been together as a complete squad for a few weeks, having been gathered from leagues around Europe and North America, coach Willie Desjardins has stressed game-by-game improvement for the team. Given the varied results of its first three games, it's difficult to tell exactly how Canada stacks up against the other expected gold-medal contenders, Sweden and Russia.
"We're playing hard," Poulin said. "It's lots of games in a short time, but we're focusing on one day at a time."