More than a dozen players will be on the outside looking in whenever the joint Korean women's hockey team plays at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And given the way head coach Sarah Murray has been running her practices, the starting lineup appears to be all but set.
There are 23 South Koreans and 12 North Koreans on Murray's team. Under the terms set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the unified team is allowed to carry those 35 players -- all other teams have 23 -- but the actual game roster remains the same for everyone at 22. That's 20 skaters and two goaltenders, and at least three players must be from North Korea.
Murray has been organizing separate sessions for her Team A and Team B, the former featuring 22 players that, in her words, most likely will start against Switzerland in Korea's first Group B game Saturday. Team A had five North Korean players in practice sessions Tuesday and Wednesday.
That has left 13 players to practice together as Team B, including seven North Koreans.
Murray said while it's difficult to tell those players that they won't dress for games right away, that doesn't mean they will be sidelined forever.
"We (coaches) always talk to them that your job is really difficult. You guys may not play in games, but every practice you guys go out there, it's your tryout," Murray said after Wednesday's practice. "If you show us that you deserve to be in Team A lineup, then make us think twice and make us question our decision. It's a tough position for them. But it's up to them to show us that they deserve to be in the Team A practice."
Once the IOC's decision was reached, Murray said she felt most North Korean players wouldn't be good enough to crack the top three lines for South Korea, but that they'd get every opportunity to play their way up the depth chart.
Over the past two weeks of training, forwards Jong Su-hyon and Choe Jong-hui have made a strong enough of an impression that they may see some time on the second or third line. And Murray has already shown her willingness to use more than the minimum three North Koreans, as she sent out four North Koreans in a tuneup game against Sweden last Sunday.
Murray's hands have been forced a bit by injuries to some South Korean mainstays. Caroline Park, a Korean-Canadian forward, is dealing with a sprained ankle ligament and has been a limited participant in Team B practices. Lee Eun-ji, typically a second-line right winger, has been diagnosed with a partial tear of her ankle ligament and is doubtful for the rest of the Olympics. Randi Heesoo Griffin, a Korean-American forward, missed the Sweden game with a hip issue and only returned to full practice Wednesday.
Murray said she's holding out hope that Park, Lee and Griffin will all be healthy enough to play.
"We're planning to have all three of them play in the games," Murray said. "We're just waiting to see how it goes."
Despite all the distractions that came with the forming of the joint team in the buildup, Murray said the coaches and the players are feeling "strangely calm."
"Right now, we just need to tweak our system a little bit," she said. "For the situation we're in, we feel good about where we are."