PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – By nature, coaches tend to be control freaks. They want to know everything happening within their team, however trivial it might seem. So they usually hate surprise developments.
Imagine then Sarah Murray’s predicament. Not only did she get a whale of a surprise right before the start of the Olympics, but that surprise attracted international scrutiny because of its sensitive political nature.
That’s a lot to unload on a 29-year-old coach still relatively new to the business.
“We feel strangely calm given everything that is going on,” Murray said.
The Minnesota native who starred on two national championship teams at Minnesota Duluth has overseen South Korea’s women’s hockey for four years. She has spent four long years planning, teaching the game, building chemistry. She poured her heart into the program so that her team can have a respectable showing in its Olympic debut as the host country.
Then came 11th-hour chaos out of her control.
Mere weeks before the Opening Ceremony, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that he would send a delegation of 22 athletes to the Olympics, 12 of them women’s hockey players, in a deal brokered by political leaders and approved by the International Olympic Committee.
The rapprochement agreement mandates that three North Korean players are in the lineup every game.
The agreement gave Murray little time to figure things out while also being forced to confront a situation that caused backlash inside South Korea. She was dealt a tough hand.
“Our team being put together was a political statement, but now that the team is together, we are just one team,” Murray said after practice Wednesday. “Now it is hockey and we are here to compete. It is not an issue on our team.”
Murray has handled this delicate situation perfectly. She acknowledged initially that she had “mixed feelings” but quickly turned her focus to creating team unity. She has made an awkward situation seem as normal as possible.
Her players will march together during the Opening Ceremony. They share meetings together, eat meals together and hang out in the locker room together instead of breaking into sides.
“The chemistry is better than I could have expected,” she said. “When I heard they were joining our team I thought worst-case scenario: We are going to be separate, our players are not going to talk. But it is fantastic.”
Murray is not obligated to use North Korean players in specific roles or give them a certain amount of playing time, only that three are in her lineup every game.
That adds complications because her roster now has 35 players instead of 23, which means players that she has spent years developing now will be scratched some games. That might force her to put players of lesser talent in the lineup.
“The thing we were most worried about was team chemistry, and right now the chemistry is good,” she said. “The communication is good. We just need to tweak some of our systems. For the situation we are in, we feel good.”
Expectations for the team already were fairly low since women’s hockey has minuscule participation numbers in the country. But the program has made significant improvement in international competitiveness since Murray assumed control of the operation four years ago.
Murray’s dad, Andy, has coached hockey for decades at all levels, including 10 years as an NHL head coach. He shared a piece of advice with his daughter shortly after she accepted the job in 2014.
“Have a little patience,” he said. “She was going to go in there and change the world right away.”
He probably didn’t envision this exact scenario. Andy Murray undoubtedly has witnessed a lot of unusual things in his own coaching career. His daughter has a story to share with him now.
However her team fares in the tournament, Murray should be commended for handling a difficult situation with a smart, respectful touch.
“Our players are together,” she said. “This is our family, and this is great.”
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org