Hockey Night in North Korea

The Globe and Mail, Toronto (via Cancor)
Nathan Vanderklippe

Maybe it was the traditional hotpot meal with dog meat, maybe it was the pre-game beer or maybe it was the unsettling gaze of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, their portraits glaring down from high above the Pyongyang Ice Rink. Whatever it was, Hockey Night in the (Former) Axis of Evil, a game that may well qualify as the most peculiar of the year, did not begin well.

On one side was a team of 18-year-old North Koreans shod in 20-year-old leather skates. On the other, a team jam-packed with the world’s hockey superpowers: nine expatriate Canadians plus two Finns and a Swede, playing in what they believe was the first-ever international amateur hockey game inside the world’s most reclusive country.

And the Canucks and Co. not only started slowly but ended up falling 11-9 — the damage to Canada’s international hockey reputation still unknown.

In fact, within minutes of the opening face-off, the fast-passing North Koreans had already bagged four unanswered goals. Goalie Scott Lau, a lawyer from Toronto (team nickname: “DPRK Five-Hole”), blamed the arena lighting. “It was kind of dark,” he said. The arena eventually cranked up the brightness. It helped, but only a little.

“I think he let in five of his first six shots near the net,” said team captain Ray Plummer. “They were going wide, he managed to block them and put them in the net.” That, of course, was before the North Korean team relented in the interest of being good hosts.

Three inauspicious periods later — complete with smoke breaks at intermissions to watch the DPRK’s sole Zamboni at work on the DPRK’s sole rink — and the Good Guys strode off the ice in defeat.

Not that anyone really cared. For these expatriates, who live in Asia and work as students, teachers, venture capitalists, hoteliers and diplomats, the October game fulfilled a dream to “go where no team has gone before.”

“How many people go to the DPRK — not many! And how many play hockey there as amateur hacks — just us!” said Mr. Plummer, an Atlantic Canadian who, in his younger and speedier days, turned down a contract in the OHL to attend university instead. “My father said stick with hockey and you’ll go far,” he said. Little did he know.

Mr. Plummer, a construction project manager, met his wife at centre ice in Beijing, where teams of expats square off during winter months in beer-league play. Similar leagues have sprouted up wherever puckheads and hosers have landed, and the Beijing players have for decades competed in annual tournaments in Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taipei.

Over the years, they also began playing in Ulan Bator against Mongolians who compete on outdoor ice in minus 35 temperatures. Hockey has become a channel for philanthropy, and the ex-pats have donated equipment, lessons and international travel to Mongolian kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to play.

But several years ago, Mr. Plummer began searching for a new adventure. What better, he figured, than playing in North Korea? Few people are allowed into the hermit nation; fewer still come to play hockey. Pyongyang has hosted several International Ice Hockey Federation games, but the country has only a few dozen hockey players and they don’t play in globetrotting beer leagues.

“We thought, ‘Here’s a crazy place to go. Let’s play hockey, but go as tourists and experience something barely anybody experiences,'” Mr. Plummer said. He contacted a travel agent with experience getting foreign visitors into North Korea to ask if it might be possible. This summer, for reasons unknown, they were invited to come. A few months later, after shelling out $2,000 each for the trip, they found themselves on a Russian-made Tupolev jet bound for a country where the roads are empty, the cities go dark at night and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il abound.

“It was truly like going to another planet,” Mr. Plummer said. They hit the tourist sites, were lectured about the evil ways of the “Imperialist Americans” and travelled to the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea, where they discovered the Maple Leaf proudly displayed as part of North Korea’s own Axis of Evil.

And they suited up for a second game against the young North Koreans, who play on the country’s development team, and will likely one day compete at the national level. The ice was Olympic-sized, the referee an official with the IIHF. But for all that, they lost again, this time 6-4.

“They played Soviet-type spread-out, passing, skating, circle the puck,” Mr. Plummer said. “They’re not great, and there’s not a big pool of players to pick from. But they’re better than old, ex-pat foreigners who are just up there for some tourism and hockey.”

After the game, after taking photos with the young players whose language they couldn’t speak, the expats offered their sticks as a token of friendship. The North Koreans offered a retired set of national team jerseys in return. Mr. Plummer plans to send one of them to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Olivier Rochefort, one of the team’s leading goal-scorers and the director of operations for the Beijing Radisson SAS hotel, can scarcely believe it. Not only has he traded slap shots with North Koreans — he now has a shot at something even greater.

“We need to autograph that jersey,” he said, laughing. “That’s the only way my name’s going to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.”


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