PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Sarah Murray remembers eating breakfast at her kitchen table after an early-morning workout when her dad brought her some shocking news.
She had an interview to coach the South Korean women’s hockey team.
“I was like, ‘What?!’ ” she said.
She found that odd since she isn’t Korean. She wasn’t a coach. She knew nothing about Korean hockey. And she was only 26 years old.
But other than that, it made sense.
“I instantly went on Wikipedia and started researching,” she said.
Four years later, Murray will coach a Korean team that suddenly — and rather dramatically — includes North Korean players as well in its first Olympic Games as the host country.
Coaching is not a profession the Faribault native planned on after leading Minnesota Duluth to two national championships as a player. Murray taught English at an international school in Beijing for a year but missed playing hockey, which she describes as “living the dream.”
She was set to move to Switzerland to play professionally in 2014 when she met former NHL player Jim Paek, who is a friend of her father, Andy Murray, the former NHL head coach who is now at Western Michigan University. His other numerous stops include Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the Minnesota North Stars as an assistant.
Paek, a Korean-Canadian, is director of the Korea Ice Hockey Association. He was looking to hire a new coach for the women’s national team. A few months later, Murray had the job and flew to South Korea to begin the long process of building the program.
Much has changed in those four years. The team has become markedly more competitive and, just recently, made international news when North Korea agreed at the 11th hour to send a delegation of athletes to compete in the Olympics, including 12 women’s hockey players.
Murray said her squad made a three-page dictionary that translates key hockey terms from English into South Korean and then into North Korean for better communication among the players and herself.
Expectations for her team are minimal — its first game is Sunday against Switzerland — but Murray sees a valuable opportunity to raise her sport’s visibility in Korea.
“People don’t really know about us,” she said.
Murray estimates that only a few hundred women in the country play competitive hockey. Her players range in age from 16 to 31. She inherited a roster with rudimentary skill level and knowledge.
Minnesotan Marissa Brandt was born in Korea and accepted an invitation to compete for her native country. Brandt, who played at Hill-Murray and then Gustavus Adolphus, said her first impression of Korean hockey was eye-opening.
“[Americans] are so exposed to hockey and just the simple things that you take for granted,” she said.
“Jumping the boards,” she said. “Just little things that you never thought you’d have to teach.”
Murray not only started basically from scratch in teaching the game, but she also worked hard to change their view of competition. The dearth of players forces the national team to play games against high school boys’ teams.
“When I started, we had a culture of losing because they played against boys,” she said. “Losing was OK to them. The biggest change happened last year when they started getting mad when we’d lose by one. It’s nice to see that they have the will to win.”
Korean Hockey has given her resources to develop the program, including bringing the team to the United States for training camps. The Koreans initially played games against Shattuck but scheduled exhibitions against Division I women’s college teams last year, including the Gophers.
Murray sees continual signs of progress. She had to cut players for the first time this year and her team is much more competitive in international competitions.
“I feel like there’s so much potential for our team to improve,” she said. “There are a lot of young girls that want to play. They just don’t have the opportunities and teams to play for. We really want to help build the program and give those girls a chance to play, and hopefully we’ll have more players to pick from.”
At a party hosted by Brandt’s parents in Minnesota this past summer, Murray said her Olympic goals revolve more around exposing new fans to the game than fixating on the team’s tournament record.
“We’re going to play every game with the intention of winning,” she said. “We haven’t really talked about advancing. We’ve talked more about the policy of having no regrets. No matter what happens we can sit in the locker room knowing we did everything we could.”