UPDATE : 2018.10.18 THU 16:30
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(Olympics) Plenty of fun and games at practice for Korean hockey team

They were whooping it up on the benches. When one side erupted in cheers, the other side gave friendly jeers. High-fives were exchanged, and there was even a case of silent treatment, a prank usually reserved for baseball.

These were some of the highlights from a late night practice Tuesday for the joint Korean women's Olympic hockey team at Kwandong Hockey Centre here in Gangneung.

Tension? What tension?

There may be some on the divided Korean Peninsula, but certainly not on this team -- made up of 23 South Koreans and 12 North Koreans. With each passing day, concerns over possible friction within the team -- composed as it is of athletes from two countries technically at war -- seem to dissipate.

With so many players on hand, head coach Sarah Murray has been running separate practices -- one for "Team A," which included most of the South Korean mainstays, and "Team B," with players who will most likely be healthy scratches during the Olympics.

Members of the joint Korean women's hockey team wait for their turns to take the ice during a practice at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 6, 2018. (Yonhap)

The third and final session on Tuesday featured Team A, and toward the end, Murray organized a friendly game of penalty shoot-outs. There were 20 skaters and two goaltenders on the ice, and those 20 were divided into two teams, one dressed in black jerseys and one in white.

There were a couple of North Koreans on each bench. But watching the players from above the bench as they interacted and mingled with each other, it was difficult to believe this was the same group that had had communication issues only weeks earlier.

The running joke on the team has been that there are three languages spoken: South Korean by homegrown players, English by Korean-American and Korean-Canadian players and North Korean by the dozen from north of the border. South Korean players have said that at first they had trouble understanding their new North Korean teammates, and vice versa, because hockey terminology is different on each side.

At the end of the day, though, hockey is a universal language.

When North Korea's Kim Un-hyang and Ryo Song-hui in white took their turns, all of their teammates, no matter where they were from, were united in support of them. Though one Kim scored, there was an equal amount of cheering, high-fiving and banging of sticks on the boards.

On the black team, Jo Su-sie, South Korean alternate captain and the designated English-to-Korean interpreter during practice sessions, got an earful from her amused teammates when she missed her chance. Ko Hye-in converted her opportunity, but then the rest of the team greeted her with the silent treatment -- a classic baseball prank whereby teammates act as if nothing happened when a home run hitter returns to the dugout.

It prompted Ko to yell, in mock seriousness, "Hey, why aren't you all clapping?" and it drew more laughter from both benches.

Members of the joint Korean women's hockey team practice at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 6, 2018. (Yonhap)

There were some intense moments during the practice as well, especially when Murray ran some hard-fought, five-on-five drills, and sent out her power play units for some special teams work. After Murray officially ended the session just past 10 p.m., assistant coach Kim Do-yun told the second power play unit to stay on the ice for some extra attention.

Some other players were still working out kinks when venue officials informed Murray that the team had exceeded their allocated practice time.

Despite the expanded entry for Korea -- all other teams are limited to 23 players on their entries -- the actual game roster during the Olympic tournament remains unchanged at 22, with 20 skaters and two goalies. And under the terms set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Murray must use at least three North Koreans in each game.

That means at least three South Koreans won't get to dress for games they otherwise would have been able to play in. Those who opposed the joint team have always been quick to point out that South Korean players are being unfairly asked to sacrifice their ice time for North Koreans.

If anything, though, the players seem to be enjoying each other's company. One national team official even said K-pop songs, including a few hits by BTS, are popular choices as pregame or prepractice music.

And on Tuesday night, they had so much fun on the ice that they probably lost track of time.

Kim Jung-mi  edt@koeapost.com

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