GANGNEUNG, South Korea — As the final seconds ticked down on South Korea’s 8-0 loss to Switzerland on Saturday, the fans broke out in yet another cheer.
“Dae-Han-Min-Guk! Dae-Han-Min-Guk,” the Korean equivalent of “Go Canada Go!”
There wasn’t much for the fans to cheer about from a hockey perspective, but there wasn’t much they didn’t cheer about.
The nearly sold-out crowd at Gangneung Hockey Centre was hanging on every rush, every save, every clearing attempt.
It was a jarring juxtaposition from what you would normally experience in a blowout in North America, where fans flock for the exits en masse once the game is out of reach, or sit on their hands when things don’t go their way. That wasn’t the case Saturday, as the fans remained glued to their seats oohing and aahing until the final buzzer. After the game wrapped up, the fans rose to their feet and gave one last ovation to the players, who lined up and bowed to the crowd in return.
“They’re here to support Team Korea,” said South Korea forward Mike Testwuide, one of seven North Americans on the team. “They’re here to be with us until the end no matter what the score is. They have a lot of heart for sticking with us and that’s what we love. It’s awesome.”
That same sentiment was echoed by former NHLer Martin Erat after the Czech Republic’s 2-1 win over South Korea in their Olympic opener.
“It was tough, they played a really good game,” Erat said. “A lot of energy and the crowd was behind them so it was a great game for them.”
Although hockey isn’t new to South Korea, the sport is foreign to many — especially at the Olympics, where there tend to be more casual fans. The crowd was dotted with national team sweaters, and you would spot the the occasional Asia League jersey, but the hardcore supporters were the minority.
“I love the action and the physicality of hockey — the non-stop pace. You don’t know what to expect. It’s not my sport, but I really like it,” said one fan through a translator.
“The players are strong, but I don’t know what’s going on,” said a young fan who was taking in a game for the first time.
Understandable. Hockey is a fluid game with a lot of rules and nuances that you can’t expect someone to grasp at first glance. It doesn’t help that there didn’t appear to be many explanations or demonstrations of the rules on the Jumbotron to help out the new fans.
But that didn’t stop them from having fun. You could feel the energy in the building every time the puck was near the net, or a player threw a hit or ripped a slap shot off the glass, which brought both fear and joy to the amused fans sitting in the first row.
Who knows whether these Olympics can help bring hockey into the mainstream — there’s a long road ahead for the 21st-ranked Koreans. It won’t be easy without more media coverage, improvement on the ice or future Olympic appearances. But you have to start somewhere, and the Korean fans have made a good first impression.
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