The South Korean men’s and women’s hockey teams have been given an automatic qualification to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games after the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) approved the host country’s participation despite its low international ranking. The country currently sits 23rd in the IIHF’s men’s world rankings.
According to Reuters, the IIHF had hoped for South Korea to compete at their home Olympics but were wary of the potential for the kind of lopsided losses that would embarrass the hosts and damage the sport’s reputation. They however granted them the automatic berth based on the promise of financial backing and a four year plan to develop their ice hockey program.
The South Korean men’s team began their quest by hiring former NHL star Jim Paek, the first Korean and two-time Stanley Cup winner to helm the squad in July, giving him the daunting task of getting Korea to avoid embarrassment by becoming the first host nation to not participate in arguably the Winter Olympic’s premiere team sport.
“When the decision came down it was a feeling that I can’t really describe,” Paek said in an interview with Reuters. “It was a sense of, this is what we’ve been working towards.”
Korea avoids having to go through qualification as it was relegated to the B Division at the World Championships in April after going winless in five games in Goyang. They scored 14 goals while giving up 34 in Group 1 A which included Slovenia, Austria, Japan, Ukraine and Hungary.
The squad came under controversy earlier this summer when they kicked three players off the team in August — including Kim Won-joong, figure skater Kim Yu-na’s boyfriend — for leaving their training camp and going to a massage parlor in July, in addition to firing their coach Byun Seon-wook for failing to manage the players.
Korea also made news this year by naturalizing two Canadians, Michael Swift and Bryan Young, in addition to last year adding Brock Radunske, to help it qualify for the Winter Games.
The South Korean women’s team also qualify for the quadrennial event while currently sitting 24th in women’s IIHF rankings.