The Korea Times | Jon Dunbar | March 31st 7:02pm
"Few can say they were lucky enough to travel the DPRK, but how many can say they rocked up with their hockey gear?" said Jordan Ashton, a Canadian expat working in South Korea.
He'd just returned from North Korea (DPRK), where he participated in the Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition (PIFIHE), a five-day hockey exhibition with the DPRK national men's team, currently ranked 45th in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). It was organized by Paektu Cultural Exchange (PCE), a non-profit social enterprise, and Howe International Consulting Group, a Canadian-based project management firm.
Ashton was among 20 pro and amateur players, along with eight other Canadians, seven Americans and four Europeans.
"My children were absolutely shocked when I told them where I was for a week," said Ashton, 26, who works as athletic director and gym teacher at CBIS, a Canadian school in Seoul. "I kept it quiet at school so that it would be a fun thing to discuss when I returned. They all thought it was very cool and I'm glad I could give them a new perspective on the DPRK."
He was one of two to attend the tournament from South Korea, joined by Aaron Geddes, 34, a fellow Canadian who's lived in South Korea 12 years.
"Most (South) Koreans seemed interested in what was going on and asked me what exactly was happening," said Geddes about his participation. "A few other were confused and asked me if it was dangerous, which was quite funny to me as their reasoning was that they had nuclear weapons. Obviously, they aren't going to bomb themselves and lots of other countries have nuclear weapons."
When their only goalie got sick and canceled, the internationals borrowed the DPRK team's backup. They had various hockey workshops and played four games together at Pyongyang Ice Rink in front of modest audiences, though PCE director Michael Spavor mentioned officials from the Ministry of Sport and related government organs attended the first game.
"The arena itself was quite impressive and while the showers were a little cold, the ice was the best I've skated on in Asia," said Geddes.
The week-long event started with a training session by two North Americans known for coaching a Southeast Asian national team.
In their first game at the Pyongyang Ice Rink, the internationals carried a 5-4 lead, but the Koreans tied it up in the last minute and won the game in overtime.
"The games were much longer than our normal ‘beer leagues' in Seoul," said Ashton. "A full 60 minutes of high-speed hockey can punish even the most conditioned athletes."
On the second day, the international players hit the rink in rough shape after nine hours in a tour bus visiting the DMZ, getting smoked by the Koreans 10-5.
"Even though most of our players have been playing since a young age, their team practices consistently and we were a patchwork team of players who had never practiced together," said Ashton.
In the third game, they played two 15-minute periods, tying 5-5. After that, they mingled players from both teams for a two-period friendship game with a 3-2 win for the red squad.
"The DPRK national team members and coaches were very friendly and we had a lot of interaction with them including joking around and playing jokes on each other," said Geddes.
"It was such a surreal experience to be playing with and in front of North Koreans," said Ashton. Before leaving, he exchanged his gloves for a jersey from a Korean player.
"I was nervous that we might not have brought enough good players," said Spavor. "But the Koreans were looking to get practice against diverse players, and it worked out."
Next month, the DPRK team flies to Mexico for the IIFH Division 2 World Championships.
"Usually when they go overseas it's quite serious," Spavor said. "PIFIHE was a chance to make friends with people they're normally fighting against or competing with. The Koreans you could just see them smiling ear to ear."
"I didn't feel anxiety but being shut off from the outside world for a few days didn't feel normal," said Ashton. "I felt very safe while there and PCE made that a priority, but it's always nice to get home."
For more information, visit paektuculturalexchange.org.
Link to the original article from The Korea Times: Ideological barrier melts down with skating, shooting and body checks