Date: November 10, 2017

Canadian Filmmakers Get a View of North Korea Through Hockey

Taesongsan Winter Sports Club, a North Korean professional
hockey team, was shadowed by a Canadian film crew last year.

By 

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The dated but majestic Pyongyang Ice Rink is adorned with timeless symbols of a country in isolation.

In the arena’s upper bowl, portraits of North Korea’s past leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, hang like championship banners.

On the ice below, the national men’s hockey team often simulates a five-on-four penalty killing drill that was introduced to the North Koreans by the Soviets several decades ago.

Over the past year, five Canadian filmmakers have often been at the rink with the team, sometimes even on the ice. They are documenting the slap shots and the post-practice speeches, but are also trying to peel back the layers of a long-existing hockey subculture in one of the world’s most mysterious nations.

Why were their pads and equipment old? Why did they repeatedly run the same predictable plays? Where did these players come from?

“All of the questions that I’m sure a lot of people have about North Korea and hockey over there, I had when I first went,” said Nigel Edwards, 27, the director of the coming documentary “Closing the Gap.”

The opportunity to get answers to those questions raised even more. How did a film crew from Vancouver, British Columbia, acquire unparalleled access to shadow North Korean sports teams?


Players from the Taesongsan and Pyongyang Choldo teams lined up after a game
at the Pyongyang Ice Rink.

Matt Reichel, one of the film’s producers, worked and lived in Asia on and off over the past decade. A 2009 graduate of Brown University’s international relations and East Asian studies program, Reichel started nonprofit and digital marketing ventures while living overseas, building connections in the process.

He estimated that he had been to North Korea more than 60 times. On one of those visits, he discovered that North Korea had a pastime in common with his home country.

“I saw that there was a hockey tournament one year around the time of Kim Jong-il’s birthday, so I decided to go check it out,” he said.

Back in Vancouver, his hometown, Reichel teamed up with Edwards, a former television production assistant.

“We wanted to use media arts as a way to look at something about North Korean society that’s not political,” Reichel, 30, said. “We focused on a very tiny slice of North Korean society and wanted to see what we can learn about it in a very earnest, very honest way.”

It took two years of leveraging Reichel’s contacts and forming new ones with the Ministry of Sports and the Korean Ice Hockey Association, a league of seven clubs, for the filmmakers to get permission for the project.

In November 2016, the production crew went on the first of three trips to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to shadow the men’s national team and a professional team, Taesongsan Winter Sports Club. Reichel and Sunny Hahm, an associate producer, a translator and a Seoul native, provided insight into North Korean culture for the new visitors.

“They told us the first time you go there you’re a stranger, the second time you’re a friend, and the third time you are family,” Edwards said.


Taesongsan’s goalies, left, listened to their coach in the locker room at Pyongyang Ice Rink during a
Tournament of the Republic game against Pyongyang Choldo, right, in November 2016.

To break the ice with the athletes during the first days of filming, the crew played the Canadian card.

“I think from a hockey standpoint, they were very interested in us being Canadians,” Edwards said. “I think they were a little more disappointed that my entire production team couldn’t skate.”

But Hahm, a competitive recreation hockey player, could skate and was critical to building rapport. Aside from being able to speak Korean, he often practiced with the Taesongsan team, making suggestions to the coach and players.

In a game during the crew’s first trip, the Taesongsan coach presented Hahm with a jersey and an offer to sit with the team during the game, though Hahm did not play because of Korean Ice Hockey Association rules.

For the rest of the crew, trust and relationships were built on consistency and gestures. Edwards made a point of learning each player’s name; in turn they remembered his. While shooting interviews, members of the crew were cognizant of their subjects’ skepticism.

“We spent lots of conversations just sort of talking about, how do we frame these questions?” Edwards said. “How do we try to show and prove to them that we mean well and we’re not going to like rip them off or show them in a bad light?”

Every morning after breakfast, the crew made the five-minute trek from its downtown hotel to the arena.

Many competitors in ice sports like speed skating, figure skating and hockey have the arena on a given day. The schedule is planned to the minute, Edwards said.

haring the facility is efficient, but not conducive to ideal hockey practice. The ice is worn from overuse, and divots courtesy of the figure skaters are visible throughout the rink. The glass is scratched, and the boards lack compression.

The hockey play is also behind the times.

“It was a very conservative, traditional style of play,” Hahm, 29, said. “You can tell there was a sense of real lack of creativity when it comes to formulating plays.”

According to the filmmakers, North Korean teams still abide by the training materials and methodologies passed on from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. While South Korea’s hockey program has evolved in recent years, qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics as the host country, North Korea’s has remained stagnant. The lack of outside exposure and information sharing — televised N.H.L. games, foreign-exchange skills clinics and access to the internet — has significantly impeded the progress.

“The vast majority of the team comes from the countryside, and they are recruited as kids 12, 13 years old, based on who has athletic talent in those small villages or towns,” Reichel said.

Most of the team’s equipment is used and is donated by the International Ice Hockey Federation, which is based in Zurich. The film crew tried to help, contributing tape and new composite graphite hockey sticks.

“We wanted them to feel they were on equal levels of playing,” Hahm said.

What the North Korean players lack in knowledge, gear and size (no one on the national team is over six feet tall), they try to make up for through discipline and heart.

“You must rise higher and faster because if you are running, the opposite player is flying, and in order to catch up them, you need to train harder,” Hong Chun-rim, a star forward, said through an interpreter in “Closing the Gap.”

The filmmakers shadowed the Taesongsan team for 11 days during their first trip in November. When they returned to film last spring for three weeks, they focused on the 20-man national team, which was training for and competing in the I.I.H.F. world championship in Auckland, New Zealand.

A coach for the Taesongsan team waiting as a local team practiced. The professional
team shares the facility with other clubs and with athletes in other ice sports.
 

A Division II team in international competition, North Korea was in a pool that also included China, Israel and Mexico.

Hong, the fastest and most skilled player on the team, scored a hat trick in North Korea’s only victory in Auckland — an 11-3 win over Turkey. The team had sustained several injuries, mainly from the intense play against bigger and stronger opponents.

The yearly change of scenery for international tournaments provides an opportunity for the players to explore things they cannot find in Pyongyang.

“When we were in New Zealand, there was a group of them that would always be looking at YouTube videos in the lobby,” Edwards said. “They are very aware that there is the N.H.L. and big players. So, when they travel abroad, they always learn more.”

In December, the crew will make one last trip to Pyongyang to conclude filming. The filmmakers are seeking a distributor and hope to show the documentary at the top film festivals next year.

“We said this story is going to be a real interesting tile,” Reichel said, “as if North Korea is this giant mosaic and there’s all these different components to what North Korean society is.”

He added that he did not expect the recent rising tensions between North Korea and the United States to have much impact on the players’ day-to-day lives.

“They are all seeking what we all seek, which is self-worth,” Edwards said. “They are just looking for a place to prove themselves, and that, for them, is winning gold on an international stage. Even though, how realistic is that?

“But they will keep pushing that forever, because that is their job.”

Big saves, timely scoring lead Russia to 5-2 victory in Owen Sound

By 2017 CIBC CANADA RUSSIA SERIES

Owen Sound, ON – Alexey Melnichuk made 35 saves and Russia scored five times on 18 shots to defeat Team OHL 5-2 in Owen Sound and take a 6-3 (points) lead in the 2017 CIBC Canada Russia Series.

Artyom Manukyan and Alexey Polodyan both scored twice while OHL talent played a large part in the Russian victory as Dmitri Samorukov (Guelph Storm), Alexey Lipanov (Barrie Colts) and Dmitry Sokolov (Sudbury Wolves) all found the scoresheet.

“Altogether I thought we played pretty well,” said three-year Team OHL veteran Will Bitten (Hamilton Bulldogs). “We had a lot of shots and scoring opportunities but their goaltender was outstanding.

“They have a good team over there and they came out hard tonight,” he continued. “We have to have a short memory and come ready to play on Monday in Sudbury.”

Team OHL captain Taylor Raddysh (Erie Otters) opened the scoring, converting on a penalty shot at the CIBC Canada Russia Series for the second straight year. The big winger beat Melnichuk inside the far post on a quick release just 36 seconds into action.

The Russians didn’t need long to draw even though as new recruit Dmitri Samorukov (Guelph Storm) blasted a point shot past his OHL counterpart Dylan Wells (Peterborough Petes) in the Team OHL crease.  The tying goal came off a Russian offensive zone faceoff win as the game was knotted at one at 7:31.

After a trio of high quality Melnichuk saves off Bitten and Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia Sting), the Russians climbed ahead on the power play, ending an 0-for-14 slide on the man advantage dating back to 2015.

Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Alexey Lipanov (Barrie Colts) blazed down the right wing, opening up a lane for an oncoming Artyom Manukyan speeding down the middle for an open net finish at 16:24.

Team OHL outshot Russia 16-7 but trailed 2-1 after 20 minutes.

The two sides traded quick goals in the opening half of the second period as Florida Panthers prospect Adam Mascherin (Kitchener Rangers) finished off a pretty power play passing sequence in the goalmouth. Buffalo Sabres draftee Cliff Pu found a waiting Mascherin 7:59 into the frame as he drew Team OHL even at two.

Russia regained the lead less than two minutes later though as Manukyan, who set a record with 105 points in Russia’s top Junior Circuit last season, found his second of the night. Minnesota Wild prospect Dmitry Sokolov (Sudbury Wolves) took an outlet pass from Lipanov on a quick transition play after Team OHL failed to enter the offensive zone, dishing to an open Manukyan who made it 3-2 at 9:43 of the second.

Alexey Polodyan took out an insurance policy on the Russian lead before the second expired, scoring a highlight reel goal as he danced around two OHL defenders to beat Wells under the arm at 16:15.

Russia led 4-2 after two periods despite being outshot 28-14.

Though Team OHL controlled the pace in the third, their offensive efforts were thwarted by the fine play of Melnichuk as Polodyan would eventually find his second of the night into an empty net with 52 seconds remaining.

Team OHL outshot Russia 37-18 on the night, but the scoreboard told another story in a 5-2 loss.

“I don’t think the score was indicative of how things went out there tonight,” said Owen Sound Attack fan favourite Markus Phillips who had a chance to play in front of a sold out Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre. “It was a great atmosphere and I thought we did a lot of good things but our execution just wasn’t there.”

Russia improves to 5-4-0-0 against the OHL over the past five years at the CIBC Canada Russia Series.

Nine OHL players will remain in the lineup on Monday night when series shifts to Sudbury for Game 4.

Catch Monday’s action on Sportsnet Ontario, East and Pacific when the puck drops at 7:00pm ET/4:00pm PT.

Canadian teens cut from the NHL shift focus to starring at world juniors

By Michael Traikos – National Post

One dream has been put on hold. Another is about to begin.

A day after the Florida Panthers returned Owen Tippett to the Ontario Hockey League, the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft was back practising with the Mississauga Steelheads on Tuesday.

If he was bitter or disappointed, he didn’t show it. Instead, Tippett was already looking ahead to the next challenge: winning a spot on Canada’s roster for the world junior championship.

“I’ve dreamed about playing for Team Canada at the world juniors ever since I was a little kid, so to play in that tournament would be a really special feeling,” said the 18-year-old forward. “I obviously can take a lot back from what I learned there and implement it here.”

Tippett, who unexpectedly made Florida’s roster out of training camp, scored a goal and had 17 shots — only once did he fail to register a shot — in seven NHL games for the Panthers.

“What I like about him is he wants the puck and he wants it in critical situations,” GM Dale Tallon told Postmedia News in September. “I think his game is well suited to the pros.”

At times, Tippett looked like he might stick. He had seven shots in his NHL debut. On his goal, he showcased his speed when he grabbed a turnover and sprinted up the ice before converting on a give-and-go against John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks. But he was in and out of Florida’s lineup; he averaged 11 minutes of ice time and watched nearly half the games from the press box.

At 18, Tippett needs to play so he can develop. That’s why he was sent back to junior on the same day the Edmonton Oilers returned 22nd-overall pick Kailer Yamamoto (no goals and three assists in nine games) to the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League.

“I’ve realized now it’s not as big of a jump as some people might say,” said Tippett. “Anyone who’s my age who gets to start out with an NHL club at the start of the year (has) a great experience. I obviously can take a lot back from what I learned there and implement it here.”

The hope now is that both players will represent their respective countries — Yamamoto is American — at the world junior championship, which begins in Buffalo over the Christmas holidays next month. For Canada, getting a player with NHL experience, even if it’s only seven games, is a benefit.

“I think they came back with tremendous confidence. That’s first and foremost,” Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen said in a phone interview from Swift Current, Sask., where he was watching the first leg of the Canada-Russia series.

“We’re always looking for offence and ways to produce offence. And (Tippett) can do that. We expect him to be part of the offence and certainly in the mix. But he has to prove it right away.”

While it appears no draft-eligible player will find his way onto Canada’s roster, McEwen is “crossing his fingers” that several players currently on NHL rosters will be made available. Some, such as Columbus forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and Montreal defenceman Victor Mete, are long shots. Others, like Colorado’s Tyson Jost and Samuel Girard, could be last-minute additions.

The biggest name out there is No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, who has played nine games with Philadelphia, but has been out of the Philadelphia’s lineup since Oct. 24 with a head injury. Once healthy, the Flyers have to decide whether to keep Patrick past the 10-game threshold or return him to the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.

Another question mark concerns Michael McLeod (12th overall, 2016). The Devils prospect tore his meniscus during a pre-season game and has been recovering from knee surgery ever since. It’s doubtful New Jersey will keep him around once he’s healthy.

“The information that we get is that his rehab is going real well and it’s getting close to the point where he’s going to get cleared,” McEwan said of McLeod, who had two goals and one assist in seven games for Canada at last year’s world juniors. “We’ll communicate with the Devils and see what’s in the plans. He would be a nice addition, having played last year and being a veteran guy.”

The Matt Duchene trade could affect whether Canada ends up with a couple of key players.

At one time, it looked like Jost (10th overall, 2016) might become available, since he was in and out of Colorado’s lineup and averaging only 13 minutes a game. But with Duchene gone from the Avalanche, Jost could see an increase in ice time moving forward. Another difficult assessment concerns Girard (47th overall, 2016), who looked like he would be loaned for the world juniors after getting demoted to Nashville’s AHL affiliate. But that was before he was traded to Colorado.

“Now that Samuel’s been traded, I don’t know what the plan is there, and that’s fine,” said McEwen, who is also keeping an eye on Mete’s declining minutes with the Canadiens. “He played a ton of minutes early and now it’s come down. For me, that’s not an indicator of whether we’re going to get him back or not. We’re just waiting and seeing where it all plays out.

“We prepare the names that we have now, and if those guys come back, it will be a bonus.”

HART FAVOURED TO START IN GOAL

Canada’s selection camp for the 2018 world junior championship is still a month away, but it appears Carter Hart has the inside track on the No. 1 goaltending position.

The 19-year-old, who is one of six potential returning players who won silver at last year’s tournament, posted a shutout in a 7-0 win Monday in the Canada-Russia super series in Moose Jaw, Sask. It was a good first step for the Philadelphia Flyers prospect, who had played sparingly this season because he had been sick with mono.

“I thought Carter Hart was really good,” said Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen. “Even though it was 7-0, he was great, which was great to see.”

Hart, who was selected 48th overall in the 2016 draft after being named CHL goalie of the year, is expected to battle Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro for the starting job.

DREAMING OF THE OLYMPICS

By Dhiren Mahiban – IIHF.com

On 25th October Wolski received a call from Hockey Canada to be a part of Team Canada at the Karjala Tournament – an opportunity for the 31-year-old to showcase his game with the hopes of making the Canadian roster for PyeongChang.

“I thought if I do come back, this is one of the things that’s going to be a goal of mine to try to make Team Canada and play in the Olympics so at this point to be named to the team for this upcoming tournament it’s just another opportunity to try and solidify a spot so I’m really excited about it,” said Wolski. “It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about and something that’s been keeping me motivated.”

Wolski, who was born in Poland but moved to Toronto at the age of four, has never played in an IIHF-sanctioned event before.

“For many years it’s something that eluded me that I couldn’t seem to grasp,” he said. “It was always just something I wanted to do, but couldn’t and wasn’t good enough or wasn’t invited to (participate). 

“To be playing well now and to be given the chance is special.”

Wolski is one of 26 players on Canada’s roster for the Karjala Tournament, which begins today with a match-up against Switzerland. Representing the Canadians are 11 players who didn’t participate in either the Sochi Hockey Open or the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov in Russia over the summer. 

With NHL players not being available for the Olympics, Hockey Canada is using events such as the Karjala Tournament to audition eligible players in an effort to put together a strong roster for the February Olympics. 

“If you had asked me even last year, I wouldn’t think I would be in this position, all the players would be in this position,” said Wolski. “We have a really tremendous opportunity to play in the Olympics and that’s very special for any player, any athlete. Anyone playing a sport, to be able to be given a chance to play in the Olympics is an incredible thing.”

Wolski’s hockey career nearly ended last October during a KHL game. While playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Wolski was chasing down a loose puck and decided to dive in an attempt to knock the puck away from Barys Astana’s Vladimir Markelov, but caused Markelov to fall on top of him.

The impact of Markelov falling on Wolski, who collided headfirst into the boards on the play, caused him to break his neck.

Wolski was stretchered off the ice thinking he was paralyzed. He spent 10 weeks in a neck brace and required surgery for one of the damaged vertebrae wiping out any chance of a return for the 2016/17 season. 

In June, Wolski signed a two-year contract with Chinese KHL team Kunlun Red Star, despite doctors recommending that he perhaps put an end to his hockey career. 

“I wasn’t sure after the surgery how things would go,” he said. “Also, if I should play. Some of the doctors I’m close with and friends with, that I really rely on and have really relied on over the years, suggested that it was maybe better to retire. 

“It was tough to hear that from them knowing that they were coming from a place of wanting to help me and give me the best advice possible. They’ve been there for many, many years and they’ve always helped me so hearing from them that I should probably retire is pretty tough.” 

Wolski not only returned to the ice, but is playing some of the best hockey of his career. The six-foot-three (190 cm), 220-pound (100 kg) forward has a team-leading 25 points in 25 games. 

It’s been a nice change for Wolski, a veteran of 451 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. Originally a first-round pick (21st overall) by Colorado in 2004, Wolski netted 99 goals and 267 points over eight NHL seasons, but admitted the inconsistency issues on the ice caused him to deal with depression – something he saw a therapist for while playing in New York. 

To be producing at a point a game pace in the KHL this season has helped put the fun back into hockey for Wolski. 

“The last couple years I kind of found my game again, I won a (KHL) championship,” he said. “It’s definitely been a lot more fun and knowing that I’m in my 30s now and I have kids, at this point I’m just trying to enjoy the game as long as I can, as much as I can, knowing that I’m closer to the end now than to the beginning. It gives you perspective and things like last year really give me perspective on life and hockey and the significance of what I’m doing.” 

After spending the first four years of his KHL career in Russia, Wolski is also enjoying the change of scenery off the ice in China. 

“Shanghai is an incredible city. It really reminds me of New York a lot,” Wolski said. “There’s so many cool pockets in the city that you can go see and they’re so different from each other.

“One of the reasons that I signed here is to be able to live in a bigger city, have my family here and experience a little bit of normalcy away from the rink. That’s been pretty incredible.”

Beijing will play host to the 2022 Olympics. The NHL also scheduled a couple pres-eason games in China earlier this season in an effort to grow the game there, but hockey is still in its infancy in terms of popularity, according to Wolski. 

“It’s definitely not one of the big sports,” said Wolski. “It’s breaking ground and we’re trying to attract as many people as we can to the sport, especially young kids. Trying to get them involved so they can further the program and advance it on the international level. It’s at the beginning, but for sure in a couple years it’ll catch on.” 

Wolski has no plans for an NHL return. His focus now is on producing for Kunlun and having his kids watch him play a high level of hockey. 

“I’ve got a family, I’ve got kids, I’m happy with where I’m at,” he said. “I enjoy the responsibilities I have within the team playing big minutes and to be able to live in Shanghai and experience what we have here is pretty outstanding so I think (the NHL is) something, at this point, I really don’t think about anymore.

“My son is almost three. I’d like to play 3-4 more years. I’d like to have him around the rink, I’d like to see him watch me play and the excitement on his face. I think I’m still playing well. I just battled back from a big injury so I want to enjoy it as much as I can.”